On The Beginner’s Guide

I didn’t spend too much time with Davey Wreden’s previous game, The Stanley Parable. I felt like I got it pretty quickly. I did, however, spend quite a lot of time watching students play it and listening to game scholars talk about it. While thematically I found it pretty to-the-point (all choices and agency in videogame play is an illusion), it was quite spectacularly put together. Just really beautiful and clever environment design.

What I couldn’t stand about The Stanley Parable was most of what was said about that game. I have an issue with analyses (especially academic analyses) of games whose themes are incredibly obvious. Suffice to say, I could live the rest of my life without seeing another conference presentation on what The Stanley Parable says about choice or what Papers, Please says about ethics or what This War of Mine says about war. It’s not that I think any of these games are bad, but more that they are games that I guess I don’t think require any thematic analysis. It’s pretty obvious what they are doing! Analysing how they do these things is still worthy (the difficulty of desk space in Papers, Please, for instance) but simply pointing out that The Stanley Parable is about choice just seems… boring and easy. To stress: this isn’t a fault of the games themselves.

I would rather analyse games that aren’t so obviously about a specific thing. Perhaps this is why I end up writing more about blockbuster titles than indie or amateur titles despite the latter two almost always doing something far more interesting. Writing a critical analysis of a blockbuster title is more difficult and thus (for me, anyway) more rewarding.

So on the one hand, writing about Wreden’s second game, The Beginner’s Guide, seems like a pointless thing to do as the game pretty explicitly tells you what it is about. The Beginner’s Guide is games criticism so to analyse it would almost be an excruciatingly meta exercise. My three favourite essays on the game so far (Cameron Kunzelman, Laura Hudson, Cara Ellison) all kind of circle around this challenge in different ways (and each has far more interesting things to say about the game than I do). It is an incredibly meaty game for a game critic to latch onto, but I’m also wary that perhaps that is because it is just too obvious what it is doing and, thus, any further analysis might not even be necessary.

So The Beginner’s Guide is a meta ‘game about games’ sort of exercise. But it does this in an earnest and exploratory kind of way, not a pretentious and overly-confident ‘look how clever I am being meta’ kind of way. It’s self-reflective and personal. It’s an exploration of creative practice and, ultimately, what feels like a cathartic release for Wreden. Playing the game, I was reminded of this blog post Wreden wrote about struggling to deal with the success of The Stanley Parable—the mixture of feeling a loss of ownership on this game at the same time as thirsting for (and hating thirsting for) external validation. The Beginner’s Guide felt, in a lot of ways, like it was Wreden trying to work through the same feelings he began exploring in that blog post.

But I don’t want to fall in the trap of analysing Wreden himself, which is where most of the writing about The Beginner’s Guide is going to go. Though, Wreden puts himself (or, himself-as-a-character at least) so front and centre in this game as the narrator that perhaps that is both inevitable and necessary that analysing the game becomes an exercise in analysing him. At least in part.

Which is why for the rest of this essay I am going to mostly avoid talking about The Beginner’s Guide in any sort of thematic sense, as I think that stuff both speaks for itself and would demand a psychoanalysis of Wreden that I would rather avoid. Much more interesting for me is how the game is put together with such a transparent confidence towards the game production process. There is a videogame formalism at work here in the level design and the narrator’s words that is really exciting to witness and play through.

So, a brief synopsis: The Beginner’s Guide is a guided tour by Wreden of a series of games his friend Coda made between 2008 and 2011. These levels begin as simple Counter-Strike maps and first-person shooter mods before entering more experimental areas. As we play each level, Wreden tells us about Coda, what he wanted to achieve with each game. Sometimes he gives us the ability to skip different sections, like a jail cell that Coda originally wanted us to spend an hour in before the door unlocked. In showing us Coda’s games, Wreden effectively breaks them, vandalises them to render them playable at all.

I don’t know if Coda is a person that really exists or a fictional character or if Wreden is just talking about himself. Neither am I sure if these games are actual prototypes that Coda/Wreden produced through 2008-2011 or if Wreden has produced them for The Beginner’s Guide exclusively to deliberately look like older, rough projects. I don’t know and I’m not too desperate to find out. It feels like a fascinating and untrustworthy (but not malicious) fusing of fiction and reality in the way a film like, say, Forest Gump does with its mashing of Tom Hanks into historical television footage. Here we have “Davey Wreden, I made a game called The Stanley Parable” talking to us about things such as the Source engine and game design principles and his friend Coda’s games. Some things he is telling us are definitely true. Other things are probably false. It doesn’t really matter, but unravelling what is true and what isn’t true will, I imagine, become an obsession for a lot of people.

