Developer Davey Wreden’s acknowledgment of critic Mattie Brice in the closing credits of The Beginner’s Guide is more than apt, given that his game comes across as a sob-story expansion of Brice’s “Death of the Player” essay. Unlike Brice, Wreden intends to woo us through sentimental exaggeration, not intellectual conviction. Coda, the reclusive artist in the game, might be real, fictional, or representative of Wreden, but that doesn’t change the effect: The game sensationalizes the concepts of the misunderstood creator and the misguided audience and begs pity from the latter.
Wreden’s previous work, The Stanley Parable, was just what Dr. Game Critic ordered, repeating its non-revelation about player agency as an illusion of game design through a smug performance by narrator Kevan Brighting. (It also added insult by drawing a parallel between players and an ostensibly mindless office drone.) Now, Wreden halfway conceals contempt for his audience while pathetically asking for their understanding.
With narration from Wreden (who might as well be a smarmy YouTuber), The Beginner’s Guide lures you through a series of games that were supposedly created by Coda, Wreden’s mysterious acquaintance. At first, this tour resembles a friendly critical assessment of Coda’s catalogue, rich with patronizing tidbits such as “every game runs on what’s called an engine” (an anti-history half-truth) and viewing pieces of art as “what they are rather than what they’re not.” Wreden seems nice when he tells you that every bit of seeming nonsense from himself or Coda will make sense if you pay attention.
The Beginner’s Guide switches gears to portray Wreden as immorally obsessed with interpreting Coda’s games as reflective of the latter’s depression. As Wreden becomes sorrowful about external validation, you get the sense that he projects his insecurities onto Coda. Wreden’s guilt seems to be linked to a larger observation about how audiences (mis)perceive and violate innocent artists. Whether this personal tale is faker than a seven-dollar bill is irrelevant. The mere suggestion of indie misery will captivate industry insiders and tantalize anyone else who may or may not get what Wreden is going for.
Wreden suggests that “independent” game developers, more so than any other artists, can’t stomach the possibility that any of them might be atrocious communicators. One can easily reject his distortions of creativity in favor of Cosmo D’s conflicted, articulate view of artistic expression and commercialism in Off-Peak. But we have to consider that Wreden, a smooth operator, knows he can synch with the default knee-jerk mode of online game commentary and wrench out more dreary theory about art creation.
If you read the right—or should I say wrong?—Twitter pages, you’ll find that some will outright dismiss any interpretation of The Beginner’s Guide that’s not theirs for the pettiest of reasons. Others have implied we shouldn’t talk specifics about the game because it’s too precious to spoil (that is, buying is better than thinking). It’s a shame that its fantastic visuals are wasted; it’s not the death of the player or the death of the author that should concern us, but the frequent absence of skepticism. When GameSpot sells Wreden’s bizarre diary as “a fascinating journey into what it means to make a game,” you have to wonder why anyone would celebrate such a myopic assumption.