Header by Rory Midhani
I spent this past weekend playing and replaying The Beginner’s Guide, an experimental narrative-based game released by The Stanley Parable’s Davey Wreden on Thursday. It’s described (vaguely, but accurately) on Steam as “the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand.” I would describe it (also vaguely, also accurately) as sort of similar to the book House of Leaves, or the film Adaptation. If you find either of those things interesting, go and get this game immediately, because it’s brilliant. It costs under $10, and start-to-finish, it takes only an hour and a half to play all the way through. Truly.
Here’s the trailer:
In the intro chapter — narrated in voiceover by Davey Wredon himself, as is the rest of the game — we’re told that this game will take us through a series of games made by a friend of Davey’s named Coda.
“Coda starts making these games, and he never releases any of them. He doesn’t put them onto the internet, he just makes them and then immediately abandons them, and they sit on his computer forever. And I think he really understood this image of himself as a recluse. At one point he jokingly renamed his computer’s recycling bin to “Important Games folder.” So, you know, this was just how he worked. He tended to crank them out one after the other without even really pausing to try to understand what he had just made, until suddenly one day he just stopped. In 2011, he made his last game and then he hasn’t made another one since. And that’s why I’ve taken the opportunity to gather all of his work together, is because I find his games powerful and interesting, and I’d like this collection to reach him, to maybe encourage him to start creating again. And if the people like you who play this also happen to find his work interesting, then I’m sure it’ll send that much stronger of a message of encouragement to Coda.”
Rereading this introduction now fills me simultaneously with awe as a writer, and rage as a human being. And that’s about all I can say without getting into specifics.
I’m going to talk about the game in depth now, and I want you to know: what I’m going to say will definitely ruin your experience with this game if you have not played it yet and think you might like to. I highly recommend that you play it first and then come back. Major spoilers ahead.
Okay, so hopefully you’ve played through the game by now. If not, here’s how it goes down: after the introduction, there are 16 chapters and an epilogue. Davey takes us through the games in chronological order of creation, and we watch as the game developer (apparently) evolves over time. They start by making a de_dust-y Counter Strike level, then a few tiny original games that experiment with game mechanics and architecture, playing with the idea of what’s seen vs. unseen.
As we progress through the collection, Davey’s narration gleefully shares his interpretation of the deeper meaning behind every gamemaking choice. The explanations are clever, and the major symbols are succinct and clear. Puzzle doors equal momentary reflection, closure; lampposts equal goalposts, destinations; mazes equal… well, there doesn’t seem to be any point to those, actually. And when Davey finds elements that do not provide value, he skips us past them — sometimes giving us a choice, and sometimes not. But the assistance is increasingly necessary, because as the games progress, they become increasingly unplayable. They get weird and dark, frequently infused with this sense of helplessness and despair. They play with themes of imprisonment, lack of self-determination, and always being watched. Davey describes them using words like “cold,” “distant,” and “scary,” and during my first play through, I wholeheartedly agreed when Davey expressed concern over his friend’s apparent depression and reclusiveness.
Gradually, then suddenly, this illusion is burst.
On the walls of the final chapter (16: “Tower”), we find that Coda has written a series of messages for Davey. “Dear Davey,” it begins. “Thank you for your interest in my games. I need to ask you not to speak to me anymore.” As the messages progress, the truth of the situation becomes clear: Davey was not Coda’s friend. In fact, Davey had repeatedly violated Coda’s boundaries, and his actions made Coda feel unsafe and, at times, physically ill.
Honestly, it’s shocking. I actually gasped out loud when I reached the following note from Coda: “Would you stop changing my games? Stop adding lampposts to them?” Because: What. The. Fuck. What the fuck! Are you serious?!
Up until this point, we’ve seen everything through the lens of Davey’s interpretation. He introduces the first lamppost in chapter seven (“Down,” according to Davey’s title; “The Great and Lovely Descent,” according to Coda’s title), saying:
Okay, I can’t tell you quite why but for some reason Coda fixates on this lamppost. It’s going to appear at the end of every single one of his games from here on out. … Because now he wants something to hold onto. He wants a reference point. He wants the work to be leading to something. He wants a destination! Which is what this lamppost is, it’s a destination. We’re gonna see it in the work as well, his games are going to become a lot more cohesive, a lot more fully developed, with more of a clear idea behind them. And as we go, that idea will get clearer and clearer.
