Spaces Between Doors

Reflections on The Beginner’s Guide After First Playthrough

The Beginner’s Guide is a 2015 title released by Everything Unlimited Ltd, and the next game by Davey Wreden, the writer of 2013's The Stanley Parable. It’s a short experience, you can finish it in around an hour and a half. It’s a game. You download it and play it on your computer. But it’s not a ‘game’, exactly. It’s a story that makes you think about the way that we think about games and the way that we treat our creative persons. Like trophies- things to parade around and call triumphant, like we all aren’t looking for that triumph for ourselves.

I’ve seen the movie Children of Men I think four times. I love that movie. I don’t want to debate about the merits of that movie- because I’m talking about The Beginner’s Guide- but I will say that it’s a movie I would gladly watch again if you asked me too. Why? I love the cinematography. It’s got a good plot. It feels like it is constantly moving. I watch it because I can rewind it and watch it again. And again. And again. And in a sense, it does not end. I do not fault it for being something without end.

I never got that much into The Stanley Parable, though I did play my requisite hour or two as a Person Who Likes Games and I thought it was quaint, and clever, and I really liked the original Source game. I appreciated the HD version and the further material that it offered to the player. It was a smart and critical look at game design.

But it always felt hollow. The instant rubberband respawn after each story concluded made the entire experience feel uncompletable, useless, ultimately unnecessary. Because of the lack of a completion mechanic, the game felt unending and I thought of it as a toy. It’s sad, really. Not that I didn’t like it- anyone can not like something, that’s fine- but because I, unconsciously, felt that a lack of completion mechanic meant that the overall work was lacking.

The Beginner’s Guide is a game about things that do not end, and the way we judge these things that do not end and we try to find endings, because endings are comforting. Endings prove to us that we can get through things, and The Beginner’s Guide is not about getting through things. It is about the process of fear when you realize there might not be anything after this that you can hold onto.

I do not believe that the character that Davey references in TBG is real. He might be. I have enough faith in Davey Wreden as a writer that I can believe he created this character from whole cloth. Partially because I think Davey is a great writer, and partially because I think he wasn’t really writing anyone in particular. He was giving voice to something that we- us people of the internet, us children of accomplishments that we can never live up to, us small lights in the cosmos- all feel.

Worry. Anxiety. Fear. Depression. The fears of not being recognized, of not living past your mortal self, the fears that can only develop when you know- in your heart of hearts- that this Content we keep Creating is not unique by virtue of existing. The games, the music, the texts, are all (probably) going to be temporary and we can hate ourselves for it. We turn that anxiety inward and ask why am I never noticed or why did I work so hard for nothing or what about me is not good enough to make it?

The Beginner’s Guide is hard to play. Not mechanically, but emotionally. There are things in this game that I don’t think I’d like to confront. There are insecurities about the self that I would rather keep unexamined. The Beginner’s Guide is a brutal game. A painfully short, surgically precise game that hits exactly where it should and asks you, are you sure of what you are doing?

Are you sure what you are doing will keep you safe? Is it right to push this out of yourself? Is it right that we keep telling ourselves to work harder, to love what we’re doing until it kills us?

No answer is provided. The game is a dark place between two doors. The game is a puzzle embedded in a shooter. The game is a deep-dive into a person that doesn’t exist but you know them, because of course you know them. We all know or possibly are that person. It lets you know that there is someone out there also so afraid of obsolescence, so afraid of being forgotten, so afraid of admitting to yourself that you might have a problem with yourself and it does not pretend to hold any answers.

It will only show you a door, and a puzzle, and you know how to solve puzzles. Doors, and locks, and switches. Things you understand. While you’re solving them, you have something to look toward. When you realize there’s nothing on the other side of the last door, that there’s no more paths or carefully delineated spaces, suddenly you feel very alone.

Maybe that’s the message of the game. Maybe we’re all just very alone, trying to find meaning through the things we love. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s not. Davey Wreden doesn’t give us an answer. Just a puzzle, in the form of a character introspection, who may or may not be real.

We know that puzzle. We just don’t know what to do when we solve it.