Wandering around a half-finished Counter-Strike level that feels like an art installation. Gliding through a series of futuristic corridors brandishing a gun with nothing to shoot at. The Beginner’s Guide is a game about making games, and these opening levels will likely speak to anyone who has picked up game-making tools. By level three, Davey Wreden – previously of The Stanley Parable writing fame – has explained to us via voiceover that these strange spaces were made with something called the “Source Engine”; a little pat on the back for those who already know, and a filling of gaps for those who don’t.
What I have to say about this game will contain spoilers, there’s no other way around this. I’m writing for those who are familiar with The Beginner’s Guide and who have perhaps read other articles about it. One thing I should get out of the way first is that the game did move me emotionally; although I think this was partly a result of Wreden’s brilliantly evocative level-design as much as anything else.
Yes, I said Wreden‘s level design. A lot of players still seem to take the game at face value and assume this is genuinely a collection of games made by a mysterious but sympathetic recluse called Coda, and analysed by Wreden as you play them. But the games themselves are just too thematically coherent and aesthetically pleasing. Occasionally, Wreden reveals hidden features of Coda’s games by ‘modding’ them in real-time, in some cases introducing the same Source developer textures that were used as a visual shorthand for ‘behind the scenes’ in The Stanley Parable. The name Coda is also conveniently loaded with meaning; being a play on “coder” as well as the coda that ends a musical piece; perhaps a statement on the tension between computer science and art that lies at the heart of all videogame making.
I’m not really interested in having a debate about the artificiality of this game, rather I’m going to start from the assumption that Coda is Davey – or at least aspects of Davey – and talk about what that artificiality is used to achieve. Davey – that is, the narrator we hear talking about these games and about his on/off relationship with Coda – is later revealed to be a corrupting influence; someone who longs for these spaces to be more traditionally gamelike, to contain tasks and answers.
While The Stanley Parable evidenced some level of contempt for players, it did this in a humorous and accessible way. This is why it’s one of the favoured ‘walking simulators’ among groups of hardcore gamers who otherwise shun that type of game when it’s about icky real-world stuff. It pats you on the back for noticing this or that deeply-ingrained AAA-design practice. The Beginner’s Guide comes from a similar place, but is more deeply contemptuous in berating players to want to do stuff. Maybe this isn’t what Wredon intended; it’s certainly not what’s implied by the narrative, but it’s an element that sticks out to me quite strongly.
The recurrent current door-switch puzzle is the most traditionally ‘gamey’ element in Coda’s games, in the sense that the player is asked to look around them, use their brain and complete a task. The level House is similarly about providing the player with tasks. This one of Coda’s games is, as Wreden puts it, Coda “making a game about talking to someone other than himself”. House, according to Wreden’s interpretation, is a larger representation of Coda’s puzzle “with the two doors on either side, and a dark transitional space in-between”. We pass over a dark, cold landscape and into a warmly lit Frank Lloyd Wright-style home.
Inside, an immobile housekeeper greets us and we converse with them through dialogue options, all the while walking about and clicking a single button to make the bed, tidy the cushions on the couch, do the dishes and other chores. The music is warm and inviting, and we’re told that this is the only one of the games which Coda specifically asked Davey to play. Later, we’re also informed that the chore-cycle would loop forever, had Davey not modded the game to remove the walls and allow us to leave.
Both House and the door-puzzle can be understood as Coda – the creator – wrestling with the role of interactivity in their work. At the same time, the revelations toward the end of the game suggest that these concessions towards interactivity – toward trying to please some imagined player by making them feel clever – were a corrupting influence, tainting what Coda enjoyed doing.
On the surface, The Beginner’s Guide has some important points to make; not all games are for everyone; sometimes people just like making stuff; you can’t psychoanalyse creators based on their work. But dig a little deeper and this is primarily a walking simulator about the legitimacy of walking simulators. At times, Coda seems to be a receptacle for the author’s feelings toward those who want his art to be genuinely interactive.
Wreden skilfully distances himself from those notions by taking the role of surrogate for the implied player who demands mechanical tasks and narrative closure. That terrible bastard who still thinks Gone Home would’ve had just as much emotional import with a few more puzzly contrivances thrown in.
In the Epilogue, Wreden reflects on his insecurities as a creator, on being driven by external validation. But are these the genuine confessions of an insecure creative, or are we really hearing someone lament the desire of players to have something to do, and a nice pat on the back for doing it? The House and Lecture levels point this way, as do Coda’s fleeting, almost sarcastic lip-services to puzzles and other forms of interactivity.
The climactic guilt-trip reveal feels insincere because, seen in this light, Coda – who we’re meant to side with – is just a sympathetic cipher for Wreden’s own artgame sensibilities. It’s quite clear that – through all the little nods to real-life game-making practices and tools, Wreden wants his games to speak to ‘regular’ gamers. We’re eased in via a Counter-Strike reference and an FPS not only because these are believable first-tries, but also because this makes The Beginner’s Guide accessible to people who normally wouldn’t play walking sims. The game doesn’t have the honesty to just be weird like any other thing on the #altgames hashtag. Like The Stanley Parable, it chastises traditional players (and Let’s Players) while also actively seeming to court them.
And there’s nothing inherently bad about walking sims – games meant as spaces for exploration, where the player can have no real control over what happens outside of a few pre-determined story branches. The question I’m left with is – why is a person so apparently critical of games so intent on using games to talk about nothing but games themselves?
I’d say it’s time to move on. But maybe Davey Wreden “just likes making prisons”.