Explore the process of video game development, as narrated by the co-creator of The Stanley Parable.
PC Release: October 1, 2015
By Ian Coppock
I’ve played a lot of video games in my time, but I’ve never played a video game about video games. Davey Wreden, the guy who envisioned The Stanley Parable, decided to create a game about the video game design process. It’s an intriguing look at video game crafting, accompanied by a personal narrative. Whereas The Stanley Parable was built on absurdity, The Beginner’s Guide takes a more critical look at how such wacky ideas are born… and implemented.
The Beginner’s Guide is a 90-minute series of demos and half-finished games explored from a first-person perspective. Wreden, who also narrates the game, starts things off by explaining that everything we’re about to see is the work of “Coda”, a game developer that he greatly admires. Wreden also says that Coda’s works were a major influence on his own game design, and hopes that, by sharing them with other people, Coda will be inspired to create more of them. He apparently hasn’t made anything since 2011.
Wreden dumps us into the first mod, an old Counter-Strike map adorned with floating boxes, and things only get more surreal from there. Whoever this Coda person is, he has an active imagination and some truly novel concepts for game design. We see 15-minute demos of such concepts as: a game where you can only walk backwards, a game solely about cleaning your house and many others. The Beginner’s Guide allows you to experience each demo before whisking you away to the next one. Wreden accompanies each area with a discussion of how it affected him and his own work.
All of The Beginner’s Guide‘s concepts are arranged chronologically, and interconnected with either a repeating door puzzle or a lamp post that spirits you to the next demo. The narrative setup is the same for each level: Wreden greets you upon your arrival, explains what you’re seeing and perhaps a few hints on how to navigate it, and closes with how the concept you’ve just explored works for a video game. It makes for some fascinating listening to hear a game designer tear down and build back up each facet of a game concept, as well as airing some ideas on how these concepts can be applied or tweaked to suit a finished product.
It also helps that what we’re seeing is not conventional fare, by any means. Coda’s levels explore such themes as choice, human interaction and the real world’s impact on video games. He takes a particular fancy to the idea that choice is meaningless, mostly in conversations with the occasional robot, but also when you play game demos that allow you to build up the world yourself. Though each level explores a unique idea, they’re each a wide, beautiful world with ambient music. Wreden chimes in with some additional insight on Coda’s penchant for calming music and environments, and also takes some time to discuss the rudimentary elements of game design, such as which engine to use.
As we go on this mini-journey through game development, Wreden starts talking about how Coda’s mood changed. Over time, his friend began withdrawing from the people in his life, and the video games that he created became darker and more disturbing. This is where Coda’s designs focus instead on raw emotion instead of novel concepts; we start to see demos that revolve around impending disasters and locking oneself away from the world at large. One very somber concept demo has you walking away from a stage as iron bars close over the hallway behind you, while another is a 30-second glimpse into a giant black hole.
Understandably, Wreden becomes worried for Coda’s mental health, and elaborates on these concerns during these later, darker demos.
It is because of Coda’s apparent depression, according to Wreden, that he’s taken the liberty of sharing his work with other people. Wreden has arrived to the conclusion that Coda’s hiatus stems as much from insecurity as any depression, and has packaged almost all of his work into The Beginner’s Guide in the hopes of inspiring his friend to start making games again. That, apparently, is the purpose of exploring these demos and looking at some new perspectives on video games.
While certainly a noble mission in and of itself, I’m not convinced that “Coda” is an actual person. The Beginner’s Guide has spawned a riot of interpretations since it hit Steam about 3 weeks ago, but because its later demos hint at the burdens of success and expectations, I believe that Coda is actually a metaphor for Wreden’s own sense of creativity.
My theory is based on a couple of things. The first is that Wreden admits that Coda made games for himself and maybe a few other people, and not for mass commercialization. On top of that, we later learn in the game that Coda doesn’t want a ton of people looking at his work. Wreden would be opening himself up for a massive lawsuit if he was selling someone else’s work.
Additionally, Wreden’s own struggles with social validation and the success of The Stanley Parable are mirrored almost perfectly in the demos that come up during this discussion. When Wreden talks about everyone having high expectations, we play a demo about chatting to a massive crowd of reporter robots. Social validation is talked about at the same time we’re navigating a massive cave. It became obvious to me that we weren’t talking about another person at all. The Beginner’s Guide is Wreden’s own journal, and I think the point is to think about how success and being told you’re good all the time can have a dampening effect on your creativity.
Having suffered from depression myself, I can sympathize with Wreden’s points about a loss of creativity. There have been times when I abandon this blog, sometimes for over a month, simply because I don’t feel it. But though I identify with Wreden’s point about that type of frustration, the fact that he chose to use an ethereal person as a springboard for these emotions came off as pretentious.
I don’t see why he didn’t just talk about himself instead of projecting his fears and his insecurities onto another person. It robbed The Beginner’s Guide of some potential intimacy, and it also made Wreden come off as either too self-important or too scared to discuss these themes directly. I get that opening up about yourself can be intimidating, even terrifying, but the game’s already obviously about your emotional journey, dude. It’s only made more obvious when you punctuate your narrative about Coda with your own stories about how being told you’re good all the time gets exhausting.
The final piece of the puzzle? Wreden mentions that Coda’s creative hiatus began in 2011… the same year that the first iteration of The Stanley Parable was released.
Still, despite its lofty and ham-handed approach to getting personal, The Beginner’s Guide is worth your time and money for two primary reasons. One: the game is an excellent and fascinating look at the video game design process, and the fact that it’s interactive makes it better than any documentary. Two: despite Wreden’s clumsiness when it comes to talking about emotions, The Beginner’s Guide is a good example of how emotion influences your creative work. It could’ve been a lot better, in this regard, but it’s still serviceable. Some of the levels you’ll explore embody certain themes, like anxiety and depression, quite well. The narrative about Coda was definitely a questionable design choice, but the levels you’ll explore are linked together fluidly and are fun to look around.
Go to Steam and get The Beginner’s Guide. Its storytelling might be a bit pretentious, but its raw look at video game design and how emotion can influence it makes for a worthwhile gaming experience.
You can buy The Beginner’s Guide here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.