The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Beginners Guide’ to blurring the lines between video games and interactive art

(Courtesy of Everything Unlimited, Ltd.)

The Beginner’s Guide
Developed by: Everything Unlimited, Ltd.
Published by:  Everything Unlimited, Ltd.
Available on: PC, Mac

Art has a tradition of setting traps. Unreliable narrators have had a career in modern storytelling at least since Emily Brontë wrote “Wuthering Heights.” Pushing things a step further, artists like the filmmaker Federico Fellini or the novelist Philip Roth have baited audiences into conflating the lives of their protagonists with the lives of their creators in respective works such as “8 1/2” and “Operation Shylock.” Though both techniques strive to keep an audience off balance, wondering what a story is about carries less of an intimate charge than wondering if the voice of the creator is speaking directly to you.

This nebulous relationship between a creator and his audience is the subject of “The Beginners Guide,” an extraordinary game by Davey Wreden. To my knowledge, Wreden is the first major game designer to place himself, as a character, at the center of a game that lures one into measuring the distance between it and its creator.

In late 2013, Wreden and his co-creator William Pugh became the toast of the video game industry after the commercial release of “The Stanley Parable.”  Their work, which is funny and pensive, is one of the artistic peaks of the medium. It’s the rare item, like “The Old City: Leviathan” or “This War of Mine,” that I recommend to people with little or no background in video games.

“The Stanley Parable” tells the story of an office worker who discovers that his co-workers have disappeared. Stanley, however, is never truly left on his own since he is shadowed by a voice-over narrator who tries to interpret and guide his actions. The witty, affable narrator (majestically voiced by Kevan Brighting) tries to coax Stanley into performing a series of tasks. And like a righteously disgruntled office worker, it’s up to the player to suss out all of the means of defiance.  One’s decisions lead to a small set of outcomes that shatter the illusion of free choice in spectacular ways.

In an Internet post called Game of the Year, Wreden described the avalanche of attention he received for the game , “the emails from fans and journalists asking over and over and over and over and over where the idea for the game came from,” as well as the “thousands of people asking you to carry some amount of weight for them, to hear them, to talk to them, to tell them that things are going to be okay, to not turn them away.”

Knowing this makes Wreden’s new game, “The Beginners Guide,” all the more ironic for the way in which it depicts the relationship between an overeager “Davey Wreden” and a reclusive game designer, provocatively named Coda, the purported creator of the games inside of the game. At the start, the fictional “Wreden” (voiced by the actual Wreden) informs us that he’ll be acting as our guide through Coda’s games. Beginning with an austere, desert-themed map, “Wreden” chats about the idiosyncrasies of Coda’s first effort: a mod for “Counter-Strike” – the ultra competitive first-person shooter. Coda’s user-created level contains neither firearms nor enemies.  Aside from that, its most notable features are abstract cubes suspended in the air. Concentrating on this detail, “Wreden” remarks on Coda’s habit of leaving quirks throughout his games to signal that it was made by an individual, not some mindless cog.

As the levels progress, they grow more conceptually rich. In the second chapter, the player is faced with a brick wall that says, “The past was behind her.” To reach the exit of the short level, the player must walk backwards – an action that creates a visual metaphor for the clarity with which we perceive of the past as opposed to our blind groping towards the future.

Over the stretch of “The Beginner’s Guide,” which takes about as long as a feature film to complete, it becomes evident that “Wreden” is not only presenting and interpreting the work but editing it as well. In the fourth chapter, the player comes upon a long staircase attached to a building, at the top of which a door is ajar.  Partway up the staircase, one’s momentum is slowed to a crawl. “Wreden” construes this as a symbol for the difficulty of trying to draw closer to Coda, and he offers a hotfix to return the player to a normal speed. I instinctively ignored his shortcut on my first go-around, though, preferring to experience the level as Coda intended.

The tension between Coda, who wants his work to speak for itself, and “Wreden,” who wants to share that work with the widest audience possible, echos the codependent relationship between the narrator and Stanley. But in “The Beginner’s Guide,” I believe, the player’s job is not to push against some external demand – what the narrator tells you to do – but to push against the interpretations made by “Wreden” and Coda.

We should be alert to the ways that “Wreden” colors our perceptions of Coda’s work. But we should remain equally on guard against Coda’s ideal, which finds expression through his games, that art should be received meekly and appreciated in silence. The truth is that without “Wreden’s” interference, much of Coda’s work would appear obtuse and unplayable. “Wreden” spares us, for instance, from being locked in a prison cell for an hour as per the creator’s original intent.  All of this is further muddied by the fact that Coda – and his status as a creator – may in fact be wholly fictional, an added layer to the real Wreden’s project.

If all of this sounds a bit heady, that’s because “The Beginner’s Guide” is stocked with ideas worth contemplating. It’s also one of the most emotionally alive games on the market. Its abstract game spaces would be much diminished without the flawed, vulnerable narrator desperately trying to rectify his mistakes. Wherever the real Wreden stands in relation to his creation, I don’t know, nor do I know the extent to which Coda is a wholly fictional character. But what I do know is that few game developers have ever ventured such an open-hearted project about human frailty – and knocked it out of orbit.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

More game reviews:
Destiny: The Taken King is a mechanically brilliant shooter and nothing more

NBA 2K16 review: Spike Lee’s involvement is a promising start for sports game narratives

‘SOMA:’ An existential horror game

Tearaway Unfolded review: Celebrating the childlike and avoiding the childish

“Super Mario Maker” is an engine for circulating horrible new “Mario” levels

Beyond Eyes’ review: An interesting concept with visual appeal, but little to hold a player’s attention

‘Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’ review: The best ending Hideo Kojima’s ‘biggest failure’ could have had

‘That Static Speaks My Name’ review: A 10-minute game that will stay with you for weeks

‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’ review: An arthouse movie in video game form

‘N++’: One of the most peculiar series in video games has its best entry yet

The best part of this game is when it crashed: A review of ‘Red Goddess: Inner World’