The Beginner’s Guide is a peculiar project. In a nutshell, it’s a collection of small games and game concepts by a developer known as Coda, with an accompanying narration from the collection’s curator Davey Wreden. It has higher aspirations than merely being an anthology, however, as the voiceover presents a story about the narrator’s relationship to both the games being presented and the developer of those games.
This metanarrative touches on several worthwhile topics, including the interpretation of games (and art generally), the potential satisfaction or dissatisfaction of game development (and creativity generally), and what any art object may or may not be able to say about the creator of that art object. Along these lines, The Beginner’s Guide is deserving of some praise. It dares to push the envelope of what a game can be, and it does so in an experimental way that has proved fruitful in other media, especially in the past 200 years of literature and across most of the history of film.
But along essentially the same lines, the game is worthy of criticism as well. I have no way of expressing even the heading under which that criticism falls, however, without spoiling or even potentially ruining the experience of the game. So I’ll just spit out my usual warning, and then we’ll dig in: the nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling the plot of The Beginner’s Guide, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or you have already played the game.
Moreover, for the purposes of this discussion, I will need to distinguish between two entities both named ‘Davey Wreden.’ In order to make the distinction clear, when I am referring to the actual human person who wrote, directed, and co-designed The Beginner’s Guide, I’ll always use the name ‘Wreden.’ And when I am referring to the fictional character who serves as the narrator of The Beginner’s Guide, I’ll always use the name ‘Davey.’ Wreden and Davey overlap in several details: they are both game developers hailing from California, both share the same name, and both share the same voice. But Wreden is real and Davey is fictional, and that difference between them should not be forgotten as we proceed.
The Content of The Beginner’s Guide:
The Beginner’s Guide is a work of gamely metafiction that tells the story of a relationship between two game developers, Davey and Coda. The actual gameplay of the title sees the player navigating through a chronological series of minimally interactive games, prototypes, and mods ostensibly created by Coda, as Davey provides instruction, context, and interpretation.
Some of the games seem incomplete or unpolished, but nearly all of them share characteristics in common: abrupt transitions of naturalistic level design to and from abstract level design, floating up from a level or falling down into one, sudden incorporation of mazes or labyrinths, concealed or inaccessible areas, rudimentary dialogue systems incorporating cube-headed mannequins, prolonged time sinks where movement slows to a crawl or a timer must elapse for a significant span before progressing, a puzzle motif involving navigation through a pair of doors, visual motifs involving a lamp post and a set of three dots, and segments featuring confinement behind bars or glass.
As the narrative progresses, Davey presents an initial psychological interpretation of the collection of games as reflecting a deepening isolation and a growing discouragement with the creative process. This interpretation is built on the back of some of the aforementioned details to the exclusion of others, largely ignoring (and even allowing the player to skip past) both the time sinks and the labyrinths, while focusing extensively on the door puzzle, the confinement, and the dialogue system. His subjective selectivity in building this interpretation goes so far as to discard some entire games as meaningless or even “weird for weirdness’ sake.”
Davey goes further than simply presenting this interpretation of the games, however, as he also continually maps his psychological interpretation of the games back onto the psychology of Coda himself, feeling that he is accessing deep and sometimes alarming truths about Coda’s mental state. On the brief occasions when the games seem pleasant and comfortable, Davey construes Coda as going through a period of health, happiness, and stability. When the games seem restrictive and pessimistic, Davey construes Coda as going through a rough patch.
Davey constantly conflates art and artist in this way, even placing implied interpretive weight on how long any given game seemingly took Coda to produce. The key turning point in the narrative occurs when Davey, feeling that his reading of Coda’s games has given him a window into the mind of a desperately isolated and unfulfilled creative, sends copies of Coda’s games to a number of people to appreciate. They do in fact appreciate them, but Coda is deeply hurt by Davey sharing the games without his permission.
Coda withdraws entirely from interaction with Davey at this point, and later sends a single final game to him. Coda’s last game places several absurd or even impossible obstacles in the place of navigating a tower adorned with stairs vaguely reminiscent of the work of M. C. Escher. When the obstacles are surpassed via Davey’s modifications, the player is presented with a series of text boxes that address Davey directly. They accuse him of misinterpreting Coda’s games; modifying Coda’s games to conform to Davey’s preference for clear goals, endpoints, and meanings; and sharing Coda’s work against his will. Finally, Coda requests that Davey cease contacting him.