More interesting for me is that, regardless if these are ‘real’ abandoned projects or not, their presentation to the player is magical. This tour guide through a character’s creative process through a series of starkly different worlds is enchanting. It felt like I was in a Graeme Base book, but with each new game I was thrown onto a different page’s fantastical world. Each one felt self-contained, mysterious, ominous, claustrophobic, and like I couldn’t get out. ‘Claustrophobic’ describes the whole game, actually. You are trapped in this mind of Coda for as long as Wreden wants you to be trapped there. The Stanley Parable might’ve explicitly been about trying to escape a labyrinth, but its an anxiety that implicitly continues here.

The player is positioned in each of these games as the player and each of these games is positioned as a game created by a person. The usual blurriness of player-character and actual-virtual worlds is here collapsed into a singular, formal act: you are not taking on the role of a character in a virtual world. You are the player playing a videogame, and the developer is right here in your ear talking you through it each step of the way. You solve a door puzzle and Wreden talks to you about the door puzzle. On another game, he might remove the walls to show you a hidden labyrinth of inaccessible corridors and tell you about those, in game terms.

This allows a liberation of videogame space from that which must make sense in any physical sense. This spaces are only ever videogame spaces, so anything is permissible. You can float up out of the level; buildings don’t need textures; a house can exist underneath a massive jail underneath some abstract shapes underneath another house. These spaces only need to make sense insofar as they are able to be constructed by the Source engine.

Wreden/Coda works within this re-inscribed player-world-game paradigm to create mesmerising little microworlds that each was evocative in its own way. Each microworld feels, at once, autonomous and part of a larger world. True to its desire to depict the changing habits of a creator over several years, each game is drastically different in tone, style, and aesthetic, but each is held together by common threads (mostly Wreden’s narration ensuring us they are held together).

It’s this general meta-ness where the player is asked to enact nobody but themselves and to view the polygons shifting around their flat computer monitor as nothing other than such artificial spaces that I find most exciting about this game. At every step, this game wants the player to remember that this videogame is an object created by a human being and engaged with by other human beings. It never wants the player to forget or repress this in some desire for ‘immersion’ in a holodeck world. The spaces the player is exploring here are explicitly videogame spaces. The only imaginary spaces here are the psychic ones of Wreden/Coda’s creativity.

Indeed, the tension between the human beings that make videogames and the human beings that play them is one of the more interesting central themes to the game. Does a videogame have to be playable? Does it have to be user-friendly? Conventional game design says yes, but conventional game design is primarily concerned with players as customers, and there is no shortage of exciting possibilities that can emerge when you say fuck the player. Alien: Isolation does this to some extent with its semi-autonomous alien that is not always fair to the player. Wreden explains to us that some of Coda’s games are brutally unfair to the player, others are actually impossible without breaking the game. But Coda never intended these games to be played by anyone anyway, Wreden explains. He was creating for himself. If the meaning of a particular videogame is in its creation rather than its consumption, then perhaps it doesn’t need to be playable at all. In this, The Beginner’s Guide gets to have its cake and eat it as well. The player is taken on a journey through impossible videogames and asked to imagine ‘what if’, but Wreden-as-narrator is there to skip us through the impossible bits. He is there to break these unplayable videogames, to render them playable. In doing so, he is corrupting Coda’s original intent. Indeed, I think Kunzelman is right in his review that the game is most interesting in what it has to say about the act of reading, in who gets to interpret the work and under what circumstances.

The Beginner’s Guide is a videogame about videogames, then, but not in a cloying you-are-the-monster way or a hey-remember-Mario way. It’s a videogame about the act of engaging with a videogame, both through creation and consumption. It presumes a particular literacy in its audience to recognise certain glitch aesthetics and understand certain things about the Source engine, but this feels less elitist and more assuming the audience’s intelligence. This videogame wants the player to be aware at all times they are exploring, unpacking, and ultimately ruining a videogame work as they trod all over it, and it wants the player to think about what it means to engage with a videogame (what the game engine does, what the player does, what certain mechanics and aesthetic choices do). The Beginner’s Guide is a self-reflective exercise for Wreden, almost definitely. But it is also a self-reflective exercise for the player to think about their relationship with virtual spaces, and with the human beings who craft them.