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Wednesday 29/03/2017: Clockwork Tales: Of Glass and Ink

October 7, 2016

The Beginner's Guide

Steam is a gigantic digital boutique of video games. Titles that begin through Steam Greenlight range from fantastic to shovelware, with more survival titles than you can count, and all kinds of copiers. The service includes also dozens upon dozens of RPG Maker titles, and stuff that ranges from innovations to rehashs. But we can all agree that in this ocean of softwares, some were so ground-breaking and incredible that their developers’ names will make it into the Hall of fame of video games. Toby Fox, Scott Cawthon… and Davey Wreden.

Move around. That's all you need to do.
Flick a switch or two, maybe.
The creator of The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden, is a genius and I will hear no word to the contrary. Whereas Undertale revolutionized RPGs and Five Nights at Freddy’s reinstated a form of honor to horror games, Davey Wreden’s titles are some of the greatest examples of a genre known as “Environmental narrative”. This relatively new genre focuses on having as little gameplay as possible – frequently reducing it to a “walking simulator” (a term frequently used in a derogatory manner, but I don't) with few interactions here and there with the surrounding world – and instead attempts to tell an immersive story, seen as we walk around and often solve minimal puzzles. Don’t go in there expecting fights or complex controls. The genre is one of the most basic out there, doing away with most gameplay conventions, which also means a creator of environmental narrative games must excel in every other department (mostly story and design) to make up for the otherwise lacking number of actions the player can do.

A must-play.
One of the major problems with Davey Wreden’s games is that you can hardly discuss them without spoiling anything. I purchased both on Steam, and I have yet to play The Stanley Parable, but I’ve had some parts of it spoiled to me. And it's brilliant. A major selling point of The Stanley Parable was that its narrator would often have humorous reactions to the, ahem, stranger decisions made by the player. And that’s already saying too much. There is a problem with all these innovative games; they are so special, that almost every single aspect of them is a spoiler. Once again going back to Undertale, it’s supposed to be a surprise to the players that they can choose different paths of “morality”, but the game has been so widely discussed, memed, and referenced, that it’s not a spoiler anymore. It's a similar problem for The Beginner’s Guide: It’s extremely difficult to discuss any aspect of this game without spoiling any of it. Any player with enough deductive skills will figure out a lot of things out of even the simplest synopsis.

By the way, the game came out on October 1st, 2015 - so it's been almost one year and one week since its release. Talk about a coincidental date to review it.

Ah, the reassurring light of the lamppost. Surely we
cannot expect anything bad from it.
In this game, Davey Wreden speaks to us as a commenter. He has compiled a series of games made by a person he knew, a person named (or nicknamed) Coda, and will speak to the player as they visit each game made by Coda since 2008. Davey offers the transition between games, and makes it clear that he is publishing this collection of games as an attempt to reach out for his friend.

And that’s already saying too much.

If you haven’t played this game, you should play it before you read everything else in this article. Major spoilers ahead, guys. And this will get VERY analytical. Like, very few jokes, if any. Therefore, either you play that game, or you watch a Let’s Play, or you ignore my warning. You have a choice in the matter, of course. Doesn’t really matter though, in the end. The analysis is still here, if you’re willing to scroll down just a bit.

Seriously though, go play it.

It’s about 90 minutes long.

At least go watch a Let's Play!

Are you sure about this? There’s no going back.

Once that knowledge of the game is in your head, it will never go away. It’s unforgettable.

No! Don’t seek info of this thing on TVTropes or Wikipedia. They unmark the spoilers.

*sigh* Fine, ignore me, but you should buy this game. Give brilliant game developers like Davey Wreden a chance, y’know? If you proceed, The Beginner’s Guide won’t have as much of an impact on you; you’ll know what happens in it.

Ready to get spoiled? Here we go.