The game ends with the player navigating a series of Coda-game-like spaces that are neither credited to Coda nor given a time of release as are the others. In fact, as the games are presented in chronological order and the tower game is stated more than once to be Coda’s last, it is essentially canonical fact to say that the final levels are not developed by Coda. As one navigates them, Davey delivers an increasingly fervent monologue about how he doesn’t understand Coda, may not be able to understand any artist from a study of their work, and doesn’t understand how anyone could be interested in producing art without seeking external validation for it (as Davey himself has always felt a voracious craving for validation as a primary motivator).
Finally, The Beginner’s Guide ends with a more grandiose version of an ostensibly meaningful glitch from the second game presented, which sees the player piloting their player-character into a vertical beam of energy, then moving slowly upward and away from what is now revealed to be a seemingly infinite labyrinth below. Davey is gone. Coda is gone. And only the player’s interpretation of what they’ve been though remains. Maybe.
A Critique of The Beginner’s Guide:
All in all, The Beginner’s Guide represents an admirable attempt at creating a work of artistic gamely fiction. Its chosen themes of what relationship there is between the interpretation of art and the reality of artists, as well as what kinds of motivation structures may energize different creative people, are interesting topics that are not (as of yet) frequent features in games in the same way as they have become popular in literature and film over the past century.
Unfortunately, the virtues of The Beginner’s Guide become more theoretical than actual as one progresses through the title, because a number of discordant choices in the writing of Davey’s narration undermine its exploration of those themes by rendering the logic of the narrative incoherent. That is, before one can even start to consider the possible meaning or possible emotional resonance of the small games encountered, Davey’s commentary about them, and the relationship between Davey and Coda—one is first forced to bracket the fact that all of those things, indeed everything it depicts, was probably designed from the ground up to look and work exactly the way it is presented.
This is because the game’s ostensibly non-fiction narrative is an obvious lie. It’s a story being told by Wreden, about events that almost certainly didn’t happen. Before even reaching the game’s credits, it unintentionally becomes quite likely to the player that Wreden himself played a large or maybe even exclusive role in designing the games that Davey credits to Coda and then interpets. The self-phone-call segment and the crowds of expectant journalists may make tiny nods toward it being legitimate to interpret Coda as simply being Davey in the past, but this possibility is then torn asunder by Davey’s desperation to reach out to Coda and get him to resume making games (which would make absolutely no sense in a Coda-as-Davey reading, given that both Davey and Wreden contributed to the development and release of an unconventional and commercially successful game called The Stanley Parable in 2013).
No, on the contrary, it seems as though the game sincerely thinks that its narrative is consistent and believable, and the communication of its thematic considerations relies on that undeserved self-satisfaction. But whatever you do, please do not mistake what you’ve read over the past few paragraphs and what you will read in the remainder of this article as being a complaint about the mere fact that the game’s story is fictional. That, I believe, is clear to nearly every player.
The complaint that serves as my main point is about the sloppy writing of that fiction, and the fact that it prevents the player from suspending disbelief as they ideally would for any story. This issue is caused by the simultaneous obviousness of its fictional status and incoherence of its narrative details. To demonstrate these problems in the writing of the game, I will now present a different way of communicating the experience of The Beginner’s Guide, by taking you on my own chronological tour—this time covering the sequence of ways that the game actively harms the player’s suspension of disbelief about the conceivable reality of what its narration describes.
It is in the first few levels of The Beginner’s Guide that seemingly unintended cracks already begin to form in its metanarrative. As soon as the game’s purported status as an anthology of another developer’s work is revealed, practical questions flood the mind and intervene in its believability.
Anthologies of this kind are not unheard of; collections of the early games of Edmund McMillen and Zach Barth are available as singular entities under the titles of The Basement Collection and ZACH-LIKE, respectively. But crucially, those collections are the property of the creators themselves. In The Beginner’s Guide, we are told that Coda ceased making games, and that Davey intends through this independently created collection to showcase the value of Coda’s games in such a way as that it may encourage him to resume development.
