The following post will contain plenty of spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide. I generally don’t include warnings like this, but consider the game is only a couple hours and well worth your time if you haven’t played it, I figured I might as well let you know now!
It feels more than a little awkward to be offering criticism of The Beginner’s Guide. After all, the game’s “villain,” if you can call him that, is a figure so intent on assigning a specific meaning to someone else’s work, and giving it a solvable “answer,” that he drives that friend out of creation altogether. On top of that, the game regularly analyzes itself – even if the narrator is incredibly presumptuous in the ways he defines and redefines the work of his friend, many of the questions the game implies are so directly entertained by that one self-conscious voice that analysis almost seems superfluous. The Beginner’s Guide is a set of concise arguments laid out both in dialogue and in actual, physical game space. It doesn’t have to say “for example” as it talks about some principle of game design or the fan/creator relationship – you play the example as the theory is discussed.
That’s a pretty neat idea! As an overall creation, I found The Beginner’s Guide far more “successful” (again, a word that this game makes feel incredibly charged) than its predecessor, The Stanley Parable. The Stanley Parable struck me as a cute concept that was basically by its nature doomed as a game. In that one, your path through a very artificial-seeming facility is narrated by a very bossy disembodied voice, who you can eventually get in “fights” with by disobeying his narration. I got the impression The Stanley Parable wanted to be an “experience,” but there was too much of a game in there for it to work. There were actual win conditions, and endings you could “collect,” things that inherently create a feeling of player obligation. I can vividly remember standing in a broom closet for ten minutes, waiting for the game to either tell me I was doing something wrong or demonstrate I was doing something right. The Stanley Parable was unable to toss away some key elements of game design that unfortunately made it much weaker as a narrative experience.
The Beginner’s Guide immediately comes across as far more cohesive. It’s not trying to be a conventional game with win conditions – it’s clearly trying to tell a story, and understands that when you’re telling a story in interactive media, you don’t have to play by the rules you’ve internalized from traditional game design. You can just do whatever you want.
This freedom is expressed in a variety of ways. Most of the “game” is just walking forward and listening to the narrator talk, which actually works. The game’s conceit is that you’re playing through the amateur catalog of games created by a person named Coda, while a friend of Coda’s (ostensibly Davey Wreden, the real-life creator of The Stanley Parable) narrates your journey and digs into what makes these games interesting. And the games are interesting, and so even though they require no skills and present no challenges, you’re still driven forward by the desire to see what Coda’s next little walking experience will be about.
The Beginner’s Guide is self-conscious, but not in The Stanley Parable’s grinning but ultimately shallow way. Games like The Stanley Parable (or Bioshock, or really most games that have tried to make game design a narrative choice, not just the medium they happen to exist in) generally only embrace gaming as a narrative mechanism to the point of “this is a game, BUT WAIT, YOU’RE FIGHTING AGAINST THE GAME.” The Beginner’s Guide is actually trying to tell a real story, and so it’s more “this is a game, we’re aware it’s a game, and now that that’s settled, let’s actually get into the story I am trying to tell.”
And yeah, The Beginner’s Guide certainly has plenty to say. Even its title seems to operate on a variety of levels; we’re receiving a tour through the artistic output of a beginning game designer, but the way we’re engaging with those games reflects a different kind of beginning. The criticism Davey is applying to Coda’s games isn’t interested in “how can we fix this game to make it more fun” – instead, it’s “what does this experience as it currently exists say? How does it make us feel?” This assumption of us beginning to engage in meaningful criticism will eventually be upended by the story’s not-so-shocking twist, but even the presumption of meaningful discourse is kind of a neat place to start.
And The Beginner’s Guide certainly has plenty of cute discourse-ish reflections on what games are to us. The game’s first major concern is The Meaning And Experience Of Games, a pretty heady topic that it attacks in a variety of ways. Early on, a glitch that prompts the player avatar to rise through the ceiling of a fairly mundane level seemingly provides the impetus for Coda’s “career” – an awkward mistake that unintentionally creates a moment of grandeur, something far greater and more personal than any textbook genre experience. That moment really does speak to something crucial in games, at least to my mind. When we break games, or experience some quiet, unscripted moment in the weirdness of them, we often see a humanity there. The author of a game becomes visible through the pages, because in games, the pages aren’t always sewn together exactly right. And anyone who’s played games for long enough has likely had many of these weird little experiences, and by celebrating them, the creator of The Beginner’s Guide is establishing a bond through their validation.
