“The Beginner’s Guide” is a video game that opens with an existential question rather than an objective: Is it possible to get to know someone by analyzing his art?
Play the game, and over the course of its two or so hours a number of even more compelling inquires arise, all of them relating to the difficulty of maintaining friendships, fostering intimacy and recognizing selfishness.
It’s an odd, thoughtful and beautifully surreal game, and its images — a door floating in space, a wormhole that opens during a self-help talk and a country café that turns into a prison — linger long after it comes to a conclusion.
“The Beginner’s Guide” starts with a voice-over, the sound of the game’s author and creator Davey Wreden talking to the player. He gives out his email address (we emailed; Wreden hasn’t yet responded), immediately making a personal overture to his audience. Relax, we’re all friends here, he seems to be saying, and it sets a patient, inquisitive tone.
Then he tells us we’re going to play some games created by his friend, Coda, so we can “get to know who this human being really is.”
Maybe. Whether they’re personal endeavors — or simply personal to Wreden the Narrator — is hard to discern. The games Wreden leads us through are abstract, experimental and often broken. The flaws, Wreden tells us, “make them painfully human.”
But we never really play them. There are no puzzles here, at least there are no puzzles that Wreden doesn’t solve for us, and there are no quests to undertake. “The Beginner’s Guide,” says the game’s official description, “tells the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand.”
This something is another human being, and the game leaves us wondering if we can ever truly know anyone. Twenty-four hours after finishing Wreden’s follow-up to “The Stanley Parable,” a game in which a ho-hum cubicle life is thrown upside down, “The Beginner’s Guide” continues to confuse, confront and fascinate.
On the surface, the narrative is about a tortured artist — a supposed recluse who designs games that are often too difficult to be played. But that’s really just an excuse to explore a relationship among a fan and a creator, one full of false assumptions and misguided expectations.
Ultimately, it’s a game about loneliness and the frailty of our connections.
Throughout, Wreden acts as sort of a curator, leading us in and out of 17 games as if he’s giving us a tour of an art museum. He talks about the programs Coda used to make the games, and looks for the symbolism that connects them. In many, the player ends up trapped. One is impossible because its maze is invisible. Wreden always guides us to safety, forever acting as some sort of historian as we wander from interactive room to interactive room.
First, we look at early Coda works. One, a sci-fi level for a first-person shooter, is unfinished. There are no aliens to attack, and once a gun runs out of bullets, that’s it, no more bullets.
The games quickly get odder. At one point we slow to a crawl as we walk a staircase that ascends into the sky, or find ourselves inside a posh home that needs to be cleaned. Toward the end we’re on a theater stage and given limited conversation prompts in a futile effort to please a panicked director.
Wreden himself becomes increasingly animated in looking for meaning in games that seemingly have no end or point. “If your role here is not to understand, then what is it?” he rhetorically asks. Here, the games-within-the-game, and the narration of them, set off numerous head trips within the player. Wreden’s thoughts misguide us, leading us to believe that there’s some puzzle to be solved, a code to be cracked that will lead to an “a-ha” moment. Like games, after all, are supposed to have.
But there isn’t. Instead, we’re left to ponder how tenuous Wreden’s relationship with Coda appears to be, and if the narrator is simply drawing conclusions about his own anxieties rather than those of Coda. Coda’s games — or at least the games we’re told are created by a likely fictional game designer — are not without moments of reflection.
One puts us in the mind of a self-help guru mid-speech. We see the speaker’s innermost thoughts: “I still love you,” reads one, “it’s just that you make me feel cold on the inside.”
Another purports to be connected to the Internet (it’s not) and to show us messages left by other players. These little bubbles of text often express confusion or anger at the game’s obtuse nature, but some are more cries for help along the lines of “I would like very much to be desired.”
Often, Coda’s game features prisons. Maybe this Coda simply likes prisons. Maybe he feels trapped. Maybe, after they’re created, they no longer belong to Coda but instead belong to the player and the creator’s goals are irrelevant.
Wreden attempts to lead us to believe that these games are personal messages, that Coda is looking to connect. “You can’t talk yourself out of loneliness,” Wreden observes, hoping his advice reaches Coda. Only we never know if Coda is meant to be lonely or not.
It’s better that way. The desire to understand causes enough mind games of its own.
‘The Beginner’s Guide’
Developer: Everything Unlimited Ltd.
Platform: PC or Mac