As audience members, just as soon as it is presented to us, we already know intuitively that this can not be the whole story. For The Beginner’s Guide to exist as a collection of Coda’s games, one of three things would have to be true: either Coda willingly granted permission to Wreden to create this collection, in which case Coda was onboard with this project and even may have been involved in its development; or Coda did not know about or grant permission to Wreden to create this collection, in which case the collection is illegal and would not be available for purchase; or Coda is deceased, in which case Wreden may have been able to acquire the rights to produce the collection from whichever family member or legal entity absorbed the rights upon his passing, which would mean that Davey is straightforwardly lying about his motivations for making it in the interest of having Coda’s death be a ‘big reveal’ later. Given that the game is available for purchase, the second of these options is impossible; so Coda must either be onboard with the project or already dead.
Wreden may be attempting to sidestep this issue by having the first showcased creation be a custom Counter-Strike map, free for distribution by definition, and then quietly never having Davey clarify the legal status of any of the other creations from then until it is finally revealed that it was done against Coda’s wishes about an hour later. But since that is the option that is literally impossible given the ongoing availability of The Beginner’s Guide, his silence on this issue doesn’t make it stick out any less proudly.
So, the player is basically immediately aware that what Davey is saying is either entirely untrue or at the very least so deeply misleading that not a single line of it can be believed anyway. All that remains to be discerned is how deep the lie goes: Is Coda actually fine with people distributing his games, and thus a far more conventional and less enigmatic figure than Davey implies? Is Coda actually dead, and the reason for the collection merely to memorialize him and spread his work after later revealing the twist that he’s not around anymore? Does Coda simply not exist, and the whole project was either cobbled together from earlier projects by Wreden or else created from the ground up by Everything Unlimited, either way as something like a high school student’s attempt at recreating the metafiction style of the writer Jorge Luis Borges?
Well, as it turns out, that last guess ends up being the right one. It’s “baby’s first Borges.” And I didn’t have to read any secondary sources about the game to become aware of that. The game tells the player this, unintentionally yet repeatedly, across its entire climax and end.
Things start to fall apart in small ways as soon as Davey starts becoming seriously concerned about Coda’s well-being. Davey rightly points out that the dialogue contained within Coda’s games slowly takes on a fixation with the specific topic of dissatisfaction with creative work generally and game development in particular. One could understand how a friend of Coda might become somewhat concerned about Coda’s mental health or at least his creative productivity along those lines.
But for The Beginner’s Guide to depict Davey playing a half-dozen such games without ever trying to confront the topic with ‘his friend Coda’ makes no sense whatsoever. In what sense are these two friends at all? Did they ever actually speak with each other, after their initial meeting in Sacramento, or did Coda just silently send Davey game after game for years for some unknown reason? Even Coda’s participation in a public game jam seemingly contradicts his character as established in the rest of the tale.
Those kinds of character inconsistencies are distracting, but they’re minor. Things don’t really start falling to pieces, for the story itself as much as for the relationship it depicts, until Davey starts sharing Coda’s games with others. This, we are told, was the final straw in a series of frustrations that Coda had quietly been feeling toward Davey, and causes Coda to immediately withdraw from any interaction with him.
As soon as this occurs in the narrative, the entire existence of The Beginner’s Guide is called into question. The Beginner’s Guide simply is Davey sharing Coda’s work with the player. There is never a time during the experience of playing it when the player is not aware of that. It’s the basic premise of the game. So as soon as you are told in no uncertain terms that Coda explicitly does not want his work to be shared, nothing could possibly account for its existence in the way it is described by Davey. Well, okay, not nothing: we’re forced to conclude that what accounts for it is that Davey is unfathomably stupid, and honestly believes that the way back into Coda’s good graces would be to do the exact thing that initially enraged him—but on a much larger scale, and in a way that is unambiguously illegal.
