When I saw the trailer for The Beginner’s Guide, I knew I was going to end up writing an article on it. As the second game from Davey Wreden, the designer behind the hilarious and surreal The Stanley Parable, I looked forward to getting a further look into his sense of humor. While I got that in parts, I’m left here wondering whether or not I actually benefited from playing Wreden’s most recent journey into interactive… something instead of having an experience with The Stanley Parable influence what I thought of it. However, going into it without prior conceptions is impossible: a designer’s reputation and previous works always precedes them, and perhaps that’s what The Beginner’s Guide sets out to tackle. Part of it, anyway.
I’ve been sitting on this, mulling over my thoughts for maybe little over a week now, and I still have no idea how to properly put into words what this game truly is. Is it art? Is it reality? Whether or not Wreden meant the trailer to be misleading, I’m uncertain, but this uncertainty is likewise reflected in just how many questions this game creates, and all the ones it leaves unanswered.
On a base level, yes, okay, the trailer wasn’t exactly lying to its audience. The game is a psychological study of a person through the use of small games that have been developed. When I initially downloaded the game off of Steam, though, I was expecting more of a self-introspection sort of deal, with you, the player, trying to decode several people through a set of games, and then being made to wonder why you would assume such things given a very narrow, vague, detached sense of personhood. That’s still part of the game, but in a different, more uncomfortable way than I was anticipating.
If you have any inclination to play this, please, please do before you drop beneath the cut. Spoilers, and a trigger warning for depression, below.
Game reviewers from across the web have struggled with how to approach reviewing this game because most of us just don’t know what to make of it. At The Beginner’s Guide’s most basic core, it’s an interactive story about a guy and his friend, using the medium of video games to describe the crumbling of someone’s psyche. In some ways, it’s everything we expected, in others, it’s nothing we expected. And in a game that seems to have “killed” the author before it even starts, no one’s interpretation is 100% correct. So, I can only give you mine.
By the very first words, I became attached to Wreden’s narration — and how could I not, for Wreden isn’t playing a character. The Beginner’s Guide is a story, a first-hand account, and Wreden its storyteller. So, immediately I’m sitting at his metaphorical feet like a child, listening to each word of his life intently, trying to connect to him. He lays out the setting — a time between 2008 and 2011 — and the story begins. Wreden is trying to get us to understand his friend Coda, much in the same way, by telling us a story. Coda is a recluse, closed off and quiet, and we’re listening to Wreden’s story and playing through Coda’s games to somehow better Coda, in an emotional way. Something has gone wrong between 2008 and 2011, and while we don’t know what this is exactly, we are looking for a way to fix it alongside Wreden. Through the narration, he’s quick to expound on how human Coda is, how his games expose parts of him that people regularly wouldn’t get to see, be it through abnormal brightly colored circles on a Counterstrike map or entering a room after traveling up a snail-paced escalator to find it vibrantly colored and full of game ideas. Coda is human, of this we’re sure. We are also sure that Coda is suffering from depression.
As Wreden walks us through Coda’s games, the games themselves become darker in tone. From experimental games full of promise, we run into a set of prison games, and in then prisons from which you can never escape. Wreden comments at how seeing game upon game of the same idea felt like he was watching his friend break down and suffer from an idea that couldn’t reach its finale. It clicked for me. As a content creator, there are times that I feel like I’m throwing myself at a brick wall–over and over I try to work on something, and nothing seems to work no matter how many drafts I make (this article, for instance). It’s demoralizing and it’s frustrating, so the relief Wreden portrays when he brings us to Coda’s last prison game echoed in my psyche. Coda was finally able to move on, whether or not he reached an actual conclusion to his “jail” series of games.
As Coda seems to breach topics such as the fear of interacting with others, losing one’s creative drive altogether, or messing up a moment that, as a result, will ruin your entire life, Wreden continues speaking about how worried he is for his friend. He worries about how Coda keeps retreating further and further into his own solitude, being overcome by his own depression and Wreden not being able to do anything to help. I knew nothing about Coda outside of what Wreden was telling me, but I feared for Coda, and feared that I related to him. Was I retreating further from the people who cared about me? Was I allowing the thing I used to love destroy me? Was depression making me obliterate the machine of creativity that seemed to no longer work and had no answers for me, to use a metaphor from the game? I feared self-destruction: that if there was no happy ending for Coda, that there would be none for me.
I didn’t know that I would fear much more the intensity with which I related to Wreden himself.
