Early in The Beginner’s Guide, the game’s creator, Davey Wreden, starts talking about the Source engine, the pervasive software Valve has used as the underlying framework for all its games since Half-Life 2. The company also provides its Steam users with the tools to create levels based on any Source game, and due to the ubiquity of Valve’s PC-gaming superstore, Source has become a common engine for independent games and design experiments, such as Wreden’s breakthrough, The Stanley Parable. But as he describes it in his latest game, Source is only good at one thing: making linear, blocky corridors. When developers fill their Source games with confined spaces and sharp corners, Wreden muses, they’re merely working within the confines of their tools.
His latest game continuously returns to this idea of confinement. Its various spaces often involve prisons, gates, unpassable doors, and invisible walls. To play The Beginner’s Guide is to submit to being trapped. But it also makes a second, more hopeful offering: a conversation, the chance to reach beyond the prison bars to attain a real connection with another person.
The Beginner’s Guide is self-consciously theatrical. It’s a one-man show, and Wreden is more than just the developer: He’s the presenter, narrator, and guide. As he speaks to you, the sets change frequently. Backdrops fade in and out as you walk through them, as if unseen stagehands are shuffling about, getting everything into place. Wreden’s presence is the one factor joining these small fragmented scenes together. He tells you it’s a survey of works created by a friend who made games then abruptly stopped. He wants to show them to you.
One of the distinctive attributes of live theater is how it creates an immediate dialogue between artist and audience. As the actors perform, the audience responds, which then shapes the performance as it goes on in a continual conversation. A bad audience can make for a bad performance, and vice versa. By playing off theatricality, Wreden draws attention to this notion of artistic dialogue as the most immediately salient aspect of The Beginner’s Guide. It offers the suggestion that, through playing it, you might come to know both Wreden and his friend.
Even as we move toward dialogue, however, The Beginner’s Guide never lets us forget about isolation. Its digital prisons highlight the way consciousness itself can be prison-like. Even through years of intimacy with another person, so much can be lost or miscommunicated. When it comes down to it, the only information I have about the world is that which exists in my own perceptions; the only evidence I have that other people feel or think at all is reported to me. Philosophers call this the “problem of other minds.” David Foster Wallace, in a famous commencement speech, calls it the “natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone.” We all exist in permanent solitary confinement.
Can art be a solution to the problem of other minds? Can it give us authentic communication and a real understanding of another person? The Beginner’s Guide tries desperately to figure that out. It insists on its own communicative, connecting powers even as it presents a series of scenes that reflect their creator’s deepening isolation. It appears to be a game about prisons, but as it goes on, Wreden is trying to determine if it’s also game about escape.
Some critics are skeptical about whether art can communicate unfettered messages from creator to audience. In some circles, the notion that the intentions of an author should factor in to how we interpret their art is derided. It’s the problem of other minds, just one step removed: We can’t ever really know what a creator was thinking at the time of creation, and even if we could, that doesn’t eliminate other possible interpretations. At the end of the day, all that remains is you and the art.
But The Beginner’s Guide isn’t convinced of its limits. It purports to be personal, and it seems full of the hope that it can communicate something real. Wreden is telling a story, and the game’s entire artifice is designed in a way that compels the player to listen. When the credits roll, it’s easy to feel like you’ve learned something honest, raw, and sad.
The feeling of connection might be an illusion, though, and that tension is what gives The Beginner’s Guide its strongest moments. Even as it reaches out from within its prisons, it won’t let you forget the bars. If it is a desperate desire to be known and understood, then its intentions come fraught with the same doubts as any authentic relationship. How do we even know that Wreden is telling the truth? Perhaps there is no other developer, and it’s all just an elaborate morality play—one more preachy indie game designed to get under the player’s skin.
It’s the player that’ll choose how to interpret The Beginner’s Guide and decide whether it can tell them anything true about Wreden, or about themselves. Not long before he makes his assertions about the Source engine, the creator offers something else: His email address. You could ask him what it all means and whether that friend was real, if you so desired. Someone surely will. Do his answers make a difference, though? That’s the real question.