Davey makes a laughable attempt to address this fact at one point during his final monologue, exclaiming,
I know that I did an awful thing. And I’m doing it again right now! Like, I’m—I’m showing people your work, but I can’t stop myself from doing it! That’s how badly I need to—feel something again. Like I’m an addict! There has to be something wrong with me!
Even if one takes seriously this attempt to avoid the objection through an emotional outburst, that still obviously fails to clear up how The Beginner’s Guide could possibly exist and go on existing if it were what it presents itself to be. So, if it’s not what it presents itself to be, then the player must ask themselves: what is it? Well, the game provides an answer almost immediately, when it presents two levels in Coda’s style that it very strongly implies are not designed by Coda, since they come after his ‘last game:’ it’s a fabrication, a falsehood.
Just as Everything Unlimited likely crafted the final levels to mirror the style of the earlier levels and provide an apotheosis to the symbols of the rising player-character and the labyrinth, so it is now much more likely that they crafted everything else in the game than that it was the genuine creation of a troubled friend of Wreden.
If there is no troubled friend, then there is no actual separation among the presented art, the presented interpretation of the art, and the presented artist. They are all one and the same. But a story about Davey making games and then telling you what deep meanings they might have is a much less interesting exploration of the topic of interpreting art than the one that the game tries superficially to present. Seen in that light, it would be a display of self-love that is ‘not suitable for work.’ And a museum-like anthology that only lies about why the games it contains were made can not be trusted to give any insight into the actual motivations of game developers. Seen in that light, it’s either a trite short story about a bad friend named Davey, or else an arguable meta-metanarrative about how player immersion can be broken and how metafiction can fail.
Potential Rebuttals and Potential Improvements:
Part of the nature of the kind of ironic metafiction in which Wreden has chosen to specialize is that it always has an inbuilt defense mechanism against criticism like that offered here. It is quite easy for me to imagine Wreden making it to this point in this analysis while slowly nodding with a smug disposition, feeling that I am seeking a particular meaning in The Beginner’s Guide at any cost and even, as will occur later in this section, offering modifications to bring the work closer to that meaning (as does Davey). But it’s not the presence or absence of some particular meaning that I’m complaining about; as stated earlier, and as I hope has been clear, my complaint is about incoherence in the writing—that fundamental details of it can not logically coexist, even after accounting for the unreliability of the narrator. If it helps, in this section you can bracket the fact that it is metafiction, and temporarily imagine that the game starts with the phrase, ‘Once Upon a Time in California.’
Regardless, when it comes to the meaning itself, you may recall that I do keep listing off certain themes, including an inability to know an artist from their art and an examination of differing motivations. As unintuitive as it may sound, I’m only proceeding along that exact interpretive line out of the principle of charity, whereby it is virtuous to assume the best possible intentions and strongest possible arguments on the part of a writer, philosopher, or artist. In this game, for instance, which discusses the impossibility of reliably tracing a line from a developer’s intention to an aspect of the game itself, who is to say that what strikes me as inelegant, clumsy, and simply poor writing is not in fact intentional? I actually agree that tracing that line is impossible, so that indeed may be the case.
That is, it may be that the game is actually about how a metafictional treatment of topics can break down after even light consideration is directed at it (even though that is actually untrue of the genre of metafiction in general). There is no real reason I can’t say that that’s what the game is about. In fact, for anyone that notices the far-reaching contrivances, inconsistencies, and even plot holes in the metanarrative of The Beginner’s Guide, that is in a sense what the game is about for them. But if that’s what it’s about, then it’s a hell of a lot less interesting than I (and many other commenters) have at times alleged.
In saying that I don’t think the game is actually about a failure to create a coherent metafiction even though that is what best fits the evidence in the game, I am giving it the benefit of the doubt. I am saying that I believe that the game is aiming at more interesting and substantial themes, and merely falling short. The thing is, the narrative problems outlined in the previous section that cause it to fall short in that way are hardly difficult to solve. With another couple passes at the script, Wreden, like any qualified writer, almost certainly could’ve done better. Let’s not station a brand new lamppost, though; let’s simply consider a more immersive corridor:
Imagine a version of the game, for example, where the collection of games credited to Coda was found on a stray flash drive, in a manner reminiscent of the way that the photography of Vivian Maier was acquired at random auctions by art collectors who would later make it famous through exhibitions, books, and documentaries. Perhaps an extensive search turned up no likely candidate to be Coda, and The Beginner’s Guide could then be a desperate last resort to track down a person that Davey considers to be both talented and troubled.