Wreden is our narrator. We trust him, as we’re given no reason not to, but the closer to 2011 we get, the more Wreden unravels. He cares and worries for his friend, but those emotions are not entirely selfless. He struggles, just like I did (and presumably as many players do) with feelings of failure at not being able to make things instantly better for Coda, that nothing seemed to work. But what he needs more than anything is for Coda to simply be.
Coda’s final game is a letter to Wreden; a game that could not be completed unless Wreden went into the game files himself to change the programming. It’s then that we make the connection that Wreden has been inserting meaning into Coda’s game where there was none. The author of these games was dead because Wreden killed him, and he knows this, and also knows because of this everything he just took the player through is futile.
The player has learned nothing of Coda (outside of the game engine he used for making games and what kind of stuff he liked to work with), and has instead exposed Wreden. Wreden attached himself to Coda’s “humanity” because he needs it. He needs to see Coda as someone human, someone flawed, because he himself is very flawed. Coda’s games have no plot, they have no meaning: they are games for games’ sake. More importantly, they’re artistic expression that Coda enjoys despite having no outside affirmation that they’re “good”. Coda didn’t share these games with anyone outside of Wreden, and later we discover that Wreden shared them with other people against Coda’s wishes. We, the player, are infringing on Coda’s privacy so Wreden can shill this distorted image of his friend in an effort to make himself feel better, more complete, like something. He begs his friend (or ex-friend, since Coda cut off ties with him in the letter), at the end, to make more games so he can feel more complete, so he can try to find some piece of whatever Coda had that allowed him to live without needing external validation.
The final lines before the game’s epilogue go like this:
I know I screwed up. If I apologize to you truly and deeply, will you start making games again? Please, I need to feel OK with myself again, and I always felt OK as long as I had your work to see myself in. I mean, is something wrong with me? Because I know I’m doing an awful things, and I’m doing it again right now, I’m showing people your work, but I can’t stop myself from doing it, that’s how badly I need to feel something again, like I’m an addict. There has to be something wrong with me! Can I apologize? What if I tell you I was wrong, will that work, will that fix it? I-I don’t know! I don’t don’t think it will, but there’s nothing else that I can do! Just tell me what you want! I’m… I’m sorry. I’m sorry! Please start making games again, please help me, please give me some of whatever it is that makes you complete. I want whatever that wholeness is that you summoned out of nothing and put into your work, you were complete in some way that I never was. I want– I want to know how to be a good person. I want to know how not to hate myself. Please! I’m fading. And all I want is to know that I’m going to be okay.
Many people look at this game as a commentary on the development/creative process. That creation isn’t something that comes easily, that sometimes, it’s something that you don’t even like doing. And this is a valid interpretation. Others consider it a satire or scathing opinion on people who need meaning on every little thing in their lives, those people who can’t let anything just be what it is. Another valid interpretation. For me, The Beginner’s Guide, more than anything, is an almost perfect explanation of depression. I cried at the end of this game. I’m crying now just from writing out that quote because that is me. At the end of the day, if I don’t have other people’s work to talk about, other mediums with which to express myself, I’m left with myself. And I don’t like myself, not yet. I constantly need to tell myself I’m going to be okay, I need those little posts on Tumblr that say things like “you’re doing fine” or “you can make it.” I revel in finding meaning in things, and then having people agree with me, or even disagree with me. I love finding little pieces of humanity in other people, because then they don’t seem so much like they have their lives together, they’re relatable, approachable. Yet, if The Beginner’s Guide says anything to me, it’s that no one, even people who seem to have their shit together as Wreden did in the beginning, is exempt from feeling like this. We all ache to be as good or better than others in something, after all.
Soon after this game was released, Wreden left this tweet:
Going into it, we all knew The Stanley Parable was fiction. We were Stanley, and we were not real. However, no one knows just how real The Beginner’s Guide is. Nothing about this game is known outside of what the game gives us. I think we can all see a little bit of ourselves in The Beginner’s Guide, which is why this game leaves those that experience it feeling angry, sad, or unsure what to make of it. But at the end of the day, this isn’t a game for us. Hell, it may not even be a game. It could, in fact, be an actual virtual apology letter from Wreden to Coda. I hope we never find out.
While “death of the author” may lend itself to bizarre interpretations that the creator never intended, there’s an importance in allowing space for every interpretation. For if we may never be right in our interpretations, we may also never be wrong. Instead, we are simply left to be. And that is, perhaps, the most difficult task an artist could give us.