In 2015, I played a little game called The Beginner’s Guide. I had no idea what to expect when I booted it up; I hadn’t heard anything about it and I had just barely watched the trailer. All I knew was that it shared a creator with The Stanley Parable, which was an utterly unique, memorable, and important game for me personally. I bought it without blinking at the $10 price tag and immediately dove into the experience, completely unaware of what it was about to do to me.
The Beginner’s Guide is more of a narrated showcase than a video game. Davey Wreden, the game’s creator, takes you through several games made by his friend, a man who he calls Coda. He states at the beginning that he believes there is a lot to be learned about Coda by playing each of his games in the order in which they were created. The games are all extremely simple walking simulators, occasionally involving simple puzzles or dialogue trees. During each game, Wreden explains how he feels Coda’s personality is reflected in the design choices. So far so good. Until about two thirds of the way through, the game feels like a unique twist on a character study. Nothing particularly stunning, but enjoyable enough.
As you continue to play Coda’s games, Wreden points out several alarming patterns. The games appear to become self-destructive, directly referencing Coda’s self-loathing and lack of motivation. Wreden expresses that at the time of their creation he was concerned for his friend, and decided to take action against his apparent misery. He shared Coda’s games with the public. Despite receiving positive feedback, Coda makes one final game to lash out against Wreden’s decision. He addresses Wreden directly, and says that his company is infecting his work. The game communicates that he can no longer function as he wants to while Wreden was present in his life, and he subsequently cuts off all contact with him.
Wreden reacts to this in a panic, not in his recollection of the past but directly to the player. His tone turns exasperated and desperate, and he explains that he thought he was doing Coda a favor. All his life he was focused on receiving praise from others through his work, attaining validation that his games were good. He assumed that Coda needed the same things, and took action based on that assumption. Eventually he begins addressing Coda directly, exclaiming that he could find no way to reach him other than publishing his work in this game. He recognizes that he is making the same mistake that he did before, but he has no idea how to find Coda otherwise. He also explains that showing Coda’s work to people gives him a sense of purpose. Despite the work not being his, he feels important by sharing someone’s work with others. The game ends with Wreden analyzing his own personality, reflecting on how his insatiable desire for praise and validation has had such a negative impact on his life. He leaves the player without any sort of conclusion, his line of thought just trailing off into nothing.
When I first played this, I completely lost my mind. Once Wreden began begging Coda to talk with him again, I tore off my headphones and threw them against the wall. I couldn’t take what this game was implying Wreden had done to his friend… and what I had done to mine.
To help you understand how fundamentally this game tears at me, I need to provide some background on my personal life. In high school I had a decent number of friends, but I had one that I hung out with far more than any others. You could call him my “best” friend, if you were so inclined. He and I spent a ton of time together, spending that time mostly on playing or discussing our favorite entertainment medium: video games. I can’t begin to count how many games we went through together, or how many hours we spent discussing various minute aspects of the medium as a whole. It would be no exaggeration to say that he was my biggest inspiration to start viewing my gaming hobby as something more, something important.
After our graduation in spring of 2013, we had to say goodbye. I was off to engineering school in Colorado, and he had chosen to attend film school with his girlfriend in Chicago. Despite being so far apart, I never felt like anything had really changed. We still talked over text, and we could even play games together through the magic of the internet (something I was not entirely accustomed to, so it was particularly exciting). Even after making new friends in college, I still felt that he remained my best. The status quo was maintained, despite the massive changes our lives had undergone.
Fast forward a couple years, to the spring of 2015. Despite keeping in frequent contact with my friend, I felt that it had been too long since we had met in person. Since my birthday was coming up, I decided to invite him to visit me for a weekend at my expense. He could meet all of my new friends, and we could game together just like we had so many times before. That was one of the best weekends of my life. All of my friends were together, and all of us had a great time. Or, well… so I had thought.
After that weekend my friend stopped texting me. He stopped messaging me on Facebook. He didn’t show up on Steam. None of my avenues of communication with him were working. I was concerned, but only slightly. He was my best friend after all, a short break in communication wasn’t going to change that. I wrote his silence off as an issue with his phone and proceeded as normal. After a few months I decided to ask my mom to text him for me. Our phones had had trouble connecting in the past, so I thought perhaps she could reach him. She received a lengthy response from him, and hesitantly showed me her phone.
The gist of the response was that my presence in his life was hurting him. He was going through some serious troubles, both emotional and monetary, and seeing my happiness and success had made him bitter. Additionally, he felt that video games and social media were having a toxic impact on his life, and cutting me out would help distance himself from both. This is the point where you would think I would fall apart. My best friend just told me he wanted nothing to do with me, that my very existence was harming him. I don’t know if it was the shock of the thing or what, but I didn’t have much of a reaction. I read the text, said “okay,” and moved on with my life. It wasn’t until a certain game came along that the weight of that message came crashing down on me.
I saw a huge amount of my relationship with my friend reflected in The Beginner’s Guide. Wreden believed his friend to be in a certain state of mind, and to share his specific set of values. He was completely deaf to his actual emotional needs and motivations, and only acted according to his own desires. I had done the same thing. I started to recall several times when I offered to buy games for my friend when it was obvious he couldn’t afford them. I felt I was helping him out, and it never occurred to me that he would find it demeaning. I also remembered his hesitance when discussing certain aspects of his life, like his friends or his living situation. I thought little of it at the time, but in hindsight these were obvious signs of distress that I had been completely ignoring. To top everything off, I flew him down to see exactly how good my situation was, without considering how he might perceive it relative to his own. Without meaning to, I had done everything I could to hurt his pride.
Hearing Wreden desperately vie for his friend’s attention shattered me. I spiraled into a distraught panic. How could I not have noticed this? Why was I just now reacting this way? What the hell was wrong with me? I realized, just in that moment, that I almost certainly lost one of the most important people in my life for good. It was my fault, and I had no way to make it right. I still have no way to make it right. Hell, this may be the only way I can contact him. Maybe if he somehow sees this post and recognizes me screen name, he could finally see how sorry I am. I’m sorry, my friend. I’m so, so sorry. I never meant to hurt you, as meaningless as that sentiment is.
There. Do you feel that? The discomfort at how inappropriately personal this article feels? The awkward intimacy that shouldn’t be disclosed in such a public setting? That’s what The Beginner’s Guide did to me when I first played it. I could not handle Wreden’s desperation towards his friend on a very fundamental level, because it felt like something I should not be hearing. That, on top of the parallels it drew with my own life, made the game physically painful for me to play.
Why, then, would I revisit the game in this article? If the game was that horrible of an experience, why would I continue to dwell on it all these years later? You see, during this writing challenge I keep finding myself thinking back to The Beginner’s Guide. I now see different aspects of Wreden’s desperation reflected in my life today, distinct from the ones that have had such a harsh effect on me. His struggle with Coda certainly still disturbs me, but I’ve found a substantial amount of meaning in his desire for praise. That is what I will discuss in my next article: a writer’s obsession with validation, and the unhealthy addiction to personal connection. I promise it will contain more images and less discomfort.