The Beginner's Guide starts with a simple, desert-themed Counter-Strike map. There are no guns, flashbangs, or even other players. It looks like it could be any other map were it not for the stray crate floating midair, a blank white wall that doesn't fit in, and other glitchy oddities embraced as aesthetic choices.
As I walk around the space, The Beginner's Guide developer Davey Wreden explains in his own voice that the map was made by his friend, Coda, and the rest of The Beginner's Guide takes me on a guided, chronological tour of Coda's hidden portfolio.
The appeal, as Wreden notes, is that you get to know Coda by playing his games, but really, it's Wreden that I'm getting to know—specifically, his creative process, and life after the huge success of his previous game, The Stanley Parable.
The Stanley Parable, a meta first-person adventure that explored the futility of choice in games, made millions of dollars and had critics stumbling over themselves to heap praise. In a post explaining the aftermath of the game, Wreden admits that the negative impact of overnight success is something that's hard for people to relate to, but that's what makes The Beginner's Guide so remarkable. Playing these little experiments made me walk through the labyrinthine mind of another person, and understand him in a way only a game can make me understand.
There's a game on a spaceship, where you have a gun but no one to shoot. There's a game where you endlessly clean a house. There's a game where you can only walk backwards. There's a game where you fall through a dark space filled with geometric shapes before being led into a prison. Wreden explains that the original game forced you to stay in the cell for hours before letting you move on, but Wreden saves you the wait so you can keep seeing more of Coda's work.
One unnerving vignette starts when I'm pushed on to a giant stage with blinding lights, and forced into an awkward conversation as I bounce around giant pinball bumpers. Everything I say is the wrong thing, and the questions keep coming, so I eventually retreat backstage, and as I walk for what feels like miles, heavy gates slam shut behind me.
Every game has a spark of genius to it, some clever gimmick that's explored playfully for a while, but every game also seems desperate, fighting to keep me at a certain distance. You need to play the games for them to mean anything, but Coda also wants a part of them to exist independently, to not rely on outsiders.
Coda doesn't exist, of course. Wreden is in conversation with himself and his audience, struggling to move past whatever turmoil The Stanley Parable caused in his life. Coda's name, literally meaning "a concluding part of a literary or dramatic work," is an obvious hint, as is a puzzle that repeats in many of the games, which I'd rather not spoil here.
Sometimes, it can seem a little too precious or overwrought, as often happens when you're trying to communicate an idea or emotion mostly through metaphor. A hallway filled with mannequins with blocks saying "PRESS" on them instead of heads, all holding out microphones and begging for more attention than you have to give? Alright. I get it. I'm sorry Wreden.
But I don't mind the few instances where the game is blunt because it's always sincere. For a creative work that's being distributed digitally to thousands of people today, it's incredibly intimate, which is not something you can say often about games or any kind of mass consumer entertainment today, and I love that.
The Beginner's Guide never says Wreden solved or beat his problems, as one beats a video game—real life just doesn't work that way—but it must feel good to get this off his chest. Wreden said he's not giving interviews about The Beginner's Guide, and now that I've played it, I don't think he needs to. It already says so much more than he'd be able to express with just words.
The Beginner's Guide is available on Steam for $10 starting October 1.