There are four things to always keep in mind when playing and discussing this game:
This is a maze, but I'm not even sure how I could
get lost in it. Can't visit most other halls!
1. The narrator presents himself as Davey Wreden. He is NOT the real Davey Wreden, and every event he recounts in this game is fictional. The only reality of this game is that it’s a work of fiction, and thus interpretations of this game’s “story” are never to be imposed on any real-life events. Davey Wreden as the narrator is a character.
2. This game invites interpretations on multiple levels: It can be seen as a commentary on storytelling, on game development and design, on the game industry and on gaming in general. You could also call it a commentary of interpersonal relationships and certain personality disorders, if you’re willing to stretch that far.
3. At the same time, it’s a game that calls out, demonizes those who tend to offer interpretations of all kinds about a game and its meaning. More than that, it’s a denunciation of people who hazard guesses on an oeuvre’s creator based on these creations.
4. This game, if you experience it blindly, will make you go through all the freaking emotions and, like The Stanley Parable, is oddly self-reflective and existential.

Stairs, AKA That Level That Turns The Player Into
A  Snail As He Climbs The Stairs.
The game starts off as “Davey Wreden”, the Narrator, thanking us for purchasing The Beginner’s Guide. Yeah, well, this better be worth my 10.99$ USD, Davey. He starts showing us the creations of Coda, whom he calls his friend, and immediately begins speculating on what they mean. First is a level for Counterstrike, then a few tests follow; among others, a game that forces you to move backwards, a longer level with a maze (which Davey unceremoniously skips you through) and a staircase that must be climbed, which ends with the player’s speed slowing to a crawl (and Davey changed it so that you can press Enter and get to the room at the top, as it would otherwise take a few minutes).

You have no idea where I passed to get here. A world
of complete whiteness, a black void with floating
platforms, and I spoke to cube-heads.
That’s the key word: “changed”. The obvious main point of the game is that Davey, having played all of Coda’s games, wanted to make sense of them, invent a narrative around them, as a way to “understand” who Coda really is. Starting with the level in Counterstrike, Davey immediately admits he is putting the player through these games for that sole purpose. To understand Coda, he is revisiting his works. Unfortunately, it becomes quickly evident that Davey is tampering with Coda’s work, first admitting to make some unplayable parts playable, second by adding lampposts and other elements to later games. And it also becomes clear that Davey has his own version of the story, the one he wants to tell about his “friend”. He presents Coda as a hopeful young developer who started off making games for fun, then started looking for a purpose or a link between all his creations, only to fall into depression (and thus concentrate on prison games) and disillusionment. And that’s the thing: Davey isn’t trying to “understand” the real Coda; he has his mind set on an interpretation and will do whatever is needed to make these games fit the erroneous vision of Coda that he has built.

Usually that's not what "being shown the door" means.
Davey’s narrative starts to fall apart near the end, when Coda starts making games that become directly spiteful. First the Theater, which implies that Coda has issues speaking to others (as whatever choice you make in the dialogue, it’s always a wrong choice) and preferring to isolate himself. This was hinted at earlier by Davey. Then the game Mobius, which Coda programmed to admit to himself that he was tired of making games, that it was draining him; it gets worse in the next one, Island, where he gets even angrier at himself, and his attempts at convincing himself that he still enjoys making games fail miserably – leading to a prison. I hope I don’t need to explain the symbolism there. Then, in Machine, we have a discussion with a “machine”, the metaphorical motor that kept Coda running on making games, followed by a section where the walking “protagonist” grabs a gun and starts tearing down scenes from previous games, erasing them.