It would no longer be incredibly weird that Davey apparently never takes the time to communicate with this person except by playing their games, as they would not be friends. It would no longer seem that Davey is a complete moron for sharing the games twice over against the explicit objection of the developer. And, accordingly, the legal objections that immediately derail the believability of the extant version don’t have to be ignored either: in this hypothetical version of the game, Davey could make it clear that he has no ownership of the materials, has no concept of any license under which the relevant software may be governed, and yet—for all that—can now think of no way in which to track down the creator except through this kind of wide distribution, regardless of the later legal ramifications.
The focus on whether Davey’s interpretation of the games may have any bearing on the reality of the developer’s life could be retained, while the deeply confused notion that Davey is supposedly sharing games he did not make because he somehow derives intoxicating amounts of validation from people liking the work of another person could be dodged. Similarly, the focus on what could possibly motivate a person to make games and then discard or hoard them could be retained, while the unbearably dumb idea that Davey—who already possesses Coda’s direct contact information—had no way of reaching out or apologizing to him other than illegally collating and selling his games could be dismissed.
The only problem with this hypothetical change that I can conceive is that it would make it blatantly problematic that Everything Unlimited is charging money for The Beginner’s Guide. But that is at least as big a problem for the actual narrative that was used, so to me it does nothing to tip the scales. And this is not to say that this is the only alteration to the writing that could leave the themes intact while removing the most distracting plot holes: lighter changes alluded to earlier, such as Coda actually being deceased or it being made more plausible that Coda is simply a younger version of Davey, could go some way toward salvaging the value of the game.
At the end of the day, however, we must set aside this daydreaming. As Davey puts it, “I think we should talk about his games for what they are, rather than what they’re not.” After all, whether due to haste, insufficient editing, or stubbornness in the face of editing—nothing so compelling and consistent exists in the final text.
On the surface, it may seem like this analysis sums to something similar to my article on Transistor, which took the narrative of that game to task for bearing a similar discrepancy between its apparent themes and its slipshod storytelling. If that were the case, then just like with Transistor, I would be closing by recommending The Beginner’s Guide for being truly excellent in all ways other than its story. But in the case of The Beginner’s Guide, there’s very little ‘other than its story.’ Only a couple of the purportedly-Coda-originating game concepts could stand as worthwhile experiences on their own. So, with what a sloppy execution of metafiction it actually ends up being, there’s very little left to recommend.
Despite touching on serious topics like depression, loss of motivation, and how interpretation of art is a personal and crucially subjective enterprise—the story it tells has little chance of significant emotional resonance except among the game’s most credulous players, due to the huge number of ways that the game itself regularly and clumsily broadcasts that even its metanarrative is an incoherent fiction. But with how intertwined the story is with the rest of the experience, this isn’t really just a critique of the story of The Beginner’s Guide; it’s a critique of the entirety of The Beginner’s Guide.
It’s a tough thing about which to give you any closure, though, because when considering the game’s most interesting themes, The Beginner’s Guide has astronomically high potential, even if it is only an arguably competent attempt at capturing some of that potential. Regardless, I do not think it is remotely as overrated as the developers’ prior success, The Stanley Parable, which manages to be a similarly disappointing execution of an interesting premise on top of also being a broadly unfunny comedy. To my mind, The Beginner’s Guide is a big step in the right direction: toward Wreden’s apparently strong interest in experimenting with the forms and contexts of gaming from within in a way that may foster discussions of relevant topics. It has at any rate, perhaps due to a lack of better works on the same subjects in the same medium, fostered a large amount of such discussions.
So, while it undoubtedly misses the mark in the final appraisal, I’m still glad that The Beginner’s Guide exists. Furthermore, it makes me strongly interested in whatever Wreden might possibly create in the future—and I don’t think he would have to completely close the door on his past efforts to finally get somewhere worth going.
The Intermediate’s Guide: