The Beginner’s Guide is a lie. The game frames itself on the premise that it’s a nonfiction work with curator and narrator Davey Wreden (of The Stanley Parable fame) talking us through another developer’s short video game library. Players simply walk through different short micro-games from this mysterious and reclusive developer named Coda. The games are barely-interactive set pieces built around a basic emotional premise that Coda seemed to be exploring at the time. As you progress through each short game, Davey Wreden interrupts the games to tell you what he thought Coda was thinking when he made that game. The truth is (spoiler) it’s Wreden’s own creation built by himself and a team. Davey tells us the games in the game were made by Coda. Yet the credits read, “Davey Wreden, Lydia Nelson, Matthew Breit, Richard Flanagan, Jesús Higueras, Matthew Breit, Jack Parsons, and Andreas Jörgensen.” Catch the name Coda in there? Me neither.
To be fair, we should have had nothing but distrust for Wreden’s work after The Stanley Parable. That game’s narrator showed us time and time again that he could not be trusted.
The Beginner’s Guide made me feel betrayed because I thought it was a true story. I struggle with a work that tells you it’s about real people with real struggles only to discover that it’s not. Videogames are just starting to embrace nonfiction, but The Beginner’s Guide feels like a hinderance to the raw potential of a game about honest struggles. I’ve enjoyed games about walking in real folks struggles and pains. I loved the opportunity afforded by games like Matty Brice’s Mainichi and Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia. I am trepidatiously looking forward That Dragon Cancer, a game that puts players in the shoes of parents dealing with their son’s terminal cancer. And I want more games that step into the raw honesty of life.
There’s more than a shred of sincerity underlying The Beginner’s Guide. The game explores themes like iteration, creative-block, and meaningful player interaction. I can’t help but imagine if Wreden’s team’s shared a version of this game that wasn’t built around a fictitious construct. Like, ”Look what we made, and how terrible it is,” It would have left me with empathetic appreciation and respect. But even though that transparency is lacking, the game still does get at the complex brain-space wrapped around creative work. In the later chapters, the game invites us into what appears to be a despair of creative block and inability to escape ideas.
I refrained from spoiling the actual content even though I spoiled the reality of the framing narrative because I think players can get something from playing Wreden’s latest. The Beginner’s Guide delivers fodder for the discussion of honesty in games. I hope Davey Wreden and his team continue making games, it’s just hard to trust the boy who cried wolf.