Since Davey is such a knucklehead,
Coda's message is as blunt as possible.
And I am not sorry for Davey at all.
The last game (not counting the epilogue), Tower, was sent to Davey through an e-mail. It’s technically unbeatable, with an invisible maze that sends you back to the beginning if you hit a wall, and then a six-digit code lock with no way to know the code. Davey helps the player through these, building a bridge over the maze and telling the player the code. Then we get a door that only Davey’s hacking can open. As a result, the rest of the “level” could only be seen by a hacker like Davey, who has no qualms about modifying games that don’t belong to him. This leads to many hallways with messages on the walls; messages from Coda, for Davey, where Coda calls his “friend” out for tampering with the games, for building a false image of him, for sharing those personal games with other people without his approval. And, of course, he also calls Davey out on getting the positive comments and leeching off them as if they were addressed to him, not to Coda. In fact, all those messages left by Coda about loathing game design and feeling strained by it are not the result of a depression. Rather, they were caused by Davey’s constant inference and toxic attitude that was overtaking Coda’s creative process, stealing it in a way; Coda stopped making games not because he was depressed, but because Davey was being an intolerable prick just waiting for his next fill of gratification through Coda’s work. By the end, Davey realizes that he royally done fucked up, as we say, but he isn’t quite aware what it is that he did wrong. Worse even, Davey posting this collection of games to Steam goes strictly against Coda’s orders to stop showing the games to other people.

"Even if I had it, I wouldn't give it to you, you leech."
Those are the facts, the elements that are pretty much stated either by Davey or by in-game text (mostly in the Tower level). While there are many additional interpretations and commentaries that can be viewed in this game (list below), a popular theory is that this game’s Davey is a narcissist who used Coda’s game to fill that need for gratification. When Coda stopped, packed up and left, Davey was left with nothing to feed his narcissistic addiction. Due to his condition, Davey can’t figure out what he’s doing wrong, nor can he figure out that he’s making things worse by posting these games and seeking Coda – likely just so he can get more gratification out of his work. Instead of, you know, doing something by himself. Although, like most interpretations built by the game's players, it's just a theory.

In the end, it’s a game that exemplifies why we should never come to conclusions about a person through their work. It’s the mindset Davey has throughout most of the game, only to come to the realization in the last two or so levels that he didn’t get to know Coda better at all while revisiting these works. It’s actually a fairly dangerous and damaging assumption that an author pours their all into whatever they create and thus we’re allowed to theorize and judge on a person’s well-being and state of mind through what that person has put out.

