The Stanley Parable has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Originally created as a mod in 2011 by Davey Wreden, it was a deconstruction of video games that used their inherent absurdity to subvert player expectations. Sharply written and irreverent, it’s a requisite touchstone when discussing games about games. Now Wreden has released his sophomore effort, The Beginner’s Guide, another first person, voice narrated exploration game. While it too contemplates games and their development, The Beginner’s Guide is vastly different in tone. It shifts the focus to developers and their relationship with players, laments the human need to find meaning in things we don’t understand, and delves into the isolating nature of creativity itself. It’s a far more raw and personal tale, often uncomfortably so.  

I’m concerned that words won’t adequately convey the experience of playing The Beginner’s Guide and perhaps a haiku or a series of Emojis would better suffice. Regardless, I’ll give it a shot.

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The game begins with Davey Wreden addressing the player directly. The fourth wall never even had a chance to exist. Wreden explains that he wants to show us the work of his friend Coda, who he believes to be a prolific game designer. After making several short experimental games between 2008-2011, Coda stopped making games altogether. Wreden hopes that by exposing Coda’s creations and gaining recognition of his talent, Coda might be compelled to reconnect with the creative process and begin making games again. Wreden’s omnipresent narration accompanies us throughout Coda’s body of work, offering his opinions on each game’s design aspects. He also interprets the themes found in the games, speculating on Coda’s intention and mindset. He wants us to peek behind the curtain and eventually come to know the enigmatic auteur through his work. Wreden himself is desperate to understand Coda.

If you favour mechanics and goals over narrative, look elsewhere. The Beginner’s Guide is a curated tour through minimally interactive worlds. Our purpose in them is to move things forward. We’re not even a character – there’s only room for two. Each of Coda’s games hinges upon a specific hook. The idea is explored to his satisfaction – or boredom – and then discarded for the next. In an early game, the player can only walk backwards while reading text on the walls that alludes to escaping the past, yet fearing the future. Another chapter shows Coda’s fascination with prisons. These confinements vary from literal cells to sauve apartments, but whether they have bars or not, there is no escape. As the game progresses, the recurring themes of loneliness, depression, and frustration become more pertinent and intense. It’s not surprising that Coda doesn’t release his games. They feel personal, like wandering through someone’s innermost thoughts, thoughts they had at their most vulnerable moments. Perhaps they’re not meant for us. Not made for us. All the while, Wreden tells us what they mean to him. If removed from the context of the narrative and played as singular experiences, most would be forgotten almost instantly, but collectively, and with Wreden’s observations, they become more intriguing than the sum of their parts. They form a conduit into the mind of their designer. Or do they? How much knowledge can be gleaned from looking solely at someone’s work?

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As enamoured as Wreden is with Coda’s games, his design choices are not immune to criticism and manipulation. Wreden uses his skills as a developer to alter the games when they no longer suit him. As the player climbs a flight of stairs to reach a door, movement slows to an almost imperceptible crawl. Wreden has altered the code so that the press of a key returns the regular walking pace, negating the inconvenient design choice. He projects himself onto Coda’s work in this way several times over the course of the game. These alterations are – in terms of playability – necessary, but they speak to their differing views on game design. Wreden believes that hindering the player is detrimental. Games are made to be played. Coda doesn’t care about playability. He often actively fights against it, and the player, as if trying to keep them out.

To delve deeper into the narrative and where it leads would dilute its impact. Over the two hours The Beginner’s Guide takes to complete we gain a better understanding of the relationship between the two developers, but it’s not the whole picture. Whether the story comes from a place of truth, is entirely fictitious, or somewhere in the middle is up to the player. There is no concrete resolution, but I have my theories, and so will you.

It will almost certainly bring up an insecurity, a doubt or a regret that you’d thought long resolved.

The Beginner’s Guide is more about questions than answers, and it is very effective in making you think about them. What questions resonate with you will probably differ from mine, but a game this introspective causes you to also look at yourself. It will almost certainly bring up an insecurity, a doubt or a regret that you’d thought long resolved. For me, it is about the internal struggle of the creative process and the isolation that often brings. It’s about when you no longer want to do the thing you love, but you persist. Even if it hurts. It’s about why we create in the first place. Some of us need validation, to be valued by what we create in order to feel worthy. Others create not out of a need to be acknowledged, but for themselves. Coda doesn’t want to be explored or for people to even experience his work – he isn’t motivated by validation. I envy that. I think Wreden does too.

An absorbing and poignant journey, The Beginner’s Guide contemplates the self-critical – and sometimes self-destructive – nature of creation and in the process creates a new empathy for those who make the things we love. It’s a reminder that behind the product is a person, something we sometimes forget. While many questions are left unanswered, it’s the beginning to a conversation worth having.

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At the beginning of the game Wreden provides his email address and encourages you to send him your interpretation of these events. I’m sure his inbox is at bursting point, but if after playing The Beginner’s Guide you still need a concrete explanation, a validation of your interpretation, you might need to play the game again.

 

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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