I Found It Hard, It’s Hard To Find: The Beginner’s Guide Review
This review was originally published on February 2, 2016
So, now that we’ve concluded videogames are a useful artistic form, I guess we have to get down to the business of determining what they actually mean. After all, if videogames really are communicating ideas that other mediums can’t, don’t we need to know what they’re communicating? And how do we make sure that the content our internal radio receiver picks up is actually the signal the game is transmitting and not, say, static our internal emotions create. And — wait — what did I just pick up on my internal radio? I am afraid of what? Don’t say that! That can’t be true! Oh, wait, nevermind. That isn’t coming from inside me, it’s coming from the artistic content of the game…right?
Thus is The Beginner’s Guide, the first game from Davey Wreden, the writer of indie-darling source-mod turned hit standalone game The Stanley Parable. Just like The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide is a walking tour of various environments accompanied by an omniscient narrator, but unlike The Stanley Parable, it is not a lighthearted and satirical examination of player choice. Instead it is a nuanced and occasionally profound examination of how everyone finds meaning in art — especially in this new art form we call videogames.
The game begins with Wreden narrating to the player from a blank screen. He explains that we’re going to examine the games a designer named Coda created between 2008 and 2011. Wrenden “loads” the first game: a Counter Strike map with some floating boxes and brightly colored cubes spattered throughout the locale. Wrenden interprets the oddities as a “calling card” from Coda. “It’s like a reminder that this videogame was constructed by a real person,” Wrenden says.
“This is what I like about all of Coda’s games,” Wrenden continues. “I mean, not that they’re all fascinating as games, but that they are all going to give us access to their creator.” Coda, according to Wrenden, never released these games; most of them he just discarded after he created them. Coda even went so far as to rename his PC’s recycle bin “important games folder.” The impetus for releasing them now is that Coda suddenly stopped making games in 2011 and Wrenden hopes that releasing this collection to the public will motivate Coda to resume making games.
The tour begins and Wrenden guides you through Coda’s games. Most are abstract, semi-complete, 5-minute experiences with some unusual mechanic or symbolic message. In one, you climb a staircase to a door, but the higher you climb, the slower you move; once you’re barely moving, the door opens. Wrenden comments on this design decision before modifying the game to re-enable full walking speed so that you can discover that behind the open door is a room full of ideas written in floating text. Wrenden then mentions a conversation he had with Coda that could shed meaning on the experience.
Wrenden continues this pattern throughout the game. He constantly interjects to explain why certain things are significant and what they say about Coda. He provides background info from personal conversations, and modifies many of the games to make them playable.
He does this, that is, until things begin going off the rails. Once Wrenden gets deeper into Coda’s game-ography, his narration becomes frantic. Wrenden stops being able to locate meaning in games that become progressively more impossible to advance through. Wrenden says that he doesn’t recognize the person making these new darker games. He feels like he’s failing because he can’t comprehend them. You discover that Wrenden has been modifying the games even more than he’s admitted to. It all becomes a big chaotic mess.
All of this is intentional. As the game goes on, it becomes clear that this game isn’t really a documentary on a game maker called Coda, it’s a fictional experience. It’s a work that forces the player to examine the typical player/creator relationship by making Wrenden (narrator Wrenden, not real world Wrenden) the player while you (the actual player) are just someone who’s along for the ride.
It is mainly a critique of critique. It skewers those of us who claim to have discovered some correct meaning in a work, only to have that meaning be a projection of ourselves. It is, after all, the story of a fan so desperate to find meaning in a person’s work that they literally construct their own meaning by modifying that person’s games.
And, as someone who picks through games to find their meaning, you might think that this would discourage me from doing my job. That trying to find absolute Truth in a game is a futile and, in this case, destructive activity.
Once in high school, I was the last person to leave my English classroom because I had taken a minute to flip through a Cliffnotes book I found in the back of the room. “Ugh,” my teacher exclaimed, “put that away.” I looked up at her, shocked. Seeing my surprise she backtracked, “I mean, you can read it.” she said, “Just don’t get caught up believing that the meaning of a book is in its Cliffnotes. That thing will just give you jumping off points. You have to make the meaning for yourself.”
Everyone makes their own meaning with any work, even if we misperceive that meaning as the work’s singular, absolute Truth.
But you’d be forgiven for believing things do have an absolute Truth. It doesn’t help that as children we are often told fables with prepackaged meanings. It doesn’t help that in school we are sometimes taught about symbolism and theme in literature as if they are elements in a math equation. And it doesn’t help that as an adult we read articles (and, especially these days, see YouTube videos) that construct a work’s meaning so cautiously you’d think a compiler error would occur if any of an author’s own experience and biases spilled into an analysis and tarnished their flawless, well-cited justifications. It doesn’t help that games, with their alternate paths and hidden secrets, would suggest that if you just work hard enough or, I dunno, win the game, a universal Truth will appear at the end of your journey in the same way a trophy would.
That all-too-common mentality and the dangers it creates is what The Beginner’s Guide brilliantly captures in such a glaring, damning way.
Or, you know, maybe I’m just projecting that onto it.