Based on this, it looks like Davey planted those lampposts with the express intent of inserting new meaning to the games, then deliberately hid the fact that he had done this. For me, that’s a huge breach of trust; it completely eradicates my confidence in Davey as our narrator. Because if he was the one responsible for those lampposts, what else in here did he make up? What other aspects of gameplay did he change, and how much?
When I really stop and think about it, I’m not sure whether I believe that Davey has met Coda in person. I question whether he’s even using the correct pronouns! Because ignoring Davey’s narration, the text of the game itself hints to me that it was created by a woman developer. (Or rather, the idea of a woman developer. Just to be clear, I don’t think that Coda is real; if I did, I wouldn’t write this review. One of the main points of the game is that you can’t and shouldn’t pick apart creators based on their art. I agree with that completely. However, Coda is a creation, not a creator. So game on.)
Because I am who I am, I was delighted to see evidence of a strong female presence strung throughout these games. In the first chapter (“Whisper”), the voice within the game that asks us to stop the beam is female. In the next chapter (“Backwards”), the writing on the wall uses female pronouns: the past is behind her; she must find the strength to confront the future. In chapter 15 (“Machine”), the guard greets us: “Ma’am!” And the only human figure shown throughout the entire game is in chapter 14, “Island,” where we glimpse a female figure behind bars.
For me, the most relatable parts of the broader game were actually scenarios that made me think of gendered experiences I’ve had in the professional world. I don’t think they’re necessarily specific to engineering or even STEM, but that’s how I connected with them. For example, a common theme throughout many of the later chapters is imposter syndrome. In chapter 11 (“Lecture”), we are first positioned as members of an audience, watching a lecturer explain how to achieve effortless perfection. Halfway through, the perspective shifts and we become the lecturer. We are given the choice to continue reciting from the golden script (ex: “Do what is simplest. Feel what is true.”), or voice our insecurities (ex: “What if I’m not a good teacher…”) or speak other truths (ex: concern about the swirling vortex at the back of the classroom).
In the next chapter (12: “Theater”), we’re dropped into a gathering of professionals and instructed to engage a woman as a mentor. The interaction is described as extremely important, our “one chance” to gain success. Yet no matter how much we agonize over selecting the right string of words, there’s nothing we can say within the interaction to make the desired connection. It simply isn’t going to happen. We anxiously berate ourselves for the failure, then retreat.
By and large, these are not happy games.
There is this one, however, about finding comfort in household tidying. In chapter 10 (“House”), warm, unobtrusive music tinkles softly in the background as you perform light housekeeping tasks on a loop and get to know to know your companion. It’s very pleasant! Davey describes this game as coming out of a period where Coda was “grossly happy.” Obviously this doesn’t mean that the developer had to be a woman; that’s insulting. But I do think it plays into the pattern of how these games approach gender, casually setting women and women’s perspectives as “default” within these worlds.
“I’m glad he made this. I’m glad he found some peace. But of course, it can’t last. The music stops, your companion is gone, it’s time to leave!” Davey says in voiceover at the end of this chapter. And of course, the music does stop and your companion does leave. Our ever-analytical narrator opines, “You can’t stay in the dark space for too long. You just can’t. You have to keep moving, it’s how you stay alive. Which is the whole point of the puzzle, right? That sooner or later you have to pick up and move? I really thought that was the point of it.”
In the final chapter, however, Davey tells another story:
To be fair, it’s not like this [final chapter] is the first game that’s needed some modification to be playable. Like the housekeeping game. You know, that one used to actually loop the cleaning chores and you just cleaned a house forever. I had to cut it off so that you could exit the house and the game would actually end. But that game had an idea that it was actually trying to communicate.
Which… no? Davey had an idea he was trying to communicate, and he twisted the game to make it fit those parameters. The original game sounds like something different entirely. It reminds me of the countless hours my best friend and I spent playing Harvest Moon 64, completing farmwork and trying to figure out which conversation trees would make the female NPCs reveal their secrets and fall in love with us. That was a game about domestic contentment, I think, and long-term relationship building. So was Coda’s original housekeeping game. It feels really wrong to me that Davey erased that and replaced it with what amounts to the opposite message.