The first half of The Beginner’s Guide is all about quirky little insights like that, ideas that are honestly far better expressed through the game itself than through my own explanations. Which is good! Possibly the greatest success of The Beginner’s Guide is that it is a story that must be a game, that succeeds because its medium best embodies its message. The tiny experimental games of Coda feel like an argument in favor of microgames, little artistic statements you might bundle up like a collection of poems. Games that tell a bigger picture across smaller pieces, or across many iterations. Games that are broken, and perhaps interesting for and only for that fact. The push and pull of playability and message in game design, where our ability to appreciate the intent of Coda’s games is perhaps only there because we’re allowed to fast-forward through the hours of gameplay that create the emotional investment that form the grist to make that emotional beat land.
The contrast between the experience of Coda’s creations and our game-tourism presents its own interesting messages. By hearing of the creative struggle inherent in these games’ creation, the narrator presents an argument that the experience of gaming isn’t just contained in the final process, but also demands engagement with the iterative madness of game design. By scaling back the walls and seeing each game’s scaffolding as a beautiful tapestry, this narrator implies that the method of communication, the game’s foundational bricks and mortar, is as important as the message. Perhaps even the messenger is important – for as The Beginner’s Guide early on seems like it’s perfectly content evoking the feeling of trying to sell a friend on your favorite weird media property, its second half veers almost entirely into that moment’s darker implications.
In the course of playing through the game where Davey says he first met Coda, the player runs across a long stream of text bubbles, ostensibly written by players online, in truth just written by Coda. These bubbles are largely the same kind of empty banter you’d see on the floors of a Souls game, or perhaps in the feed of a somewhat less racist twitch chat. As Coda’s game builds towards a vague non-point, the bubbles offer the expected gamer critiques – “whoever made this has issues,” “spoiler: it doesn’t mean anything,” etcetera. These are a cute inclusion from the creator of the game itself, and may well be true. But Coda’s friendly narrator doesn’t want to believe that, and that’s where things get ugly.
Coda’s friend Davey sees what he wants to see in Coda’s games. Games are often where we express confidence and perfection – where we get to control everything. But Coda’s games don’t generally lead to win conditions; they express vulnerability, and through their iterative process, we see how they’re constantly seeking not a victory for the player, but a better expression of themselves. Davey is initially attracted to the singular personality of Coda’s games, but Davey is a gamer – he doesn’t just want to see himself, he wants to win himself.
He alters Coda’s games, adding victory conditions, making ambiguous statements into clarified ones. He asks Coda for more games, and eventually begins to construct a narrative of Coda’s descent into depression across the course of his games. As Coda’s games become more and more direct in their attempts to shove Davey away, Davey becomes more and more obsessed with his own interpretation of the games, and his own “ownership” of Coda himself.
The game isn’t subtle about any of this – it attacks the obsessive need of a “true fan” with the same openly analytical tone it tackles the quirks of game design. Davey makes no secret of his psychological issues, to the point where the game’s analysis of why obsessive fandom is self-destructive may be too on-the-nose to actually reach its intended audience. Davey thinks the games brought about Coda’s depression, and Coda directly answers “that’s not true, low points are just a part of the creative process.” Davey wants certainty and validation, and can’t imagine a world where he doesn’t want those things. He doesn’t like himself, but he likes Coda’s games, and by sharing Coda’s games with more people, he can feel like he himself is valuable. Even if we can’t find value in our own actions, if we love things we find valuable and share that love, we can at least have a small kind of certainty. “I feel like a failure when I can’t fix the problem” says Davey, double-cross underlining both the emotional dead end of believing in victory conditions and the toxic sense of ownership that can arise when you love a creator in such a way that you can’t respect them as a person.
So yeah, the humanistic quirks of game design and the dehumanizing effect of obsessive, identity-forming fandom – this game is very much my kind of thing. The Beginner’s Guide is very loud in its overall storytelling, but its message is a good one, and the details are lovely. I like that the game includes a literal Chekhov’s Gun. I like the various ways Coda actually tried to get his message through to Davey, from the ways his mid-era games make clear that his “endings” are a performance to the simple choice between “My friends!” and “My followers!” when the player addresses the crowd. Coda is tackling interesting issues in his games, and addressing the isolation of creative pursuits in the modern world in his own ways. Davey might have drowned out Coda’s voice in the pursuit of his own, but the lesson isn’t “assuming you understand the creator is always bad.” It’s just that those connections require an honesty on both sides.
The Beginner’s Guide is interesting, in short. Like with Undertale, it’s a game that leaves me with plenty of scattered thoughts, and that is exactly what I want games to do. It really does feel like we’re at the beginning of something new with modern game design. The Beginner’s Guide is another welcome step.
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