Video-games wouldn’t be anything without their level designers. Otherwise, there simply would be no game to play. As time has progressed, graphics have evolved, interactivity has expanded, and so forth, the act of level design has become more of an art for some. It doesn’t matter how realistic or cartoonish it appears, because in art, everything qualifies.
However, could you look into someone’s mind just by the work that they create? From Davey Wreden, co-creator of the critically acclaimed walking simulator, “The Stanley Parable,” he presents “The Beginner’s Guide.” This time, it’s not about venturing off the beaten path and listening to a hilarious narrator, but it’s about exploring someone’s work from the inside and struggling to understand it.
“The Beginner’s Guide” is narrated by Wreden himself as he tells you about his friend named “Coda,” who had a knack for making levels, dubbed “games”, then mysteriously vanished. After numerous attempts to reach Coda, Wreden was unsuccessful and was only left with all the levels that Coda had made.
In the game, Wreden allows you to experience all of Coda’s creations firsthand. What’s interesting about “The Beginner’s Guide” is that the levels Coda has made are nonlinear and abstract. Every level is different, but as you move through the game, you will see recurring things like a shining lamp post, an easy door puzzle, or three black dots in random places. The levels themselves, while simplistic and bizarrely made, are entertaining to explore.
One was filled to the brim with speech bubbles that would rise and display a random message when in close proximity. While reading all of them didn’t change anything, it felt worthwhile to see each one. When the game’s plot revolves around investigating artwork to learn about a person, it almost feels as if you’re inclined to.
Another level was one where Coda had designed a “prison,” which was really a living room with a table, two sofas, a lamp, and a coffee table behind bars, set across from a floating well in the distance. Playing through the level, eventually Wreden starts showing you that Coda had made multiple variants of it, sparking inquiry about his interests.
That’s a huge theme in this game: “inquiry.” The game asks more questions than it answers. Wreden’s constant narration containing assumptions and theories about the meaning behind Coda’s work is what only makes the rabbit hole go deeper. It’s entertaining to try to hypothesize along with Wreden what it could all mean, but it’s brutal knowing that you might never find out. Is levitating through the ceiling of a space-shuttle and into the sky-box a symbol of being larger than the universe itself, or is it a glitch that needs fixing? You don’t know. Wreden doesn’t know. Nobody knows. It’s up to your imagination.
Wreden also edits the levels sometimes to show you things that Coda had hidden behind, trying to unpack every single detail. Doing this, you’re able to see different sides of not only Coda, but also Wreden himself. The more levels you play, the more you might notice that Coda is struggling with loneliness and considers his work useless. On the other hand, Wreden’s desperation to uncover the meaning of it shows that he misses his friend more than anything else. Sometimes it’s interesting, but other times, it turns depressing.
It’s also worth mentioning that despite the zany layout of the levels, the game is beautiful to take in. Running on the Source engine, the levels of “The Beginner’s Guide” are stunning, interesting, and grand. From the flashes of spotlights on a theater stage, to a small coffee shop estranged in a big blank terrain, this game definitely proves that level design is art. No intentional floating boxes, colorless NPCs with boxes on their heads, or winding parkour segments across triangular blocks will ever efface this achievement.
While “The Beginner’s Guide” isn’t long, or like any game on the market, its impact is powerful, all the way to the conclusion. You won’t feel like you’ve played through a handful of vague levels, but you will feel like you’ve examined some underrated masterpieces with no conclusion.
In the end, the only thing more painful than not comprehending something is knowing you’ll never comprehend it – if you even should. “The Beginner’s Guide” isn’t a guide, but it’s a great tale of mystery, friendship, and inconclusiveness