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New narrative tricks at play in ‘The Beginner’s Guide’

Davey Wreden

“Video games are not worth this much suffering,” Davey Wreden, the creator and narrator of “The Beginner’s Guide” informs us toward the end of his wonderful new game. It’s a weird, stark sentence, but by that point in the journey it will make a lot of sense.

I’ve never played anything like it, and that shouldn’t surprise me. Wreden co-created “The Stanley Parable,” the 2013 game that I described as a “postmodern literary funhouse” when I wrote about it. “The Stanley Parable” pulled off narrative tricks I had never seen in a game before, and “The Beginner’s Guide” pulls off narrative tricks I had never seen in a game before.

The premise: Wreden met a friend, Coda, through the game-
development community. Coda had been a prolific designer of many small games a few years back, almost all of them quite odd. Wreden has decided he wants to take you, the player, through a bunch of these games in chronological order, from 2008 to 2011, describing how Coda’s style shifted and evolved along the way.

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Many of the games, which are all first-person and which you play while Wreden provides commentary and explanation, are quite memorable, featuring lots of prisonlike elements. There are recurring themes and images — a simple, elegant puzzle involving a set of doors, for example, and a lamppost that shows up multiple times at the end of games. As the game progresses, it becomes clearer that Wreden saw these experimental games, which Coda didn’t really share with anyone but Wreden, as offering a window into Wreden’s seemingly troubled soul.

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But things get more complicated, as you might expect in a situation where you’re playing games being narrated by a friend of an absent developer. At one point, Wreden, interpreting a strange game in which the player is on the bridge of a starship as a giant door hurtles toward it, explains that he realized this was the point at which Coda had stopped finding game development to be an important outlet for his feelings. Plus, “In person, he was being a lot more distant than usual,” Wreden explains.

Without giving too much away, the story is ultimately just as much about Wreden as about Coda. “The Beginner’s Guide” has something of the feel of a psychological thriller, and once the full gravity of what’s going on takes hold, it’s clear the game is asking pointed questions about the creative process, about what it means to have an audience, about what we owe one another. There are multiple layers here, and they’re all satisfying. I was roped in long before the full story unfurled, simply enjoying the surface-level issues Wreden was raising about game design.

What it comes down to — and here I’ll be spoiling things just a little, so if you had plans to play the game or watch a YouTube video of someone else doing so (which you absolutely should), you should skip the rest of the column — is that Wreden ends up imposing his own views of what games should be on Coda. It isn’t important to Coda that his games have capital-M meanings, or that they’re winnable, or that anyone even plays them. Wreden, on the other hand, is tortured by these issues, and becomes an increasingly obtrusive presence in Coda’s creative life, a puppy nipping at his heels and demanding answers.

The game’s sad, emotionally wrenching climax makes it clear just how pernicious an effect Wreden’s fandom has had on Coda, just how much it drained him of the creative energy that went into his quirky, creative games. “You’ve so infected my personal space that it’s possible I did begin to plant ‘solutions’ in my work somewhere, hidden between games,” goes a note Coda has plastered to a wall during the game’s climactic sequence (now he is creating games for an audience, albeit an audience of one) — all artistic pretensions having slipped away, revealing the dysfunctional relationship underneath.

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If this all sounds heavy, it’s because it is. “The Beginner’s Guide” has been rolling around in my head ever since I played through it in one sitting. Wreden is pushing the boundaries of storytelling in video games, and he’s creating some phenomenal art in the process.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.