Where To Begin?

where to begin

*The following is a review for The Beginner’s Guide and contains mild spoilers about the plot.

The Beginner’s Guide was created by the creator of The Stanley Parable, but they couldn’t be more different. The snide, commanding voice of The Stanley Parable narrating your life in third person has been replaced by the jovial, conspiratorial voice of the game programmer inviting you to share an experience.

In both, however, someone is missing. In The Beginner’s Guide, the missing one is Coda, another programmer that Dave admires a lot. It seems that Coda has disappeared and stopped making games, and Davey wants him to come back and continue his work. To help us understand Coda and why it’s so important to find him, Davey takes us on a journey through Coda’s mind – or at least, the only part of Coda’s mind that Davey has access to – his games.

There are two particularly fascinating parts of the game which I will not spoil. I’ll only say that one is perhaps the most glorious mistake in video game history and the other possibly contains the epilogue to the game and the answer to Davey’s question at the end. However, you would understand this only if you experienced a mid-game deja vu.

What I will say is how the game affected me. It started as a mysterious adventure, then became a master class in level design. I started noticing which of Coda’s creations were more interesting than others and tried to figure out why. Through innovative graphics, game levels, dialogue, and poetry, I found myself delving into Coda’s mind.

By the end of the game, my mind was consumed with thoughts of a different artist altogether: Henry Darger. Darger was a hospital custodian who rented a second-floor room in Chicago in 1930. He attended Mass regularly, but was otherwise a recluse. He lived there for about 40 years, until he had trouble climbing the stairs and asked his landlord to help him move out. He went to live in a nursing home and died a few years later. He was penniless. For all it seemed, Henry Darger was a random guy who seemed a bit strange in the head, lived a strange little life, didn’t do much for the world, and then died. A pauper. A failure.

Except, when his landlord cleaned out his room, he found out what Henry Darger really was. A creator. In his room was his magnum opus – a 15,145 page manuscript with 300 full color, painted illustrations to accompany it. Darger’s literary epic described the fictional Glandeco-Angelinnian war, introducing a race of female warriors that rivaled the Amazons: The Vivian Girls. These girls fought valiently, survived torture, and were aided by dragon-beings long before anyone had ever heard of Daenerys Targaryen.

Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, believed so much in the power of Darger’s art that they spent their own money publicizing his work even after his death. Because of their efforts, his work was shown in galleries and his expertise was recognized by the art world. His art style spawned a name: Dargerism, and the Vivian girls have been the inspiration for graphic novels, video games, poetry and song.

Like Davey in The Beginner’s Guide, Darger’s landlord tried to use the artist’s work as a way to understand the artist’s mind. In a documentary based on Darger, titled “Realms of the Unreal”, Lerner uses the works themselves and her limited knowledge of Darger to interpret his motives and understand his life. One notable observation was that the Vivian girls have penises. Lerner surmised that Henry had never seen a naked woman, and therefore drew the girls with penises because he didn’t realize that females didn’t have them.

According to the Lerners, Darger never tried to publicize or profit from his work. According to Davey, Coda didn’t seek publicity for his games, either. He doesn’t even think Coda showed his games to other people. Only him.

For me, both The Beginner’s Guide and the story of Henry Darger bring to mind a question. Why make something if you don’t want anyone to see it? Why take the time and effort to create if your creation will languish and you’ll go without recognition?

In artist stories, we lament how Van Gogh was a penniless, unrecognized artist when he died, and how he never experienced the riches and notoriety his works have subsequently gained him. Stories of science include the fate of Nikola Tesla, who’s accuracy and love for the pure craft of science were no match for the unbridled greed and ambition of Thomas Edison, leaving his work virtually ignored during his lifetime.

I had felt the same way about Henry Darger, imagining him toiling away at The Story of the Vivian Girls; a failure for having died without publishing it. But, after The Beginner’s Guide, I looked at Darger differently. Perhaps his Glandeco-Angelinian War was never made for us. Perhaps they were his own creation. Their sole purpose, his own enjoyment. Perhaps, instead of a symbol of failure, his book was his greatest success. The fact that I am able to share in the joy of Henry Darger’s creation – and even the remnants of Coda’s games – enriches me, and I’m glad I could partake in both. But neither were necessarily made for that. Perhaps Coda’s joy was simply in making the games and he was satisfied by their existence. Perhaps Darger died a happy man, knowing that even if only in the pages around his room, he had brought his Vivian girls to life.

But this game is called “The Beginner’s Guide”, so let’s go back to the subject of beginnings.

There is an African-American folk version of the Bible that begins:

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.*

Perhaps that really is the way that God began. Perhaps that’s how Henry Darger began. And how Coda began. Maybe that is how all creators begin. With the need for companionship. With the making of a world to fill a void.

In essence, we don’t need a true “beginner’s guide”. We need a “beginner’s remembrance”. To recapture a “beginner’s joy”. To create for the purpose of creating. For ourselves. Regardless of others. Without end.


* Johnson, J. W. (1927). God’s trombones: seven Negro sermons in verse. Penguin.

Image credit: Everything Unlimited Ltd.