After recording the end of year wrap-up podcast, I decided it was time to sit down and play one of the year’s most divisive games – The Beginner’s Guide. I am disappointed in myself that I took so long to play it, but glad that I finally did. I’m also disappointed that I didn’t play it prior to recording the podcast, as not only is The Beginner’s Guide one of the year’s best games, it also pushes the concept of gaming as a medium into new, interesting areas.
Now, before I go on too long, I would recommend heading over to Steam and buying The Beginner’s Guide. It’s an hour and a half long and is worthwhile playing sight unseen. While I’ll try and avoid going into spoilers, it’s hard not to at least cover my interpretation of the themes discussed within this game.
While the term ‘important’ is a little derivative and comes across as relatively wanky, it’s appropriate to use in relation to The Beginner’s Guide. Of all the film genres that have been translated to video games, the documentary is one that hasn’t really been explored. Sure, real world events have been discussed and explored in games like Valiant Hearts, but these titles still rely on elements of fiction to discuss the subject being covered.
That’s not to say that The Beginner’s Guide is entirely non-fiction. In fact, it’s hard to say whether this is entirely made up or is based on actual events. In The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden – one of the minds behind the supremely enjoyable The Stanley Parable – introduces the player to the games created by his friend Coda. Through a friendship the two shared for many years, Wreden was able to play many of Coda’s creations, which ranged from simple walking simulators to short puzzle games. From these games, Wreden felt that he noticed a pattern of depression and loneliness that Coda may have been representing through his work. He also noticed a level of talent that he felt should have been recognised by others, and in turn he pushes Coda to release the games.
Where The Stanley Parable questioned the role of choice in games and made gamers look at their role as a player in a different light, The Beginner’s Guide looks at the creation of games and the role of the audience in critiquing a game. Well, at least superficially – it’s a lot more than just that. Where the aforementioned Valiant Hearts moved me in ways that I haven’t been moved by a video game before, The Beginner’s Guide left me stunned, shocked, upset, confused, frustrated, and annoyed. As the kids say nowadays, it gave me all the emotions. The one emotion it left me with that still resonates a week after playing is excitement. I’m excited by the possibilities that may occur as a result of The Beginner’s Guide.
Where some narrative-driven games feel as if you’re simply a vessel pushing the story along, The Beginner’s Guide makes you as complicit in the actions that take place as Davey Wreden is, simply by compiling these together in a game and presenting it for the public to peruse. It’s akin to someone finding a private diary, reading it, and then deciding that it needs to be published for the world to read. There is something deeply personal in the games that Coda has created, and on top of that there is something even more personal about the narration that Wreden provides over the games themselves. Wreden’s relationship with Coda is explored through Wreden’s point of view only; the only interaction or pure understanding of who Coda is comes from the games Coda has created himself. Wreden doesn’t border too far into becoming an unreliable narrator, but he comes close form time to time.
However, even though he does touch on the elements that make up the role of an unreliable narrator, it simply plays into the themes that are explored in the game. Are the choices that we make within a video game even choices at all? Do the elements that make up a video game have a greater meaning outside the realm of the game itself, or are they simply elements that exist to build the world? Not only does The Beginner’s Guide look at the role of the player within games, but it also looks at the role of the consumer within any medium – whether it’s films, books, music, or art.
Often, I may watch a film or read a book and think, “oh, the filmmaker or writer was trying to say this when they did that”. Within The Beginner’s Guide, we get a look at both the consumer’s perspective of somebody’s artwork and also the creator of that art’s response. It’s easy for consumers of art to explain their feelings about what the artist or creator was trying to say with that particular piece of literature – which is a bit of a running joke when it comes to the art of Jackson Pollock – even though they may be completely wrong. As mentioned, Wreden narrates his opinions about the games that are being played, and I’m curious as to whether I would have the same feelings and opinions as Wreden did from the games if the narration was absent. But having played through with the narration, it’s not possible to go back and play the game and not have those opinions in your mind.
The other aspect of the ‘games within the game’ that I found really interesting here is the exploration of mental illness through a gaming medium. It’s a topic that doesn’t get explored often enough within games, and when it is, it’s usually done in a supremely maudlin manner. The Beginner’s Guide looks at mental illness through someone’s (Wreden’s) perception of mental illness. A personal quibble I have with the ‘R U Ok?’ day that occurs yearly is the somewhat ‘trivial’ manner it deals with mental illness. Often, people with mental illness don’t particularly want someone who they aren’t familiar with approaching them and asking if they are ok. Within The Beginner’s Guide – and in fact, the whole concept of The Beginner’s Guide – we see Wreden expose Coda’s games to the world, exposing his potential mental illness to the world. Consider someone taking away the four walls of your house so the world can see what is going on inside, and you may get an idea as to how Coda may feel. As mentioned, we are only seeing Coda and Wreden’s relationship from Wreden’s perspective, so we never truly know what Coda considered of their relationship together. Whether Wreden was a close friend to Coda, and somebody that Coda felt he could confide in, is unsure. Because of that, it adds a perverse layer to the whole experience and I didn’t entirely know how to react when it reached its conclusion. I sat in shock and awe at what I had just experienced.
It’s the extremely personal and private feeling you get from playing through this game that makes you question who you are as a gamer, and may also force you to question how you consume and experience the media and art that you ‘play’ (or read, view, look at, etc.). I personally feel that The Beginner’s Guide is an exceptional experience – as isThe Stanley Parable as well. There is enough of a ‘game’ element for this to still be considered a game, and because of that, it stands head and shoulders above similar ‘experiences’ and pushes this medium of entertainment forward in ways I wouldn’t have expected. This is a profound experience that, while I would like to recommend anybody play, I do feel is possibly just too cerebral of an experience for some. If you’re willing to let yourself go and experience something that is extremely unique and challenging, then play The Beginner’s Guide. In fact, I would highly recommend playing this game with someone sitting next to you, or close to when a friend has played it, as you’ll no doubt have a lot to discuss after the game has concluded, and it is interesting enough to be a worthwhile spectator game.