This article contains spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide.
In 2013, game developer Davey Wreden led a small team to create The Stanley Parable, a comedic walking simulator with cleverly-written narration and a plethora of endings. While it was never popular on the scale of a major AAA title, it caught the attention of game critics as well as a number of YouTubers who showcased the game on their channels. This little indie hit made Wreden a minor star in the gaming world. It came as a surprise, then, when Wreden released his next title, The Beginner’s Guide, with essentially no fanfare two years later; almost no promotion led up to its release, and a single trailer (featured above) came out on the same day as the game was made available to the public. Why would a rising star release a brand new game so suddenly? The answer lies in the game’s own narrative, a fascinating story that begs to be examined on both secular and spiritual levels…while it simultaneously challenges any interpretation you might reach.
The Beginner’s Guide is a collection of very simple, brief games (each one lasting only a few minutes) narrated by Wreden himself. Before the first of these games, Wreden explains that they are actually made by a friend of his named Coda, and that he is inspired by the creative process showcased in Coda’s body of work. All these games were made between 2008 and 2011, and Coda hasn’t made anything new since then. Furthermore, Coda has never made these games available for public consumption, choosing instead to only share them with friends and colleagues as he’s seen fit. Wreden hopes that by releasing this collection into the world, the positive feedback it receives will encourage Coda to start making games again.
As you walk through the games—and walking is the most accurate word, as all of these games can aptly be described as walking simulators with occasional light puzzle mechanics thrown in—Wreden provides his interpretation of them, along with snippets of information about his interactions with Coda during these years. Early on, the games exude a feeling of creative exploration as Coda experiments with tiny little concepts. Davey delights in these, but he soon finds himself uneasy as, over time, Coda’s games explore themes of isolation and the struggle to meet people’s expectations. The increasing time it takes Coda to finish these games only further worries Wreden. Coda’s final game, The Tower, discourages completion through its very design. Two of its puzzles are blatantly frustrating and would take forever to solve, and another is entirely unsolvable; Wreden has to intervene and allow you to circumvent the restrictions of these puzzles just to keep the experience rolling.
But when you reach the end of The Tower, you discover messages that Coda has left for Davey, and suddenly, your understanding of the game’s characters is flipped on its head. Wreden has been sharing Coda’s work without permission, betraying Coda’s trust and poisoning game development for him. On top of that, Davey has greatly misunderstood Coda’s personality; what he interpreted as depression is simply part of the ups and downs of the creative process.
Additionally, Davey realizes that he finds his identity in Coda’s games, and is addicted to the praise that people have given those games when he has shown them to other people. Now that Coda has stopped making games, Davey doesn’t know what to do with himself. All he can think to do is more of the same: selling these games to the public in the hope that the positive reaction to them will convince Coda to start making games again. As The Tower comes to a close, Davey cries out to Coda in a fit of existential—dare I say spiritual—dread:
“Please, I need to feel OK with myself again, and I always felt OK as long as I had your work to see myself in…Please, start making games again, please help me, please give me some of whatever it is that makes you complete, I want whatever that wholeness is that you summoned out of nothing and put into your work, you were complete in some way that I never was. I want—I want to know how to be a good person, I want to know how not to hate myself. Please! I’m fading. And all I want is to know that I’m going to be okay.”
The game concludes with another brief snippet of gameplay which sees you wandering through several seemingly random environments as Davey laments his addiction to external validation and his failure to understand Coda. It’s a bittersweet denouement, one that suggests that Davey is going to at least try to make up for the mistakes he’s made.
Looking back over the whole experience, though, a number of questions become apparent. Davey contradicts himself during The Tower, talking about how he had altered an earlier game in the collection in order to make it playable…a detail he had failed to mention when you were playing through it before. Additionally, in Coda’s messages to Davey, Coda asks: “Would you stop changing my games? Stop adding lampposts to them?” Can we trust that Davey has presented Coda’s games as they were originally made?
More importantly, the only way to play The Beginner’s Guide is to pay money…to Davey Wreden. If this story is as real as it presents itself, wouldn’t Wreden face criminal penalties for selling a product that doesn’t belong to him? Has the player inadvertently enabled immoral behavior by purchasing The Beginner’s Guide? Occam’s Razor suggests that this game is, in fact, a work of fiction made by Wreden himself; “Coda” might be an exaggerated version of someone that Wreden knows, or may not even be a real person. A piece of evidence that may support this theory is one of Wreden’s old blog posts, in which he talks about his depression, self-imposed isolation, and his search for validation through praise that he experienced when The Stanley Parable started winning Game of the Year awards—all themes that appear in one way or another in The Beginner’s Guide.
What, then, should one take away from this experience? It seems likely that The Beginner’s Guide is a fictional tale, one that is in some way related to Wreden’s very real struggles with depression and a thirst for validation. At the same time, the game’s story discourages one from reading too much into someone’s work; Davey thinks he understands Coda through Coda’s games, but is actually far off the mark. The nature of the artist may not be easily gleaned from the art he or she creates. The fact that Davey serves as an unreliable narrator further muddies the waters, making extrapolation an even more perilous endeavor to be able to create a piece people will like and buy from local stores.
Because of all this ambiguity, I don’t know if I can come to any conclusive statement about Davey, Coda, or The Beginner’s Guide. And who knows? Maybe that uncertainty is part of what Wreden hoped to evoke in those who would play it. But something else came to mind in the process of playing and reflecting on the game. All of its themes, along with Coda’s illusive nature and Davey’s almost spiritual outcry in the game’s penultimate level, cause me to reflect on the limits of my understanding of God. On the one hand, I am reminded of the unknowable mystery of God’s will as described by the Apostle Paul in his words to the church in Rome:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’” (Romans 11:33-35)
On the other hand, God is in fact quite knowable. The created world speaks to his attributes, as Paul states in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Additionally, God has purposely made himself known to us throughout history as recorded in Scripture. He spoke to Moses at the burning bush and later at Mt. Sinai, in each case revealing a part of himself and the things he values. He spoke through numerous prophets in the Old Testament, instructing them to pass on messages of both judgment and forgiveness, damnation and hope, to various persons and groups of people. And most significantly of all, God has shown us himself in the form of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells his followers that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). God becomes one of us and communicated his character in the most relatable way possible.
To top it off, God’s word can be trusted. Paul refers to God as one “who never lies” (Titus 1:2), and the author of Hebrews confidently asserts God’s truthfulness and constancy:
“So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:17-18)
To the extent that we can understand the characters of The Beginner’s Guide, we see Davey seeking to find his identity and purpose in Coda’s work, and in the praise that people would give him because of his connection to it. Instead, he finds that Coda’s work is foreign and unknowable to him, and that it cannot provide the inner wholeness he desperately craves. Coda ultimately pulls away from Davey, explicitly telling him in one of his notes in The Tower that “you’re not my problem to fix.”
God, in contrast, eagerly shares himself with us, inviting us to spend time with him and get to know him better. To a degree, he is unknowable—he understands far more than we do, seeing the grand scheme of history and all its intricate strands, and making decisions that are incomprehensible to us from our limited perspective—but he has revealed enough of his character and his overall purposes to us that we can trust him, that we can indeed find our identity and purpose in him. He is the most reliable narrator we could hope for.