I think the impressive thing about The Beginner’s Guide is how massively personal it manages to feel. And maybe that’s just me, maybe that’s just that I’m identifying with the creator and the narrative put forward in the game, maybe it’s a game for tortured artists and everyone else will find it tedious and angsty, but I don’t think so.
Listen: please, play the game, pay the money, experience it and then come back here, because I can’t say anything useful about it without lessening the experience somewhat. And that’s odd, because I’m no stranger to discussing spoilers – this is out of respect to the piece, not the player.
But here is my review of The Beginner’s Guide: I cried. And I cried not because I was sad that something happened to a character, or that I felt moved by some act of glory (as is normally the case) but that the game said something about me, the player, about Grant, that stuck in my chest like an arrow. It’s impressive how it uses the medium to draw the user in; not only am I in control of the experience, but I am often given no framework, no fiction, to stick to. I am not an archetype, I am not a named character, I have no imagined history, no reference points. I am a person playing a game. It is the opposite of a roleplaying game – it is about me playing a game and how that makes me feel, it leaves me with no distance to detach myself from the experience.
It is spare, too. There are no hidden routes (from what I can tell – correct me if I’m wrong), no secret locations, which is a refusal to engage in the traditional mode of gaming, old-school gaming with something in line with Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons, that the game is a puzzle set by the developer to be solved by the player. There’s nothing more to find here than what you’re being shown, save a few optional pieces of dialogue delivered if you take a little longer than expected to progress to the next part of the game. This is it. It’s not a challenge to outsmart the developer, no dance over “the way to go” and “not the way to go, but here is a reward for poking at the edges of the map.”
I cried, anyway. I cried because the game threw into stark contrast something that I, and a lot of other creators feel – admiration of others. To see someone and view them as perfect, or as near as damnit to make no difference; that they are a slickly-oiled, high-octane machine capable of just making excellent games. Or music. Or books. Or code. (Programmers, honestly, programmers dazzle and amaze me. I don’t know how they do it; I can’t wrap my head around something as dense as code. Programmers are basically wizards as far as I’m concerned.)
It’s a confronting thing, too, because of that lack of coyness above, the way everything is laid out for the player; it’s a weirdly intimate thing to experience as far as video games go, shorn free of levels of abstraction, of shields to put between myself and the message. I don’t feel like the game is asking anything of me; this isn’t Spec Ops. It’s just letting me know, giving me license to experience, that other people are broken in the same way that I am.
That’s the overriding thing that people are saying about this game; that it mattered to them, that it made an impact, and then nothing else. The same way you’d describe staying up late and talking seriously in the two-bottles-of-wine way with a friend. It’s personal, and not for others to hear. When someone else plays it, they’re not going to tear up because of the masterfully told tale of heroes and villains and people taken before their time and valant last stands and lost loves and all the other things that games, that stories, pull out to make you cry; they’re going to tear up because the game has whispered, quiet and sure, something they’ve been thinking all along but been too scared to mention.
Admitting you enjoyed The Beginner’s Guide is admitting that you are scared and small and human, too.
Because it’s not about creation, when you get down to it, it’s not about the difficulties when you juggle wanting to make something to be enjoyed and wanting to make something because you enjoy it; it’s not about the clash of art versus popularity; it’s not even really about video games. It’s about you – how small you feel, how mad and trapped and scared, how no matter great your life might appear from the outside, and indeed, from the inside when objectively viewed, how quickly your mind can spiral in and start tearing itself apart.
And, again, maybe that’s just me. But I hope it’s you, too, and I hope that you can see what I can see from it, and I hope that we can wordlessly nod at each other and say, through this medium, that we are all broken, that we are all screaming and scared, and then I hope we can talk about video games for an age and get drunk.