Game Rec: The Beginner’s Guide

The Beginner’s Guide is a uniquely simple and emotional story-driven game about depression, anxiety, and the diseases of external validation and the impulse to “fix.”

Created By:  Davey Wreden
Initial release date: October 1, 2015
Platforms: Linux, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS
Time to Complete:  about 1.5 hours
Cost:  $9.99

What begins as a game that traps you inside the twin feelings of depression and anxiety, inviting you to empathy and concern, ends with the realization that perhaps these emotions do not need to be fixed.  In the fictional world of The Beginner’s Guide, “Coda” invites “Davey” to play his impossible games – prisons without exits, mazes without solutions, codes that cannot be broken.  Davey keeps offering us solutions where none exist, and the twist that sets this game apart is his eventually realization that this is wrong.  Coda is not sharing the games (his pain, his creativity, his soul) in order to be fixed.  Coda just wants Davey to share in these experiences alongside him.  

With that in mind, this game has two levels of processing – one as Coda, wherein we feel his loss of control and fear that there is no meaning to life, and one as Davey, wherein we desperately want to escape these feelings and layer meaning on top of nothingness.

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I empathized a lot more with Coda, and several of his mini-games brought up intense emotions as the repetitive prisons played on the feelings of failure, being trapped, being limited that depression and anxiety produce.  In some of the games, you are rewarded for retreating.  In all of the in-game conversations, your responses are limited, and sometimes you don’t even say the thing that you wanted.

“Help, I am trying to speak.”
“I’m not safe.”
“Please recognize me.”
“There’s nothing here.  Go back.”
“Don’t listen to that guy!”
“Do you hear the chimes?  They keep you going!”
“Scared of writing something.  Don’t want to feel judged.”

Some of the prison levels are straight-forward.  Others are subtly manipulative.  In one level wherein we are supposedly taught how to escape the prison, we realize that mindlessly following the directions of someone else is just another form of imprisonment.  In another level, a cycle of house cleaning chores is presented as a peaceful escape…yet there is no real escape after three rounds of making the bed.

While a lot of this was hard to bare (and I imagine this game will be incredibly triggering for people with more severe depression and anxiety than mine), the level that brought me to tears was the Perfection Seminar.  We begin in a college classroom, watching a block-headed professor tell us to think of the person who is better than us.  Think about how they make us feel worthless and selfish and small.  Think about how much you want to be better than them, better than everyone, to be absolutely perfect.  But don’t stop there, the professor says!  It’s not enough to be perfect; you also have to convince everyone that your perfection is effortless.

By this point, I was wiping at my eyes, and then the perspective changes and suddenly we are the professor.  Now we are the ones preaching lies (remember, conversational possibilities are limited and stifling), and…we see what the professor is looking at.  A black hole, and in the background we hear the screams of those sucked into its never-ceasing maw.

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This game will bring up the darkest parts of your psyche.

But even as Davey tries to offer us solutions to Coda’s problems, Coda is incorporating true health in his games.  In one level, where we die again and again as our blind compatriots fail to avoid a space collision, we are offered this conversational option:

“The only way to stop is to speak something that is honest.”
1.   I’m bursting with creative energy.
2.  I can’t keep making these.
3.  I could do this forever.
“Yes!  That’s it!  That’s the truth.”

And with that choice, the collision is averted and we are saved.

Further, in one of the most meaningful moments of the game, we get to make a phone call to our past self, one who is still trapped in the prison.

“To get out, just talk with me for a bit.”
“What?  That will free me?  How does that work?”
“It will make sense.”
“Okay…I can talk.  Will you be here?”
“I will be here for as long as you need.”

This is the heart of the game.  Whereas Davey goes slowly crazy, trying to find meaning in the meaninglessness by either fixing it or exploiting it, Coda finds peace in embracing the failure and confusion of his own games.  We may never find the solution, but we can find peace, if only we admit our struggles and talk about them honestly.

Quite a message for a 1.5 hour computer game.

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