This morning I played The Beginner’s Guide, still sleepy after having just woken I fired up my newly installed copy which I had allowed to download while I slept and began to play, not sure what to expect. I was presented with a “true” story narrated by Davey Wreden, developer of The Stanley Parable, who was showing and critiquing the collected works of his friend Coda, the narrative being that of Davey watching Coda seemingly becoming isolated and going through a creative burnout expressed through his work. There are more levels to this base description but I would highly recommend playing the game before reading too much in the way of reviews or critique.
Various opinions and reactions have been expressed about The Beginner’s Guide, I did notice however that one perspective was seemingly absent amongst the writings I’ve consumed, that of the novice game designer. I am a student of game design, on my way to learning how to create my own games and make a life doing so. The Beginner’s Guide confronted me with several concepts that resonated with me personally, some terrifying, some hopeful and some sad. During the time that I was still assuming the story about Coda to be true I was confronted with a terrifying possibility, that the process of creating could be incredibly self-destructive. During a portion of the game that addressed performance anxiety is where this became most apparent to me; I was suddenly remembering the stories about Phil Fish, creator of Fez and his very public breakdown. I became increasingly afraid of what this industry might do to me, that it might devour me whole. I later reconciled this to be a warning of sorts, a way to warn against the pitfalls of throwing too much of your self into your work. Most analysis of the game talks about the relationship between creator and audience and the question of media consumption but I felt it important to explain what stuck with me the most.
It is striking that many of the responses to The Beginner’s Guide are criticising it as a piece of art, chiefly in reference to film, the narrator is referred to in several instances as framing Coda as an auteur, as stated by Heather Alexandra in her video.
“…Davey reads excess significance in to a space with no actual coherency. He just wants to stress that the space is authored, Coda isn’t just a designer, he’s an auteur with quirks and idiosyncratic touches that Davey hopes to trace.” (2:48)
Dan Solberg makes a similar comment, saying that the game “bathes in the turgid circular logic of artist’s intent and authorship”. The Beginner’s Guide, while labelled as a game and being sold on a game retail platform is being interpreted as art, this in itself is very encouraging, and it seems to suggest that games are being taken more seriously by the critical community at large.
The variety of responses to The Beginner’s Guide range from disgust to introspection to cautious deconstruction; Laura Hudson notes that her initial reaction was that of anger.
“The first time I played the game, I felt ill, even angry after this revelation. It seemed like the game had made me unknowingly complicit in a huge violation of someone’s privacy, one that I had no way of undoing.”
Later Hudson goes on to explain how a second play through gave her a new perspective on the game, looking at the whole as a more constructed story than a true one. I had a similar experience, for over half of the game I was treating the telling as a true story, only during the last couple of levels did I start to realise that Coda was likely a fictional character, if not a fictional representation of a real person.
There is a tendency for the gaming community to reject “walking simulators”, there was great debate about whether the likes of Dear Esther, or even Wreden’s previous creation The Stanley Parable can even be considered as games, in some cases these are being called interactive art instead. Critics such as YouTube’s TotalBiscuit (John Bain) argue that without a “fail state” a game cannot be considered a game, at least in the traditional sense of the word. What may be surfacing is a form of game-as-art, interactive pieces that beg an emotive response from their consumers, though The Beginner’s Guide in some ways seems to punish this consumption, Bruno Dias makes a good analogy of this.
“The Beginner’s Guide is a story about fandom curdling into a sort of illusion of proximity; the fan as an overimaginative foodie who tastes a steak and claims they can tell you what the cow’s life was like.”
Regardless of whether Beginners Guide is game, art or otherwise it certainly provokes thought and conversation, even as it simultaneously reviles it.