Video games often follow simple storylines. Rescue the princess! Defeat the enemy. Find the treasure. These are the objectives, within these digital stories, that require skill and knowledge to complete. Games are objective-based narratives one engages to reach a certain goal. But what if a game had absolutely no objective? What if it didn’t require any challenge or skill from you, but just your time? Is it still a game?
The Beginner’s Guide is such a game. Released last October, The Beginner’s Guide was created by Davey Wreden. Wreden is a game designer who has received high acclaim for his previous game The Stanley Parable—another first person interactive game with loads of absurdism (a philosophy which argues the search for meaning is pointless, and we should embrace life as is). The only controls available to the player in The Beginner’s Guide are the W, A, S, and D keys for movement, and the mouse.
The player follows Wreden as he shares a series of events from 2008 to 2011 involving his friend Coda, a game designer that he met at a gaming get-together. Coda has created games of varying design and complexity, and through these games Wreden shares his thoughts on Coda, game development, and his philosophical beliefs. Similar to The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide is deeply absurdist. Many of the levels are abstract, left with bugs, goals that are impossible to meet, or even “unfinished.” In many of these cases, Wreden “comes into” the game to help the player by altering the coding and allowing them to progress. In one level the player walks into a jail cell and has the door shut behind them. The only way to leave is to wait for an hour in real time. At another point, the player is in a room that leads to an underground passage. The player follows the passage, only to see that it leads nowhere. There is an outside, but you just can’t reach it.
As it progresses and you learn more about Coda and Wreden, the game becomes an existential nightmare about their relationship as artists and friends. Beyond the exploration of each game, and learning about this friendship, there is no other objective. There is nothing in the game that tells you what you are supposed to discover or who you are to defeat. There are no points or skill-dependent achievements; the game is about listening. In light of this, what makes The Beginner’s Guide’s a video game?
Mainstream video games—such as Call of Duty, Super Mario, Halo, and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim—involve higher levels of interactivity, whether that means fighting an enemy, solving a problem, or exploring a map to reach an objective. There is competition, the option to fail, and players can learn from mistakes to find new solutions to problems. In other words, video games allow us to make decisions to reach our goals. Even considering games that don’t always follow a narrative, like Tetris, there is still a goal that the player is pursuing: improving their score.
The Beginner’s Guide plays off these traditional aspects, but puts a unique spin on how they work. Other than to listen to Wreden’s story, there is no clear goal to the game. While there are small decisions to be made, they in no way alter the pace or change or even lose the game; your decisions can’t stop the story. As long as you move forward, the game’s story is told. Yet how this story is told, Wreden’s dialogue, makes for a meta-game, as he explains the functions of a typical video game and how they are created and run. For example: when the player may be trying to complete an impossible level Wreden will speak up, comment on the level, and while altering the game’s coding he discusses how levels are brought together with a gaming engine, and how games function. The Beginner’s Guide is a video game about Coda and Wreden’s relationship, and it is a video game about video games.
The Beginner’s Guide is not the first video game to ask what makes a video game a video game. The game Mountain was released in 2014, and simply invites players to watch over a mountain. No context is given for this task, but slowly over time the mountain begins to change. Text will sometimes appear, and you can tap the screen on mobile platforms to make sounds and spin the mountain, but that’s the only interactivity allowed. There are no points, there are no goals, your only purpose is to watch the mountain.
Meta-video games lead us to ask questions about what exactly is a game. Since you interact with it, type and share content with other “players”, can we consider Facebook a video game? Since it has functions and we use it for certain objectives, can we consider the simple usage of our computers as gaming? Consider how we use our smartphones, the design so similar to how the classic Gameboy functioned. We open our smartphone apps with purpose, to fulfill some sort of goal; this is similar in a sense to popping in a game and going about a mission in hopes to achieve a certain success. Is life a game?
A post at Gamesutra on The Beginner’s Guide states:
“The Beginner’s Guide is a video game about video games, then, but not in a cloying you-are-the-monster way or a hey-remember-Mario way. It’s a video game about the act of engaging with a video game, both through creation and consumption…The Beginner’s Guide is a self-reflective exercise for Wreden, almost definitely. But it is also a self-reflective exercise for the player to think about their relationship with virtual spaces, and with the human beings who craft them.
What makes The Beginner’s Guide excellent are the questions and wonder it promotes. It’s not a “traditional” video game, but a small step into a new world of gaming, one focused on approaching narrative in a new way, and provoking thoughts beyond the end of the game itself. It does what any great piece of art should make us do: question.