48 hours after putting The Beginner’s Guide to rest, thoughts of Davey Wreden and his friend Coda still pervade my memory. If you recognize that first name, you have The Stanley Parable’s writing to thank. Stanley’s laughable predicament undermined video game choices while players rebelled against the semi-omniscient narrator. The Beginner’s Guide, in highlighting an array of Coda’s own work, then turns the discussion of game developers on its head. What do we gain from nitpicking the achievements of an indie programmer? Might we get a glimpse of his or her psyche? If someone creates a game for fun or as an emotional outlet, should that effort be ogled and scrutinized by the public?
The Beginner’s Guide ponders those questions, but never directly answers them. Instead, Davey draws personal conclusions from his fascination with Coda’s iterative efforts. The Beginner’s Guide compiles all the unreleased games that Coda produced between 2008 and 2011, with Davey and his running commentary escorting the player from demo to demo. The adventure begins on a provocative note, Davey endorsing Coda’s modifications to a Counter-Strike map or sci-fi shooter bereft of enemies with joyful exuberance. The good times fade, however, and The Beginner’s Guide quickly becomes a downward spiral of a man struggling to rekindle the passion in his work.
You can still explore each level – you must do so to progress – and yet meandering about a vacant prison or theater or tower seems invasive, since Coda aimed to keep these creations private. A walk down winding staircases leads to an ordinary room, but tap the Enter key at Davey’s behest and the walls disappear. Suddenly, labyrinthine corridors fill your screen with thousands upon thousands of halls you will never tread. Why include such passages when a player never notices or interacts with them? Are they metaphors for the behind-locked-doors details that comprise our favorite games, that only exist for the developer’s eyes?
I would be remiss in ignoring Davey’s toils to make Coda’s prototypes accessible, even mind blowing. Coda’s penchant for pushing interactive boundaries would strike average players as off-putting. One demo slows your walking speed to a crawl when you approach a door atop a flight of stairs, so Davey restores your brisk pace. He frees you from a jail cell that usually opens after one real-life hour passes, too. The Beginner’s Guide challenges the definition of the word “playable” and the extent that studios go to connect the players and the experience. Would I feel more or less accomplished completing Coda’s demos without assistance?
While Davey discloses the intent behind The Beginner’s Guide (to encourage Code to design games again), I never shook the sense that Davey’s dialogue felt off. The Beginner’s Guide examines the relationship between programmer and player, but who says those roles remain independent of the other? Coda’s prototypes suggest he suffers from a festering anxiety and yearning to find validation in his work, which parallels Davey’s own battles. After re-reading his notes on Game of the Year awards, the line between Davey and Coda blurs. Perhaps it is not a coincidence Coda quit producing games the same year Davey launched the first iteration of The Stanley Parable.
Does Coda exist? Is he his own person, an amalgam of several developers, Davey himself, or a fictional substitute? The answer, which we may never know, remains irrelevant. If you actually want to fall down the rabbit hole, ask yourself whether or not the games featured here were created for the sake of The Beginner’s Guide. That immobilizing thought aside, Davey believes games are the gateway to the developer’s mind. Coda’s demos cement that theory. An early prototype allows players to proceed by walking backwards, as if always facing their past, igniting Coda’s affection for introspective experiences. It is not long before The Beginner’s Guide traps you and Coda inside his head.
An invisible maze resets you every time you touch a wall, displaying contempt for the player. At one point, Davey walks you through a level sprinkled in blue speech bubbles, the whispers of other voices conversing hysterically. The ordeal aroused memories of the months I spent fighting depression, where imaginary conversations berated me as a mistake, embarrassment, or poor friend. If Coda endured something similar, those speech bubbles ‒ all of which he wrote ‒ fueled his self-defeating attitude. “Scared of writing something. Don’t want to feel judged,” claims one. “It does not matter if you ever get over there,” reads another.
“Become one with the spiraling nonsense.”
The Beginner’s Guide is not easy to spoil. The context derives from your exploration of Coda’s work while Davey narrates, yet the moments of self-reflection I encountered forced me to take a step back and consider my efforts as a writer. In one demo, Coda tries to talk himself out of his issues while a woman sobs in the background. You choose dialogue options from a list, which convey general unease. “Pain breezes off me effortlessly,” I said. “Any sacrifices made for my work are worth it 100% of the time,” I confirmed. “I will be saved by my work.” Nobody should suffer for their art…
Davey’s commentary eventually changes, too. It shifts from that initial exuberance, taking an emotional swing that reading lines from a script hardly suits. Davey obviously rehearsed his speeches, but the constant recital tarnishes the sincerity of a heartfelt moment. Davey’s solemn acting sounds flaky at times. I stopped considering Coda’s and/or Davey’s hardships, merely concentrating on whether the narration sparked my empathy. Davey overextends himself with some game explanations as well, subverting their credibility.
The Beginner’s Guide should resonate with the makers of the world; the makers that provide content for hundreds, thousands, or millions of people to watch, to read, to scrutinize; makers whose fans ridicule or praise their ideas relentlessly; makers that interact with their users on a daily basis. The Beginner’s Guide excludes achievements because Coda’s work contains no win conditions. Davey Wreden simply shows how powerful games designed for others, not just yourself, can be. He even asks players to contact him via email with their interpretations of the demos displayed. They might represent the world to a budding programmer. To others, maybe they mean nothing at all.
If you excuse me, I have a thank-you letter to write.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which the reviewer purchased.
The Beginner’s Guide is not lightning in a bottle like The Stanley Parable, nor is it a checklist of graphics and sounds that players should run through. For people that want a taste of the hardships that indie developers endure, however, you can do no better.