A New Kind of Interactivity: Critical & Historical Evaluation in ‘The Beginner’s Guide’

The Beginner's Guide

The Beginner’s Guide is a first-person interactive game where the player is taken through a collection of abstract games created by a game developer called Coda. Whilst exploring these small reflexive games, the player is accompanied by commentary from Davey Wreden, who acts as a guide. Wreden has openly expressed a desire for players to interpret The Beginner’s Guide as they like, and this has caused some commotion about whether it is fiction or non-fiction.

The number of interpretations that The Beginner’s Guide has encouraged has been phenomenal; interpretation upon interpretation, suspicions of a possible unreliable narrator. So many questions, yet the main one is who or what exactly is Coda? These questions have been exhausted enough, so moving in a different direction, I would like to focus on the way in which the game was constructed. I found Wreden’s commentary and critical evaluation particularly unique. He was both a storyteller and a historian.

It was so interesting to play through Coda’s work and to see the evolution of his ideas and concepts. Honestly, without some sort of interpretation from Wreden, I would have missed a lot of details and not known where to begin in terms of interpreting Coda’s deeply thoughtful games. I found that Wreden’s narration was similar to one of a historian guiding the player through the game, explaining the influences behind each mechanic, choice, and player movement.

The Beginner's Guide

The Beginner’s Guide is a gallery of one person’s work, and by playing through that gallery, players get to experience the developments and thought processes behind Coda’s work. As Wreden expresses in the game, video games are accesses to their creators.

As someone who loves reading IMDb film trivia and watching a film with director’s commentary, The Beginner’s Guide got me thinking about the possibility of playing a game and hearing behind-the-scenes commentary. After this realization, I couldn’t help but think of other games that I would love to play with developer commentary. Valve has already embraced this idea with audio comments in their games such as Half-Life and Portal, giving insight into characters, maps, storylines, etc. The game commentary would also take control of the camera to show what they were explaining. Gone Home also announced a behind-the-scenes commentary with their console release on January 12.

Another interesting concept that struck me about The Beginner’s Guide was the structure of having multiple short games in succession. Imagine having a game developer or historian explaining the history and technological development of, let’s say, The Legend of Zelda series. With a long history of games, a compilation of snippets from each of The Legend of Zelda games would highlight how far both the franchise and industry in general has progressed. Add a video game historian into the mix and you have yourself a pretty interesting interactive documentary to play.

The Beginner's Guide

In this format, histories of various video game series’ could be saved and played. But why stay within one franchise? There could be interactive documentaries about a vast number of concepts: video game landscape, characters, philosophy, level design, first-person shooters—whatever. It could be a new format of critical evaluation. Could this format be the future of video game academia? A way to preserve the history of video games?

Furthermore, these video game documentaries could be viewed as a form of cultural preservation. Never Alone has made Inuit histories, stories, and life lessons accessible to the player—not only in its behind-the-scenes mini-films, but also in its gameplay. (FemHypes Heather O wrote a fantastic review on this concept.)

Since video games are cultural and technological artifacts, preservation is important if we want to critically evaluate and play them in the future. However, there are an abundance of difficulties: the multi-platform problem, distributing rights and licensing issues, all of which video game archivists are well-acquainted with. But this is all honest speculation as far as interactive mediums go.

Has The Beginner’s Guide predicted the ideal combination of compilation and commentary as a new kind of interactive video game documentary? Like film critic Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film for cinema, will there ever be The History of Video Games video game?

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