The Beginner’s Guide and Walls

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When somebody insists that I simply must play the next big thing, it’s not uncommon for me to respond with “I’m really busy at the moment, but I’ll get to it”. That’s why I was so late on the bandwagon for The Beginner’s Guide. Now that I’ve played this masterpiece, I’m infinitely ashamed of myself for not putting aside an hour and a half to experience it sooner.

Few games have affected me as deeply as The Beginner’s Guide. I found it difficult to talk about the experience afterwards and, even now, I’m struggling to find words that adequately convey how this journey intellectually and emotionally impacted me.

If you are yet to play the game, then I must echo the sentiment of every games reviewer on the internet: stop reading now. Go and play without the spoilers that lie ahead. And if you start to say, “I’m really busy at the moment…” stop yourself and find time. It’s worth it.

The Beginner’s Guide starts with Davey Wreden introducing himself as the person who wrote The Stanley Parable. He calls its story absurd, and contrasts this against the straightforward series of events that constitutes The Beginner’s Guide. He uses dates and names to give the narrative credence. He makes you question whether or not his game developer friend, Coda, is fictional or if everything is a true story.

As they work their way through Coda’s micro games, each narrated by Davey, some players become so invested in the story that by the end they are convinced Coda is an actual person. While I never truly suspected The Beginner’s Guide to be a work of non-fiction, I still have a lot of questions about whether Coda is ‘real’; are Davey—as the narrator—and Coda two separate people, or is The Beginner’s Guide actually a dialogue between two parts of Davey’s mind?

Coda wants to create games as a way of expressing himself, without necessarily making them enjoyable for a player (or even showing them to a player). His games can be pointless or impossible, with extra levels hidden behind unsurpassable walls. He likes to push the boundaries of what a game can be.

Meanwhile, Davey doesn’t understand why Coda keeps his games hidden. He is convinced that external validation is the most important motivator for creating, and that games should have a purpose. Although Coda doesn’t want anyone to see the games he creates, Davey secretly shows them to his friends behind Coda’s back and then, again, to us. Similarly, when lamp posts consistently start appearing at the end of Coda’s games, Davey comments that this might be an indication that Coda has grown tired of his games not containing a goal, but by the end of the collection it becomes clear that Davey was inserting these lamp posts into Coda’s games without Coda’s consent.

The credibility Davey established with his recounting of dates and names, and even his email address, in the first chapter is undermined by this discovery. If Davey was responsible for the lamp posts in each game, what else did he modify? Were these games the struggle between two parts of the one developer’s mind: the part that wants to create while considering purpose and audience, and the part that wants to create for nothing more than catharsis and experimentation and enjoyment?

Perhaps this interpretation resonates with me simply because I know that these two voices exist within my own mind. When I was younger, I created solely for the enjoyable release. I rarely showed my work to anyone, often deleting documents as soon as they were written. I can completely understand Coda’s playful renaming of his computer Recycling Bin as ‘Important Games Folder’.

But, at the same time, I wish I could recover some of those lost words. Perhaps there is something that would have been salvageable in them or something worth sharing, even though past-me had no intention of doing so.

Because Coda’s games were never meant for release, they are marked with the thumb prints of their creator. We are deliberately and constantly reminded that we are playing a game. This is mentioned in Davey’s narration of the first scene—a 3d level designed for Counter Strike—which suggests that the ‘colourful blobs’ and ‘floating crates’ ‘destroy the illusion’ that the scene could be real.

I found this first scene fascinating. As a player, I have certain expectations when approaching a game, so encountering a brightly coloured wall in a desert environment or a stack of platform-like crates that I couldn’t quite climb was unsettling. The Beginner’s Guide is filled with moments like these: loops you can’t break, mazes you can’t pass, codes you can’t crack. Deliberately placed signposts that remind you that this is a game, created by a person who has absolute control over your experience. Even in a branching narrative, somebody sat there and wrote the endings, and you can only choose between the options you are given.

In this way, The Beginner’s Guide truly was a guide, of sorts, for me. I had been meaning to dabble in 3d level design and C# coding for some time, but I was unsure what I could make that other people would want to play. The Beginner’s Guide reminded me that I could create without an audience, or even a purpose. I could create without a plan, without anything other than a desire to learn new things and make something that I was satisfied with.

The result was Walls: an experiment in Unity 5 that accidentally found its way onto the internet because, even if it was made just for me, the egoist in me couldn’t resist sharing it with the world. It was essentially created as a personal learning tool, to test some of Unity’s functionality, to learn basic C#, and to mess around with models and materials. But it also borrows the floating crates, impossible colours, and repeated symbols of Coda’s games as a way to question the growing trend of making videogames as ‘realistic’ as possible; of wondering what happens when we remind players that they are navigating a game environment according to the freedoms and limitations imposed by a developer; and of asking whether challenging game conventions acts as a welcome surprise, or as a frustrating and isolating experience.

The Beginner’s Guide affected me intellectually and emotionally, as a creator, a consumer, and a person. It inspired me to listen more closely to the many voices inside my mind, to create for the sake of creating, and to question everything I am exposed to. I’ve barely begun to talk about all of the incredible, goosebump-giving moments that The Beginner’s Guide had to offer me, and I’m sure that each person who experiences this journey walks away having learnt different lessons. What did The Beginner’s Guide teach you?


This post was originally published on alaynamcole.com