Note – This article is heavy in spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide. If you’ve not played the game yet and there’s any chance you may want to do so in future, skip this one.
The Beginner’s Guide is the latest game from Davey Wreden, the guy who brought us the fascinating Stanley Parable. Following on from his previous’ games exploration of agency and the nature of choice in a video game narrative, Beginner’s Guide is essentially another experiment in storytelling, weaving a narrative through a collection of disjointed games supposedly created by a man named Coda.
Each of the games plays like a small prototype or proof of concept, rarely consisting of more than a few corridors or abstract areas that Davey narrates himself, tearing each minute detail of the world apart looking for deeper meaning in his mentor’s work.
Much of the game’s actual meaning is left open, with some subtle hints that there may not even be any deeper meaning to discover. It’s a minefield, and I’m yet to fully make up my mind what the greater meaning behind the game is, or if there’s even anything to be found. So instead, I’m going to focus on one chapter in particular that stood out.
The chapter begins on a rocky hill at night time. On your left, at the very top of the slope, is a door. To your right a little way in is a modern-looking glass sided house. When you enter the house, the door shuts behind you and you meet an unnamed, stationary NPC who asks for your assistance in tidying up the house.
This proves to be an endless task, no sooner has the player run around the house straightening the rug, making the bed and cleaning the dishes, some unseen force has messed them all up again and the player is forced to go back and do things again. Periodically the action is broken up by stopping to muse with the host, who makes strange, disjointed and semi-deep small talk with you.
It’s a bit like Sunset, but without the underlying story. You just clean, and clean, and clean.
But, at the start of the chapter you were outside. You had a choice. What about that door on the left?
The huge windows of the house leave the door almost always in view, inaccessible and just tantalisingly out of reach. As I busied myself running around the house, cleaning up for the box-headed NPC, I kept looking at the door and wondering where it led. Would things have been different if I’d gone to the door first? Would I be able to learn about it without starting the chapter over?
In the back of my mind I was always aware that the door would either lead nowhere, or be something mundane, but there’s something about been shown what you could have had that sends daggers into the heart of human nature. I liked the house, it felt warm and cosy, but what if I’d missed out on something else?
The cleaning task abruptly stops during one section of dialogue, the glass walls are removed and the game leaves you free to exit the house and proceed to the door, which is now open. It’s an odd point of the chapter, strangely contrary to the theme of comfort and longing that pervaded the experience up until this point. The short-lived satisfaction of heading to the door was balanced
In a later narration, near the end of the game, you learn that Davey meddled with the games he received from Coda, adding endings, solutions and symbolism where none originally existed. The story goes that Coda and Davey argued over whether the games should be playable, or if they should just exist as they are. Specifically mentioned is the cleaning level, suggesting that you were originally intended to stay in the house forever, wondering about what could have been.
This kind of fascinated longing isn’t new in video games, though the biggest examples that spring to mind were unintentional. A similar feeling surrounds Pokèmon’s mysterious S.S. Anne truck, placed just out of view so that it can only be seen by glitching or otherwise sequence-breaking the game. There’s also the unobtainable underwater book in Super Mario Sunshine, hidden behind a secluded door, the hidden island in the Dam level of Goldeneye 007, the myriad of unused but mostly complete areas that existed within vanilla World of Warcraft.
There’s something beautiful about things simply being there in games, whether they be leftovers or Easter Eggs, that we never get to see. Something just beyond our reach that we can only speculate about. Perhaps the reason I find this so interesting is because it’s a device – storytelling or otherwise – that is completely unique to video games. Someone made the S.S. Anne truck, someone modelled the island in Goldeneye. Their mere existence hints at a real life story that we can only speculate upon, and that’s what The Beginner’s Guide is all about.
The meaning of the game as a whole has been deliberately left up to the player to interpret, so it’s possible that I’m reading tea leaves here – seeing experiments and meaning in something that was never intended to be more than a goofy vignette – but there’s a seductive feeling that this was the chapter where I saw eye-to-eye with Davey and saw what he (or possibly Coda) was trying to achieve. That this chapter was where I saw the point in his pointless, unwinnable game.
I think Coda was right. The game was better when you never reached the door.