The Beginner's Guide
I've seen a lot of sentiment around that discussing The Beginners Guide too much diminishes it. This is probably true, but I'm going to do so anyway.
Through the earlier sections of the game my response was:
(1) This is way more like the Stanley Parable than I had been led to believe.
(2) I laughed a lot despite feeling like the butt of the joke.
The part of me that's a hobbyist game critic, that is. And that's hard because the thing I'm most uncertain about here is how much of a dig this is meant to be at those of us who like to pull apart a game developer's work and find meaning there. Did the design document include terms like "navel gazing", I wonder?
I mean, I go by "Shallow Depths". My online presence (such as it is) is pretty well tied up in people's perceptions of game criticism and a tug of war between insight and fluff. Which I consider a false dichotomy and that's basically why I'm here.
But it did feel good to laugh at myself a little bit.
The need to find a grand meaning behind something is such a strange human quality. That's it's sometimes easier to believe a complex conspiracy theory than accept that a lot of the things in the world are down to stochasticity. That people want to believe the human mind is a lot more consciously in control than it really is. That results are all some deliberate action and not the things that slipped through the cracks.
I've made peace with seeing patterns that might or might not exist. I'm okay with finding my own meaning. But it's a very different thing to treat another person like a puzzle to solve. When I play something by porpentine it's as though she's letting me into parts of her consciousness and history, but it would be a bad idea to start feeling as though I know her. It's a trap of art that it's so revealing and yet still so limited. I can understand, at least from a distance, how weird it must be to have people trying to pick you and your work apart.
The people who took The Beginner's Guide extremely literally make me continue to value in-depth criticism. I want people developing many different kinds of media literacy, and this suggests some holes to work on. I don't want to be restricted to straightforward, literal storytelling.
Both The Stanley Parable and The Beginners Guide get away with some things by functioning on multiple levels. There's plenty of meat to dig into, but it's still possible to enjoy them while taking the things they say at face value. It's much harder for a lot of more blatantly symbolic or allegorical work to do well within the current landscape of players, and that's a shame.
These creations also get away with things because, within mainstream games, games themselves seem to be one of the few things it's okay to be meta about. The more insular aspects of game culture hurt us here.
Through the mid to late sections of the game my response was:
(1) Making stuff is hard.
(2) No, really. Super hard.
Now that I'm flirting with the concept of developing games myself it's easy to make me doubt myself. Honestly, it's sometimes hard to understand why anyone would put themselves through that. I know it's rough. But it doesn't always feel like a choice. Sometimes you have to make stuff anyway.
There's a battle here I feel myself between being true to an idea and compromising it for the sake of playability. So often I have loved the concept of weird little experiments, or sadistic and intentionally frustrating experiences. But then of course I'll go off and play something friendlier instead. And I think as a creator it will always be hard to reconcile those things. The sadistic experiment might very well be more satisfying to make, but not so much in the response.
There's something about the house cleaning section of The Beginner's Guide. I kind of just wanted to stay there for a while continually cleaning one section after another. My brain seems overly attuned to loops, and I feel the unstoppable progression of time simultaneously comforting and overwhelming. Cleaning can never be finished.
In the story of The Beginner's Guide Wreden breaks the loop and gives me a way out. And it felt so wrong even before he admitted that the house cleaning originally just went on forever. I wasn't laughing anymore.
Things break down here somewhere. The line between "Wreden" and "Coda", and between the experience as a fan or critic, and that of a creator. Although of course those were always intertwined.
There's a lot to say about the machine, and possible breakdowns of creative drive. And of self-esteem. I don't think I'm in the right place to go there right now.
At the end of the game my response was:
(1) A few tears.
(2) Judging myself for the tears.
I don't have much sympathy for someone wanting other people to fill their emptiness. It's a strange thing to be in a place of feeling for a character I'm inclined to look down on. And I do mean character, I have no way of knowing how much of the real Davey Wreden is here and I'm glad he's refusing to give interviews on this one. It seems like there's more of Wreden himself in the character of Coda, while the narrator takes on the role of someone trying to make him into something he's not. But I'll never know.
I place a lot of personal value on being okay with not knowing. If I went through life feeling as though I understood that would mean I'd restricted my outlook down to a tiny sliver of life. Obviously I'll never get to understand most things. That's okay. I hope this kind of experience can make other people okay with that, too.
I appreciate The Beginner's Guide and the way it's at least making people think. But I'll always have niggles and sadness at other things that won't get the same kind of attention. That you currently need to be so embedded in mainstream game culture to find this level of acceptance for a narrative-focused, personal game is not a good look. I love that there are so many personal and intimate games and experiences out there right now. I hope the recognition of that can catch up to a place where it doesn't feel revolutionary.