There are many other interpretations that we can take from this game. These may or may not have been intended by Davey Wreden, so take this as my own ramblings and observations, and not as actual statements that can be found in the game or interpretations that were intended.
The Epilogue, where Davey realizes part of his mistake
(but not nearly enough of it), transitions between very
different locations. Quite psychedelic.
-The need for meaning that some players have; Davey ended up enforcing his interpretation of Coda’s games, even annoying Coda about it. The game could thus be seen as a very fierce critique of people, enjoying any work of fiction, imposing their interpretations of that work to others or, worse even, to the creators themselves. As if someone sent a diatribe in a hundred tweets to J.K. Rowling explaining why the main characters in Harry Potter all represent Jesus in a way or another… Don’t laugh, some people are that crazy. There’s a reason some authors in conventions will refuse to listen to fan theories.
-The split between narrator and author. Never assume that the narrator is automatically the author of the story; in pure storytelling theories, a narrator is a character, omniscient or not, and the audience shouldn’t reason that the narrator is an author. The same way that viewers shouldn’t assume a narrator is trustworthy, as a common twist ending is that the narrator, whom we were led to believe as a form of authority on the subject of the story, is unreliable. In The Beginner’s Guide, this is exemplified by Davey apparently starting off with good intentions, only to pollute the narration with his own theories and narratives about Coda, until we find out he’s the reason Coda packed up and quit.
"The game is nothing but giant blocks of text explaining what's
happening." No thanks, I already have that.
It's called a novel.
-Yet another idea is that Coda’s personal games do, indeed, reveal some things about him as a game designer, but nothing linked to his personality; early games were Coda playing around with level-making and gameplay mechanics. The prisons may have happened when he tried finding numerous ideas for a same basic concept – something developers have to do when, say, they need to create multiple solutions for a puzzle in their game. Chapter 4, Stairs, leads to a room with ideas Coda had for games (some which are utterly ridiculous, like “You are a gate”, or some that are kinda comical, like “Press U to surrender”). Many of those ideas are unplayable, or wouldn’t spark interest in the player. Some reviewers, like The Mysterious Mr. Enter, theorized that this room contains ideas Coda discarded; and the reason it took about five minutes to get to the top of that staircase is because Coda pondered about each idea for five minutes at least, and if he dropped an idea, he would put it there. However, the games still weren’t following any pattern, and Davey’s toxic behavior are what led to Coda’s disillusionment and the grimmer, depressing final games – and Davey interpreting it as a personal issue of Coda, not one that involved him.
-Without explaining them, I can say there are theories out there that say Coda has Asperger's syndrome, explaining some of the more bizarre decisions in game-making Davey mentions ("Like, when he had finished a game... that was it; it was dead to him", he says in the Stairs level). There is another theory that says Coda is actually a woman or a trans woman, as a few games use a female voice and others refer to the player character as female and this, despite these games supposedly meant to never be shared. There are hints for both, but as far as I know, neither has been confirmed. Then there are theories that say Coda is merely the fictional Davey's own creativity. Like I said, there are dozens of things that can be interpreted in this game, but in the end, you just need to remember that your theory and your wild guesses are just that: Theories and wild guesses, not facts set in stone.
-Lastly, it can also be seen as a commentary on game industry and development as a whole, with Davey representing the wider market, which wants “complete” games to show off and sell, and the creator’s personal experiments, which aren’t meant to be distributed. It’s implied that Davey and Coda worked together for a while, or at the very least were in contact close enough that Davey could take the games and show them to others. Let’s be honest here, many of these games aren’t all that great. Psychedelic, perhaps, and odd experiences for the player, sure, but these do look more like experiments than actual projects. Coda was even angrier that these games were suddenly given a spotlight, as he never wanted to show them.

So my prison was actually... A furniture store!
Who knew?
That last point ties into my criticism of the game; in the context of the story, the player was never even supposed to see these things, hence why they’re sometimes unplayable, or have no apparent purpose. Davey published that collection, not because it’s playable, but because of his motive. And he makes some games playable, “beatable” as a result, highlighting more of his hypocrisy in the process. These games are experiments, attempts at style. They are not good as games published for a wider public. That’s the idea.

The environments look really good, and the music, whenever there's any to be heard nder Davey's narration, The narration itself is done really well, with Davey conveying just the right amount of emotion and the right intonations to go with the text - which sometimes adds to the meaning of what he's saying. I also like that the game has additional options for those who want to play sans narration, as well as a few very minor secrets in the narration if you actively go against Davey's orders.

Gotta admit, this looks really neat.
Thus, The Beginner’s Guide is a great game worth playing for the story. Though, if you haven’t played it before reading all of this review, then perhaps you feel no need to. Well, let me assure you, dear reader, that the bland retelling of the plot that I do in these reviews is never nearly as interesting as viewing the game directly. Although, to be fair, it’s impossible to amaze someone with the controls of a walking simulator; the whole point of those is to bring an interesting story that will make the player want to carry through despite a relatively bland gameplay. And on this, Davey Wreden wins. He has only released two games, both are walking simulators, environmental narratives, and both are awesome.

I have The Stanley Parable (HD Remix?) in my Steam collection, so I will probably discuss it sometime soon. Probably in 2017 or 2018. Either way, I heartily recommend The Beginner’s Guide. And if you don’t want to spend 10 or 11 dollars on it… well, wait till it’s in a bundle. Or watch a friggin’ Let’s Play.

Or, you know, maybe Davey of The Beginner’s Guide is just some guy who plays through games, passes judgment on them and on their maker, and makes a few jokes left and right along with his analysis, with some kind of bigger story around it. Everybody knows a reviewer like that, after all.