In his 1960 New York Times review of Psycho, Bosley Crowther leans into talking about Alfred Hitchcock rather than the film. He writes in the comparative, calling Hitchcock an “old hand” who has made an “obviously low-budget job,” but it’s crucial for me to point out that those things aren’t necessarily negative for Crowther (although the review isn’t a positive one). Instead, his entire review is about attempting to navigate the relationship between Psycho the film with Hitchcock the man. Ultimately, Crowther finds the film lacking in something and suggests that the problem might be that Hitchcock’s “explanations are a bit of leg-pulling by a man who has been known to resort to such tactics in his former films.” Time has been kind to Psycho, but for Crowther, it couldn’t escape the known-quantity orbit of its creator.
When Davey Wreden opens The Beginner’s Guide with his voice, name and email address, you get the feeling that there’s something Hitchcockian going on here. Hitchcock made himself a part of his cinematic worlds both as a framer and as a cameo actor, and through that he was able to infuse those films with a weird energy. We came to know him as a media icon, there were “Hitchcock films,” and that kind of branding paid off for him in a positive way in the same way that it has managed to sink the career of brand-attempter M. Night Shyamalan.
This is all a sort of metaconversation. After all, I’m not talking about how the game plays, about mechanics, about narrative, or any of the traditional markers that I should have gotten into by the third paragraph of a review. But I cannot stress enough that The Beginner’s Guide is a rumination on the act of creation, and the choices made in the act of creating a piece about creation cannot be understated in how deliberate they are. When Davey Wreden turns himself into a Hitchcock figure who also narrates the game, he invites us to ask very specific questions about the explicit and implicit interventions that The Beginner’s Guide is making in the conversations around contemporary games.
From the baseline level of experience, The Beginner’s Guide is simple. Game creator Davey Wreden is walking us through the games of his friend Coda, and he wants to use this comprehensive analysis of these games in order to generate a response from Coda. So Wreden has created this compilation of games to show us so that we might help summon Coda from the void.
Wrenden guides us chronologically through the games that Coda developed between 2008 and 2011, and saying much more than that is impossible in a review because of how the plot progresses. This game is a finely-tuned short story, and pulling any plot pins out to show them off would fundamentally rob you of the well-constructed experience of the trickling-out information the game provides. Wreden narrates our experience through several experimental “first-person simulators” that remind me heavily of the work of developers like Robert Yang, Kitty Horrorshow, Brendon Chung, and of course Wreden himself. The goal that the narration sets out to achieve is to create a comprehensive reading of the entirety of Coda’s games, much like people can and have done to the work of those creators, and the suspense of the game is generated through the imbalance between the games themselves and Wreden’s enthusiastic readings of those games.
It goes somewhere, of course, and while I’m loathe to pull a Crowther and describe this game solely in relation to Wreden’s previous game The Stanley Parable, it does share the feeling of barreling toward a conclusion. Where Parable was metacritical about the experience of playing games, The Beginner’s Guide is making the same move in the realm of game development.
The Stanley Parable sparked a thousand ruminations on how and why game choice exists, and I think it will be very easy for those same critics and reviewers to take Wreden’s statements in this game as being ultimately about himself. Although Coda and Wreden are two people in the game, the “reader” and the “creator” respectively, it is very easy to imagine a reading of this game that collapses those two figures into a Janus-faced representation of Wreden himself. We can see him as the depressed, misunderstood-by-himself creator and the overeager, needy, cloying person who always needs approval. Both of these claims are made in the game, and both are supported depending on who you want to believe in the back-and-forth argument between the games we are playing and the narration we are hearing over those games.
I think that the more useful, or the more interesting, read is that The Beginner’s Guide is about the act of reading. The game is all about who gets to interpret, under what conditions, and for what audience, and when experienced under that framework it becomes almost rote by the end of the hour and a half runtime. Once again, it becomes hard to separate this game from Parable, that terminally over-read game, and the narrator’s apparent need to make Coda’s games more “accessible” for us, or more easily read on the symbolic level, feels uncannily like some of the most forced game criticism of the last few years.
The Beginner’s Guide is a game that does game criticism work, and it actively questions the role of the critical player as someone who can lay out the meaning of a work for the larger field of players. The top Reddit comment that tells you the “real” story of a game? Implicated. Ideology-uncovering critical pieces? Implicated. Explainer videos that elide details to make a larger point about an entire franchise? The worse kinds of readers. And Wreden-the-narrator/-the-creator is suggesting that we might need to let works speak for themselves. Sometimes objects are not conduits into a rich inner life of a creator. Sometimes a game is not a barometer, or at least not as much of an on-the-surface one as many readings and readers would suggest.
The Beginner’s Guide is a complex smokescreen of behaviors, opinions, and demonstrations. It’s simultaneously shallow, wearing its argument on its sleeve, while also providing a really salient starting point for important discussions about where the important message of a work lives. I’m wary of Wreden’s becoming-Hitchcock moment with this game, folding himself, his voice, his writing, and a specter of what the public imagines him as into a representation that sets the parameters of engagement with his work. At the same time, it works and makes for an engaging experience. And maybe that’s the point.
I 100% enjoyed all of my time with The Beginner’s Guide, despite a few instances of clumsy writing, up to the point where the last chapter slipped over into the epilogue. I feel like the tail end of the game is almost kitschy in how it plays out, and I believe that the game would have been so much stronger and braver for ending with the last voiceover of the final chapter. By continuing to go on and on with the narration, I felt like I was being robbed of significance by someone attempting to visually and emotionally sew up something that could not be repaired.
This is all to say that you should play the game.
The Beginner’s Guide was developed by Davey Wreden and published by Everything Unlimited Ltd. It is available for PC and Mac.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.