According to Davey’s narration, he met Coda at a weekend gaming jam in Sacramento. In chapter 12 (“Notes”), Davey tells us, “I saw him working on this very level, and it was just so different from anything that anyone else was doing. So right away I was like, I have to be friends with this person. In retrospect, I think I was probably a bit too pushy? Trying to get his attention? Uh, I was overenthusiastic. But he was very gracious about it and very patient with me. And I cooled off eventually.”
Now, I know the feeling doesn’t really come across in written text, but there’s something about the tone of Davey’s voice and the pauses in his cadence on the audio track that really get to me. To my ears, it sounds like the creepy dude at the bar who keeps pestering a girl until he gets slapped, then sheepishly returns to his friends and selectively glosses over the details as he explains what went down. Maybe Coda’s gender is a glossed over detail. Or, again, maybe they’ve never met in person at all! We really don’t have enough information to say.
Anyway, shortly after relating the circumstances of their meeting to us, Davey returns to the game at hand, nonchalantly advising, “Oh, feel free to skip over any of these notes [left by Coda] if they’re not doing anything for you. Nothing extra is gonna happen if you read all of them.” I find this very odd! Because moments later, he’s telling us:
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that in playing this game and seeing how alone Coda often felt that we get to know him better, and actually kind of connect with him. I have to be honest with you, this idea is really seductive to me! That I could just play someone’s game and see the voices in their head and get to know them better and have to do less of the messy in-person socializing. I could just get to know you through your work. I think this is why I always liked Coda’s games so much, is because it felt like they let me have that connection. I felt as though he was inviting me personally into his world. And then I feel less lonely too.
While Davey has access to the full, original material, our access is limited and filtered through Davey. At a couple points in the game, we’re shown large areas full of unread messages. Yet when we try to jump or cross to read them, an invisible boundary stops us. One area in particular has a message perched near the edge of a ledge saying, “Take my hand, let’s jump together.” It seems to invite us to cross to the other side and read the unread messages; yet when we try to, we cannot. Did Coda do that? Or did Davey?
At another point, we are shown a door with notes in front that say things like, “Makes game. Includes door. Cannot open door. Thanks.” And indeed, the door is unopenable. Yet in later levels, Davey has no problem modifying the game to open other shut doors for us. Why not here too? What is it that drives Davey’s decisionmaking when it comes to respecting or violating the boundaries that Coda has set? Is it based on narrative cohesiveness? Programming convenience? A moral code?
I suspect the answer has much less to do with how Davey views Coda, and much more to do with how Davey views himself.
If a game is designed to give players a particular sense of ownership, some players will inevitably feel like the world of the game should heed their every desire, at least until the culture surrounding games communicates to (mostly straight white male) players that they shouldn’t expect to always get their way.
Exactly. To me, The Beginner’s Guide game is about a man (poorly) coming to terms with his hugely overinflated sense of entitlement. It is fascinating and horrifying to watch, and doubly so to play.
When I mentioned at the beginning of this article that the introduction fills me with rage, it’s because the violation that took place feels extremely personal. Narrator Davey dragged me across the line with him, and I had no real choice in the matter. I wasn’t given enough information to know what I was participating in. I’d like to think that if I had, I wouldn’t have agreed to it. Personal satisfaction of curiosity is never an acceptable excuse for breach of consent.
I think I empathize with Coda because I know what it’s like to have my personal boundaries be disrespected. I’m familiar with the idea that privacy is a privilege granted to members of the “default” group (straight, monosexual, monoracial, white, neurotypical, cis male). Anyone who falls outside of those categories is subject to invasive scrutiny. The further away from “default” you are, the less you are treated like a human being.
I think the brilliance of this game that it forces us as players to confront our own behavior. What are we willing to do to get our way? How critically do we think before accepting other people’s views as our own? What role do we play in dehumanizing others, and in what ways do we abandon or sacrifice our own humanity?
I would love to hear all of your thoughts on this.
Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.