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The Beginner's Guide review: A weird, fiercely personal game

Hayden Dingman | Oct. 5, 2015
Surreal to a fault.

The thing about The Beginner’s Guide—what makes it interesting—is how many different readings it supports. Where Stanley Parable was a deconstruction of video games, The Beginner’s Guide is one step further removed—a deconstruction of the discussion around video games.

There’s a theory in literary criticism known as “Death of the Author.” To put it plainly, it says we should judge each work on its own, regardless of the life experiences, politics, religion, et cetera of the author. We shouldn’t seek to know what the author meant, but instead to interpret a work of fiction in light of our own lives.

The Beginner’s Guide

It’s a question that’s doubly important in games, because authorial intent is often limited at best. There is no way to ensure players experience the game “the correct way,” and thus it’s often impossible to ensure a game conveys what its author/designer intends.

The Stanley Parable played with these ideas, but Death of the Author is central to The Beginner’s Guide. As Wreden talks us through Coda’s works, offering up interpretations and opinions, it raises questions: What role does the creator play in games? Does a creator owe anything to the audience, or vice versa? Is a game something personal or something public? Does designing a game for other people to play necessarily change the way the game is constructed and thus change the message?

And when Wreden allows us to bypass Coda’s vision—to, for instance, skip past a labyrinth because the act of solving that labyrinth is in his mind meaningless—has he interpreted Coda’s works correctly or has he in that very act ruined some valuable part of the message?

When Coda spends six months making prison levels, does it reflect something about the creator or...does Coda just find prisons fascinating?

The Beginner’s Guide

I began to wonder about this last question (or at least the ideas behind that last question) from the very first level, as Wreden talked me through Coda’s first “game”—actually a modified Counter-Strike map. Here, Wreden expounded on Coda’s genius. The way he subverted expectations by placing random floating boxes, or dousing objects in abstract splashes of color. This, he says, is a window into Coda’s process.

And maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just a result of Coda playing around in a level editor, doing what everyone does—adding random boxes and testing out the texturing tools. Both are pretty common, mindless pursuits.

Is Coda a genius? Is Wreden correct? Incorrect? Does it matter? We’re determined to ascribe meaning, to find meaning even where there is none. Whether or not that’s a valid approach—that question lies at the heart of The Beginner’s Guide.


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