The Beginner’s Guide is an odd thing to encounter as a commercially released game, not least because it argues that we can’t measure all games against the standard of commercial releases—robust, accessible, conquerable, and in fervent service of its assumed audience. What about games that are making no attempt to serve AAA opulence across a hundred-hour campaign? What about games that aren’t supposed to be fun—or even engaging, or even possible to play?
And what about games that were never meant to be released publicly? (Call this the J.D. Salinger conundrum). Are we obliged to respect the wishes of creators who don’t want the world to see their creations? If Max Brod had felt that obligation, then we wouldn’t have any of the works of Franz Kafka, who asked Brod to burn his work after his death. And that’s the other thing: If you do choose the Brod route and disregard the author’s wishes, is there a responsible way (or a less irresponsible way) to go about doing so?
It’s tough to talk about The Beginner’s Guide, partly but not only for those same reasons that it was difficult to talk about Davey Wreden’s previous work, The Stanley Parable—which, for that matter, are the same reasons that it’s hard to talk about the latest from Wreden’s Stanley Parable partner William Pugh. Those games are hard to talk about because their full impact relies on you foregoing foreknowledge, thereby maximizing the opportunity for surprise. Trust me, jerks like me say, thereby making you that much less likely to trust me. It’s better if you go in cold.
The Beginner’s Guide has the extra baggage of being about how we talk about games—and what games mean, and how much latitude we have in deciding what games mean. More broadly, it’s about our rights and responsibilities as players of games, or as audiences of pretty much anything. Which probably sounds sanctimonious as all hell. Rights and responsibilities?
Well, did Max Brod overstep his rights, or fail to live up to his responsibilities? Probably.
But as someone who reads Kafka, I’m glad that he did.
But then, not every reclusive author is Kafka or Salinger. Not remotely.
You could also argue that Max Brod did right by Kafka as his reader, specifically by failing him as his friend. That he prioritized the author over the man. That he chose us, the audience, over the brilliant sadsack he knew. The works he rescued are ill-gotten gains.
The Beginner’s Guide is about an encounter with a modern-day Max Brod, sort of, maybe.
But enough about Brod and Kafka.
Most of us will never have to decide whether to release an author’s work without their consent. But all of us have to make smaller-scale, near-constant decisions about our rights and responsibilities as an audience.
For example, how are we supposed to decide what a given piece of work means? There’s the school(s) of thought that nothing means anything until we say it does—that in discussing something, we complete it. Then there’s the other extreme, namely the notion that games and books and films are self-propelled meaning machines—that a hypothetical, perfectly made piece of media would make the audience understand and experience exactly what the author intended. Here, any room for reinterpretation is a fundamental defect of craft.
All the most interesting discussions originate from somewhere between these two reductive poles. We can and should interpret, but we should play fair. Valid interpretations should rely on elements actually in the text. The author’s biography is in evidence, but claiming special knowledge of the author’s intent is not. Some things are canon. Others aren’t. All that. This is messier, but also more honest. It leaves the author and the audience their agency, and it works well as long as we play by the above rules.
The Beginner’s Guide is about what happens when we don’t play by those rules.
The game also challenges our ability to read games at all, since a lot of its messages are indecipherable without some literacy in the practice of level design. (Robert Yang did yeoman’s work by outlining his insider’s reading for us outsiders, while also considering the possibility that The Beginner’s Guide is about him, even though it probably isn’t, unless of course it is).
The Beginner’s Guide reminded me immediately of Yang’s not-a-manifesto, wherein he said that “The concept, and your explanation of that concept, and your audience’s understanding of that concept, is your game.” Games are always conversations between designer and player, metaphorically speaking, but The Beginner’s Guide is also literally a conversation between a game designer (who introduces himself by name, fuck the fourth wall) and you, the player, addressed as a literal player literally playing literal games. The gameplay speaks for itself, but there’s also a game designer (unreliably) narrating as you play, piling his interpretations on yours.
Wreden borrows a lot of the visual spacial language of art galleries, and specifically of installation art—that odd combination of encountering beautiful, confounding objects, feeling wonder, and then running the risk of having that wonder punctured and deflated by some too-tidy, pre-packaged explanation on a nearby placard. Too much mystery with no resolution can be infuriating, but so can neat, hasty, wonder-quashing answers.
The Beginner’s Guide is about the push and pull of letting things be what they are, and trying to force them to be something else, and finding the interpretive space in between.
It doesn’t offer any answers, hasty or otherwise. It revels in the uneasy codependence of authors and audiences, and the ever-blurrier line between those two categories. It refuses to be conquerable or solvable or accessible. It’s gutsy, inscrutable, and singularly memorable.