This piece is by Casey A. Malik. A note: Davey Wreden is both the creator of the game and a character within it. The piece uses the usual convention of referring to the real man as Wreden and the fake one as Davey.
I'm gonna start with a glowing recommendation and then move on to an analysis. I would recommend you experience the game before reading the analysis portion, but it's the type of work that actually gets even better when you know all the twists, so don't let me stop you.
Criticism first: Wreden is a subpar voice actor. That's it. Otherwise, this game is a perfect execution of its concept, and one of the best art games ever made. It presents itself as a compilation of games by the fictional Coda, although really it's Davey Wreden, the creator of the Stanley Parable exploring his own feelings while gently mocking trends from other people in the art game scene. It has a short runtime (a mere 90 minutes) that may make you question where your money is going, but the length stems from neither a lack of content nor a lack of ideas, but relentlessly quick pacing. The game is made in a very precise manner, to have the maximum emotional impact on the player. It's a good game too: although it is a walking simulator, the player's interactivity does affect things in a good few ways, though mostly in Coda's small games (which I maybe wouldn't recommend on their own, but are enjoyable enough just because of the quality of the overall package) rather than Davey's big one. If you're comfortable paying 10 dollars for something like this, then do that immediately. If you're not, then maybe watch a let's play: although interactivity is more important than let's say, Gone Home, it's not crucial to being affected by or understanding the game. If you are my friend and you ask me, I'll walk you through the game and let you make the dialog choices: I think this is better than a Let's Play, and probably the ideal free way of experiencing the game. (Don't pirate from indie devs.)
Experience: two full playthroughs
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Now, the Beginner's Guide is a game fully built around the concept of a piece of media having multiple interpretations. What you take away from it depends more on who you are, than anything Davey put into it. Still, there are a few interpretations that predominate, and it's a useful lens for analysis to run through them.
The Game is About the Art Game Scene
A lot of analyses of the game focus entirely on Davey's narration, while ignoring the games you're actually playing for a lot of the runtime. This is unfair. While these art games are pretty generic, they do serve as a good, if overprofessional, survey of the medium. In Robert Yang's piece on the game, Yang (a source modder from around the time Coda was working) writes about how the game used ideas he had worked with and never shared with anyone, like a level where you can walk only backwards. This was a coincidence, of course, but it just shows how on-the-pulse of the source modding community Wreden was.
Even if you weren't in the Source modding community, you can probably get a nostalgia trip from the games. 2009-2011, when the game takes place, was a time when many were just starting to realize what could be done with the medium of games, leading to wild experimentation and even wilder pretension. Personally, a lot of Coda's works remind me of games like the Company of Myself and the Majesty of Colors: simple gameplay with a simple message, yet deep enough to be perceived as such. While quick tossed-off experiments like Coda's later works (just jabs at Davey) are apparently impossible with Source modding, they are possible with flash games, and many works in the medium read as such (like the Hunger Games: the Game, where you just die every time, like you would in the Hunger Games). Some of Coda's games hit hard, providing new experiences (I really liked the Descent game, for some reason): most of them are just plain enjoyable to play, with very good writing. They succeed in making it so that you're engaged, not just hunting for the next dialog trigger. Still, I think there's a reason Coda never shared them: although he does have some interesting ideas, Coda's games land as more affectionate parody or nostalgia trip than novel contribution to the medium. You've played way better art games: one of them was called The Stanley Parable. Fundamentally, Coda is an unremarkable game creator working in an era of great innovation, but part of the game's power is in how it takes you back to that era, and allows you to learn from it.
The Game is About Critical Analysis
This is, I think, the most common lens that critics choose to use when reviewing this game: it's about the role of criticism in art. You see, Davey wrongs Coda because he fails to interpret his art correctly, and the reason for this failure of interpretation is that he believes the art is telling him something about the author, that he can even skip socializing Coda to get to know him through his works. Someone makes games with melancholy themes, and Davey assumes that they need help (when they really could just be trying to be artsy). But people are complicated: you can't learn something about a person like that. Do you know me better after reading this review? This piece of writing is intended to be somewhat polished; ask me to talk to you about the game and I might disagree with some things in it.
