Kris Graft is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra (@krisgraft)
If you’ve not played The Beginner’s Guide, you probably won’t get what the heck I’m talking about here. If you have played it, you still might not get what the heck I'm talking about here. No real spoilers below, but you should check out the game!
As someone who appreciated The Stanley Parable and its wit, I looked forward to The Beginner’s Guide, the ambiguously-named game from Davey Wreden, the writer on Stanley and founder of Everything Unlimted Ltd.
It took about 90 minutes to play, and then my brain blurted out a list:
Where some games take tens of hours to try to convey one theme, The Beginner’s Guide took the idea of artistic creation, sliced it up into all of its subsets, sculpted them into a cohesive, mechanics-supported narrative, and made it all interactive. Super easy to do, right? (No.)
The game is interesting: as soon as I finished, I couldn’t stop analyzing it. Here I am, still analyzing it. It’s a game that begs the player to do a literary interpretation, leaving you in your chair, staring at the computer monitor pondering “what does it all mean?”
Indeed, as at least one critic has pointed out, it’s a game that doesn’t want to be written about. Writing is one of the ways that I ponder things, and in doing that—in doing this—I find myself imposing my own values about the game, or making assumptions about its creator, or possibly feeding the creator’s insecurities and weaknesses. Basically, I’m committing all of the sins that, I felt, the game points out as sins. It’s as if by “consuming” this game, I’m poisoning the creative process. Paradoxically, it’s a game made for people, but it’s not meant for you. It’s the opposite of pandering, and it’s a bit uncomfortable in the best way.
This game feels like a game meant to either a.) discuss with another person, or b.) for one to sit and meditate on it by oneself. So I wanted to discuss the game with someone. Who better to have a conversation with about The Beginner’s Guide than Wreden himself? We live relatively close to one another, and he graciously met with me for some coffee. We talked for an hour about everything from The Stanley Parable and the weight of its success to the lore of The Fast and the Furious. And we did talk just a bit about The Beginner’s Guide.
But having the opportunity to talk to him about the game, I realized while sitting across from him that I didn’t want to know what the game “means” to the person who imbued it with meaning. I even said something to the effect of “don’t tell me what it all means!” and then proceeded to tell Wreden (who listened intently) what it meant to me.
…Which I now realize is one of the themes of the game—the way that players of a game take ownership of someone else’s creation, and the effect that has on a creator. In games, the creator and the player are incredibly intertwined. (That’s not a trait unique to video games, either—The Beginner’s Guide is a game about creation from the perspective of a game creator, but its themes are not limited to game creation.)
Particularly with works that are autobiographical (or positioned as autobiographical) in nature, there seems to be a correlation between the personal-ness of a work and the honesty of a work. So when I start talking about The Beginner’s Guide as something intensely personal, I’m also saying in a way that it’s intensely honest. And when I say The Beginner’s Guide is intensely honest, I’m also saying it’s intensely personal. That leaves me sitting here staring blankly at my own literary interpretation, wondering who am I to make a judgment on someone’s personal experience as a creator.
That morning, before I met Wreden for coffee, I went back to The Beginner’s Guide, just to revisit it prior to our conversation. Rather unexpectedly, it felt downright dirty. The first playthrough of the game is simply meant to set the context for the second. So, if you’re a critic and you played it once, then ran to Microsoft Word to write your critique, realize that you critiqued 50 percent of the game. The second playthrough makes you complicit in the “crimes” laid bare in the first playthrough. You’re a willing accomplice in the poisoning of something pure.
(Ok, so I suppose if you’d rather not feel like that, just play it once. But if you want to interact with Wreden's game-design-as-performance-art, please do play it a second time.)
The fact that the game purely uses game mechanics to support the narrative makes the impact so much more significant. Every switch has a meaning, every task has a purpose, every piece of dialog has a subtext. Or not. Maybe the meaning is that none of these things has a meaning, and that all of the implied meaningfulness comes strictly from the narrator—the “Davey” of The Beginner’s Guide—and not of the character Coda, the "creator" in the game.
At our sit-down, Wreden was wearing a scarf that had an infinite maze on it, a reference to one of the best moments in The Beginner’s Guide. This blog post is all over the place, with half-finished thoughts where I hit a dead end, then backtrack, then try to figure out what I'm actually trying to say. I have no conclusions or answers about what this game means to me. In a move opposite to good journalism, I purposely avoided getting any insight from Wreden about the game’s meaning, because I didn’t want the game to “mean” anything. I want it to be an open-ended question, one that had no concrete answer. I want it it to make me reflect on how I treat yourself, how I treat other people, what motivates my interactions with others, and how pushing something into existence can bring about such inward- and outward-facing existential inquiries.
If it sounds like The Beginner’s Guide stirred up a little existential crisis in me, it’s not quite up to crisis level. But it does make me think about inspiration, validation, sacrifice, and all these niches and dark places that are subsets of the creative process. The Beginner’s Guide, among other themes, is about exploring life through the creative process—not finding answers, but finding more questions. The process of learning is steeped in the feeling of not knowing anything at all—you feel like a beginner, and that’s an ok place to be in life.