The Beginner’s Guide (from Davey Wreden, co-creator of The Stanley Parable) stands apart as the game which most clearly holds a thesis, an argument that it’s trying to make to the player, while simultaneously being the game whose message is most difficult to discern. The most prominent interpretation I’ve happened across so far is that this is a game about game development in particular and the creative process in general. I intend to offer here an alternative interpretation, though due to the density of the text it is far from certain and may prove entirely incorrect.
The Stanley Parable was a critique of the gamer. The game began with the Narrator explaining “[Stanley]’s job was simple; he sat at his desk in room 427 and pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order.” This is a fairly accurate (if cynical) description of the player playing a computer game. It is a particularly fitting description of a gamer playing The Stanley Parable: it is a computer game, which necessitates that the player is sitting in front of his computer monitor. The Narrator’s descriptions of Stanley’s actions prior to the player’s input are de facto orders coming through the monitor. And even if the player defies the narration, every possible player action is accounted for in the game, demonstrating the futility of engaging with a game beyond the developer’s design.
But if The Stanley Parable was a critique of the gamer, then The Beginner’s Guide inverses such by being a game which casts the player as a games critic. In the opening Counter-Strike-esq level of the game the narrator, here (a presumably fictionalized version of) Wreden himself ascribes the various levels to a (presumably fictitious) friend named “Coda.” Wreden then casts doubt on his own ability to fully comprehend the meaning to each level, inviting the player to form his own interpretation and email him regarding such (which I myself intend to do with this analysis). Beyond any walking or jumping or shooting or selecting dialogue, this serves as the primary method of “interacting” with The Beginner’s Guide: critically analyzing and interpreting the ludic and narrative elements of a game and submitting such for public consideration and conversation.
This is the work of games criticism. Dissatisfied with how traditional game design promoted the players engaging as “Stanleys,” Wreden effectively created a game in which such passive engagement is all but impossible, in which the main mode of “play” necessarily goes beyond the scope of the developer’s design.
Of course, by ascribing such dissatisfaction to Wreden when he never claims such for himself is me as the critic examining the authorial intent behind The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide. Yet at the textual level, The Beginner’s Guide specifically rejects the ability of the player to discern authorial intent, as per the “death of the author” movement in literary criticism. According to the game’s fiction, Wreden’s assumption that recurring motifs in Coda’s games (such as prison bars, a particular door puzzle, and a lamppost) had autobiographical significance and psychoanalytical utility was specifically refuted by Coda himself. By the end, Wreden rejects his former assumptions that the prison bars represented Coda’s social anxieties and instead wonders if Coda was “just a guy who really liked making prison games.”
Yet while this is the textual reading of The Beginner’s Guide, the subtext tells a quite different story. Although the fictionalized version of Wreden serves as the narrator, he is not meant to be a sympathetic character. By the game’s climax the player learns that Wreden and Coda’s friendship had dissolved when Wreden had previously released Coda’s games to a select few people without the creator’s consent, a trespass he was now committing again on a larger scale through the publication of The Beginner’s Guide, albeit with full knowledge of the violation this represents. The fictionalized Wreden becomes a broadly painted caricature at this point in the game, utterly obtuse to his obvious transgression, his voice trembling with desperation and insecurities. Though the player up until this point may have mistaken the game’s fiction as a straightforward account of Wreden’s real life interactions with a friend named Coda, the notion of him sitting in a recording studio, hearing himself say those lines aloud, settling on such a sniveling take, inserting such into the final game, and still releasing it to the public, becomes nothing short of utterly absurd.
Furthermore, although the game’s text rejects criticism focused on authorial intent, Wreden chose the worst possible literary genre through which to support that thesis. Were The Beginner’s Guide a book instead of a game, it would be in part an anthology of Coda’s work, but also in part a biography of Coda himself. Yet because Wreden is both the author of this biography and (given the central role his friendship with Coda plays in the narrative) one of the main characters, it is just as much an autobiography about Wreden himself. More than any other genre, the autobiography is uniquely immune to the literary world’s pronouncement of the “death of the author.”
Even assuming the fictitious nature of The Beginner’s Guide, the very fact that Wreden settled on a genre so antithetical by its very nature to claims being presented at the textual level should be regarded as intentional on his part, an implicit rejection of the text’s claims. After all, it could hardly be considered an accident that the game is explicitly an autobiography when such a genre is so rare and alien in the history of the video game medium. Wreden is in no way unthinkingly channeling some longstanding tradition of the developer being a central character in the game; no such tradition exists.
This is significant in that a game in which the developer is also the central character by its very design encourages the player to take on the role of a game critic and to engage in the very specific criticism of authorial intent. When considered together with the “mechanics” explicated in the first level (form interpretations and share them), both the ludic and narrative elements of The Beginner’s Guide point to the game’s central thesis being thus: players can and should be more critically engaged with the games they are playing and the auteurs who develop them.