Trying to get to know a creator from their work is and always has been, unfortunately, a common critical lens. I feel it is used egregiously in games journalism, most often in reviews of the Witness (for some reason?) which talk about feeling like Jonathan Blow is talking to them. By showing the logical endpoint of this frame of analysis, the Beginner's Guide serves as a nagging voice in the back of critics' heads, forcing them to find both more correct and more interesting lenses to analyze their work through. I believe the Beginner's Guide has created some of the greatest critics of this generation: Jacob Geller (Holistic Review's Official #1 Good Youtuber) proudly displays his love of the game, and has created some of the most interesting games writing ever, exactly because he seems indifferent to the creators' intentions or his interpretations. Errant Signal's review of the Beginner's Guide shows how Davey's failures are reflected in his own work (saying he knew John Romero better after playing Doom, etc.), and although in the context of the video it's leading up to a meta-joke, Davey-style, breakdown at the end, he did seem to take the lessons from the game and stopped doing that in his future videos.The Beginner's Guide, then, is a tragic story essentially serving the same purpose as a good English teacher, reminding the critic that the purpose of criticism is not to figure out spurious things about the author, but to improve their own and other people's relationship with the work, like Jacob Geller does state in his video, The Future of Writing about Games. (Behold: The Holistic Review Manifesto)
I just mentioned that there's no wrong way to interpret the games: Davey's only failure was thinking his interpretation was objective. You can interpret Coda's games as being about his depression, and that's fine, so long as you remember that that's probably not how Coda created the game. There is, however, one wrong way to interpret The Beginner's Guide, and that is as a work of nonfiction. This is wrong not only because it is objectively, but also because if everything in the game were literally true, Davey packaged another creator's games (one of which is just about how much they hate Davey) and sold them for real money without their permission. This would be the rare intersection of being morally wrong and being illegal. Yet, there are people that espoused this interpretation: one reviewer even said people might want to refund the game (it's 90 minutes, so Steam lets you refund it after a full playthrough) because of it. Now, Wreden could have stopped this madness by clarifying that Coda isn't real, but he declined to do it until after the game had been out for a few years, and the majority of people interested in it got a chance to play it. Why? Well, as Errant Signal does suppose, imagine you're Wreden, you write a game where a character hurts a game creator due to a misinterpretation of their games, and then people try to hurt you because they misinterpreted your game. You couldn't have written it better.
In general, I do feel like The Beginner's gGide was one of the most horrendously misinterpreted games ever, but none of the other interpretations I personally dislike are bad: some of them even come with 10/10 review scores. Regardless of what anyone may think or the work says, basic reality bears out that these interpretations are not harmful. If misinterpretation isn't harmful, what is?
The Game is About Personhood and Relationships
Davey goes well beyond misinterpreting Coda's games; although Coda is mad at him for that, they seem to be a lot more pissed about violating their boundaries, both creative, in modifying their games and in asking them questions about their games' meaning that they most likely could not answer, and personal, in showing their games to other people and using his modifications to misrepresent them a person. Not everybody can relate to the fickle feelings of a creative: everybody can relate to the feeling of, like, your mom proudly telling her friends how smart and accomplished you are for winning a participation trophy, a story she puffs up to be an MVP award. Don't lie to me: you felt a sinking dread just reading that sentence. This is essentially what Davey did to Coda, except as a random stalker.
Davey would have done nothing wrong if he were a bad critic but a good person.
Some of Davey's last lines in the game are "I want to know how to be a good person," not "I want to know how to interpret texts really well."
Look, I've certainly had friendships end in ways that remind me of this game, and I doubt I'm the only one. I cry at the ending of this game, and I doubt I'm the only one who does that either. To see a game that appeals to the player on such a base level interpreted as a message about criticism just because it happens to have metatext and be smart is odd. If Wreden were just out for a smart, intellectual parable, he wouldn't make his character cry at the end of the game. Although the game is undeniably talking about game creation and criticism, any analysis must mention that the game simply wouldn't work, at a fundamental level, if it wasn't a sad and simple story about a lost friendship. This is what keeps it from going too far its own ass, like some of Coda's games definitely do. I think this is a major lesson to be learned from Beginner's Guide, and it's one a lot of art games seem to forget.
Title Drop (One Conclusion)
These are just three of the intepretations you can put on the game. There are probably infinite reads you can get from the Beginner's Guide, but none of them would matter if it didn't touch you emotionally, or if it weren't an enjoyable game experience. One part of the Beginner's Guide didn't make the game. It was a holistic experience, and with its wealth of interpretations (some of which, like interpreting Davey and Coda as the same person, I didn't even mention), it demands from its players a holistic review. I like to think it forced me to think about media better, both with its message and by trying to tackle it for a review, and if you have played it or are planning on it, it'll make you do so too.