Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide Is A Love Letter To Diverse Games

I’ll recap Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide in the least spoiler-y way that I can, to convince you to go to Steam and spend $7.99 and 90 minutes of your time playing it before finishing any review. The end of the game is tremendous, and it’s better to experience it than read about it.

Wreden inserts himself as a character into The Beginner’s Guide, the premise being that he had a (fictional) friend named Coda who stopped making games in 2011, and who he desperately wants to start making games again. The game is itself a collection of 16 discrete, finite games that Coda created but never released, with “Davey” narrating over the gameplay to explain the context in Coda’s life in which they were created, how the gameplay works or doesn’t work (in his opinion), and expounding on his own analysis of what the games mean about Coda’s complex inner life.

It gets dark. Coda’s games are, by normal gaming standards, unplayable at times. They seemingly become a way for Coda to work out his own hard feelings about creating games, keeping ideas coming, feeling trapped and scrutinized, wanting to be perfect. The gameplay corresponds to these feelings. But Davey, instead of letting you play the game as Coda made it, inserts cheats: He skips labyrinths that he feels are unnecessary and pointless, for example, or lets you see areas of the game that you weren’t supposed to see.

And then, as The Beginner’s Guide goes on and Davey’s narration continues, you get hit with a conclusion that sheds an awful lot of light on Davey and Coda’s relationship. Things are not as they seem, of course, and The Beginner’s Guide winds up being – as all of Coda’s games were – unwinnable by mainstream standards.

There will be spoilers from here forward, so I strongly, strongly suggest that you go and experience it for yourself.

the beginners guide vortex

The game has been covered from a few different angles already – Autostraddle approached it from a feminist point of view, interpreting Coda’s gender as female (there are some convincing arguments for it, but I’m not sure it totally matters) and looking at the game in the context of the experience of women in tech. Carolyn Petit talked about the game as a critique of gamers’ feelings of ownership over creations that really aren’t theirs. Boing Boing took the challenge to analyze it as a game that questions the analysis of games.

And PC Gamer has pretty roundly deemed it boring, since most of the gameplay is walking and there aren’t very many puzzles, which says to me that the review’s author is precisely the kind of gamer “Davey” is, wanting games to operate and be entertaining on his terms in a gaming market that is expanding to include game experiences that aren’t about action and goal achievement. The big revelation in The Beginner’s Guide, the one that hits the hardest for the reviewers who are affected by it, is that Davey has changed Coda’s games to make them more interesting for himself. The big one is about lampposts that are at the “end” of Coda’s games. When we first come across a lamppost, Davey narrates:

Okay, I can’t tell you quite why but for some reason Coda fixates on this lamppost. It’s going to appear at the end of every single one of his games from here on out. … Because now he wants something to hold onto. He wants a reference point. He wants the work to be leading to something. He wants a destination! Which is what this lamppost is, it’s a destination. We’re gonna see it in the work as well, his games are going to become a lot more cohesive, a lot more fully developed, with more of a clear idea behind them. And as we go, that idea will get clearer and clearer.”

But then, in the final chapter of The Beginner’s Guide, this is revealed to be an outright lie. “Tower” is a personal, private message to Davey, responding to Davey’s behavior in their relationship. The level is unplayable without changes Davey makes for you – after a nearly-impossible maze (over which Davey inserts a bridge) and a random code (which Davey reveals for you), there’s a door that can only be opened with a switch from the other side. Davey must change the game in order to get past the door, meaning that Coda’s intention was to throw Davey’s behavior in his face.

Past that door, there’s a series of rooms with a letter to Davey inscribed on the walls, telling Davey that he is the reason Coda stopped making games. Coda’s games were a safe emotional space for him, and Davey’s repeated breaches of trust have made games unsafe for him:

“Would you stop taking my games and showing them to people against my wishes? Giving them something that is not yours to give? Violating the one boundary that keeps me safe? Would you stop changing my games? Stop adding lampposts to them? Would you simply let them be what they are?”

the beginners guide tower

In other words, Davey lies. The lampposts weren’t Coda’s, and they weren’t an expression of something Coda wanted to do with the games – they were an expression of something that Davey wanted Coda to do. This is echoed in a parallel narrative about what Davey interprets as Coda’s depression. As the game proceeds, Coda’s games become more emotionally intense, and Davey gets it in his head that he needs to step in and “fix” Coda’s depression by getting outside validation from other people. But Coda’s letter proceeds: “Struggling to come up with new ideas is not making me depressed. The low points are just a part of the process.” Davey then enters a monologue in which he tells us that “If I could make his work my own I’d be happy,” and “I needed to be someone other than me.” In other words, whatever Davey is doing to change Coda’s games, and to change Coda, is really just what he’s projecting onto Coda from himself.

The reviews I’ve read have skipped over something about the game that’s important to me: The mazes. Coda’s games, far from being boring, are precisely the type of games I want to play and love playing, that evoke feelings for the player more than they let the player pass goalposts and win. Davey skips over a labyrinth, dismissing it as pointless, when maybe, for some people, the experience of getting lost and struggling to find your way out is the point. Maybe tedious tasks, like waiting for an hour for a gate to open, force the player to be patient. Maybe, in “Tower,” the impossible, invisible labyrinth that Davey just shortcuts over because it’s too frustrating for him – maybe that frustration is satisfying to some people because it feels real, because they relate to it, because it speaks to their personal experiences of frustration.

Davey relates an anecdote about an argument he had with Coda about whether or not games should be “playable.” Davey insists that they should be, and Coda’s response is to send him a dump of “playable games,” all of which are just empty boxes you walk around in. I take from this that Coda’s argument is that his games are playable, just not in the way Davey is used to. Davey is used to getting validation from games, unlocking achievements, having conclusions and being able to move on. Coda’s sense of play is less linear – in many cases anti-linear – and that should be OK, just like it should be OK for Coda to struggle emotionally when Davey wants him to “fix” his problems and move on.

In the last minutes of the game, “Tower,” Coda’s response to Davey, ends on an unending labyrinth, reaching out on all sides to the horizon. I interpreted this as another shot at Davey’s sensibilities, like the “playable” empty boxes; it was Coda telling Davey that if Davey wanted to know who Coda was, this was it. At heart, Coda is the stuff that Davey skips over and thinks is pointless. Davey can’t change that by changing the games, and Coda isn’t going to change that because it would make Davey more comfortable.

It’s a powerful statement to make, and one that is, at heart, on the side of diversity. We can’t tell people who are different than us to change, to be more like us, in order to make us happy. Davey says, in “Tower,” that the game doesn’t “ask anything of me except a lot of my time.” He says this disdainfully, as if demanding his time is an affront, but this is what empathy requires: time, patience, a willingness to play by someone else’s rules, even if they’re different than your own. The Beginner’s Guide is a letter to the gaming public, asking them to understand that.

the beginners guide labyrinth

[Carolyn Petit]
[Boing Boing]
[PC Gamer]
Screencaps via The Beginner’s Guide
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