So I Just Saw The Beginner’s Guide

Spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide are discussed extensively in this post.

I can’t say that I’ve played The Beginner’s Guide, the new game from Davey Wreden (he made The Stanley Parable), but I have watched a Let’s Play of the entire game (the one I watched is embedded at the end of this post if you’re interested, though I’m sure there are multiple others if you just search around for them).  Under normal circumstances I’d be hesitant to discuss a game I haven’t played myself, but after watching Sips’s playthrough I feel like I have a decent grasp of the story.  As for mechanics, which should always be part of a discussion of any game, I think it becomes a little more complicated, since The Beginner’s Guide is largely an exploration game; Wreden presents a series of standalone levels with mostly elementary mechanics accompanied by his commentary which serves to guide the player through the quirks of each segment.  Unless there are some Easter eggs which Sips missed, the Let’s Play seems like a rather thorough demonstration of what Wreden wants the player to experience with The Beginner’s Guide.  If I ever play the game myself and find that there’s more to it than what’s shown in the video, then I’ll just have to come back to it and reassess how that changes the experience.  As it is, I’m going to treat this like a discussion of a movie I’ve seen; this particular movie just happens to be about video games.

The story of Beginner’s Guide goes like this: Wreden has assembled a collection of games that were created by a developer friend of his named Coda from 2008 to 2011, and is releasing them to the public in the hopes that he’ll be able to inspire Coda to resume game development.  Wreden’s arranged these games chronologically, and as the player proceeds through them, he provides commentary explaining what he thinks Coda was trying to express with each game.  Wreden establishes an entire system of symbolism in his analysis where a lamppost marks the end of a given game, indicating that Coda had reached closure on whatever idea he was exploring, and the repetition of a simple door puzzle is a way for Coda to communicate that he’s transitioning to something new.  As the game approaches its conclusion, the levels become more standoffish, increasingly hostile towards the player, and we’re shown that Wreden has actually been modifying Coda’s work and appropriating it for himself under the guise of wanting to share it with a wider audience.  The narrative breaks down and Wreden comes to a moment of realization as he confronts his own dishonesty in approaching Coda, and then the player’s left to finish exploring the final game, which wasn’t designed by Coda.

Now, obviously this is a narrative that’s built around casting doubt on the barrier between fiction and reality.  Davey Wreden is a real person, but he inserts himself as a character in his game’s narrative, grounding the story in a specific time period, referencing development tools that really exist, all to create the illusion that The Beginner’s Guide is nonfiction until it reaches its narrative climax and we’ve presumably become too invested in the story to care that it’s made up.  This narrative subterfuge is interesting because I suspect it’s intended to help ground the player in the emotional arc of Coda and Davey the commentator.  The Beginner’s Guide is very much a game about the relationship between creators and consumers, and first making the player think they are encountering an account of actual events helps give weight to what these characters express, especially when considering how frequently players tend to ignore the emotional cost of being a game developer.

The tension in the story seems to revolve around this uncertainty about whether creative projects need to be shared with other people in order to be meaningful.  Davey the commentator repeatedly points out that Coda never shared any of his games with the larger world, and he feels at a loss to explain why this is the case when playing through the levels implies that they did serve a purpose for Coda.  The last Coda level, “The Tower,” culminates with a hallway filled with notes from Coda insisting that there was never anything wrong with him, and Davey was wrong to try to share work that Coda wanted kept private.  Davey represents the consumer’s insistence that art is made to be viewed, while Coda is the creator’s resistance to share every aspect of themselves and their work.

One funny thing about the Let’s Play that I viewed is the fact that Sips is a comedy Let’s Player.  His schtick is playing games poorly and acting like he doesn’t fully understand the mechanics behind the game he’s recording, and since The Beginner’s Guide is the sort of game that doesn’t really lend itself to playing badly, most of what he does is just offer his own meta commentary–often with an eye towards pointing out when Davey seems to be reaching in his search for symbols within Coda’s work (my favorite moment is when Davey first explains the door puzzle that recurs throughout the game, waxing poetic about how it represents a bit of familiarity before a transition to a new concept, and Sips just bluntly speculates that it keeps showing up because it’s an asset that Coda already had put together, and it was just more convenient to reuse a puzzle rather than design something new.  In a game that invites criticism and deep thought about the significance of different aspects of games, Sips’s meta commentary cuts through all that and proposes an alternate, mundane reading that highlights how Davey the commentator is purely speculating, often without a sound basis.  Of course, everything becomes paradoxical when we consider that The Beginner’s Guide is a game designed by Davey Wreden, and the door puzzle actually does have significance as an emotional touchstone that he’s using to make the player consider the experience a certain way.

All of this is to say that The Beginner’s Guide is a really complex piece of art, and it’s well worth your consideration if you enjoy playing games or even just watching others play them.

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