[“Trigger Warning” – is a piece dedicated to showcasing video games which focus on mental disorders as well as emotional and psychological trauma. It is my hope as a lifelong gamer and sufferer of various psychological disorders to combine my greatest passion with my greatest weakness to benefit the gaming community at large. These pieces are meant to applaud games that I have found to appropriately exemplify such issues in the human condition. Some of them are visceral and violent games that take a liberal approach and are not for the faint of heart. Others take a lighter approach to the whole affair and can apply to a much wider audience. Hopefully, those who do not suffer from such afflictions can look at these games as a chance to grasp at something otherwise intangible. While those who do suffer from psychological afflictions can look to these pieces of fiction for hope and catharsis. Without further or do, enjoy. 🙂 ]
[By the way, this is the trigger warning for the article: Depression, Social Anxiety, Introversion, Self-doubt, Self-harm, Eating Disorders]
The Beginner’s Guide, In Summation
This game is a tough nut to crack. It has so many themes, so much symbolism, and a story that is entirely tangential to the structure of the game itself. It is poetry in the form of an interactive story. Quite frankly, this article can only scratch the surface of how much is in this game, but I’m going to attempt to do my best here. Really, this game is emblematic of my Trigger Warning series in a game that succeeds on all levels to adequately portray anxiety and depression.
On its surface, The Beginner’s Guide is nothing more than a collection of levels made through the Source Engine that have no fail states, very little gameplay mechanics, and perceivably no purpose other than to exist in and of themselves. You start out in a level designed to be a simple Counter Strike map but looks largely unfinished. From there you barrel through all kinds of interesting little projects such as an escape from a space ship where you have to sacrifice yourself to save the non-existent crew. There’s a whole series of levels designed around a seemingly benign prison concept. Another level has you walking around a house and doing an infinite loop of chores before your narrator removes you from the loop so you can continue on through the game.
During your trek through this collection of “levels” you are guided by your narrator, Davey. He starts off by explaining that this game isn’t his. Rather, it’s a collection of games from a friend he met at a game jam. Over the course of 6 years, Davey’s friend Coda sent him all these different games for Davey to try out. The ensuing narration is the rise and fall of a friendship, Coda’s social reclusive-ness, and Davey’s self-doubt.
But that’s Davey’s story, not ours for the purpose of this article. Instead, I want to focus on the themes within the game. Each level is rooted in some kind of recognizable reality but has abstractions that are some of the most interesting symbols for mental illness I’ve ever seen.
Quite frankly, I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know how to convey to you the buildup this game presents. But I’m going to do my best by analyzing a few of the levels within game and my personal interpretations are.
The Staircase is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a level about a staircase. You start at the bottom and walk upwards. It’s as simple as that. Except for the part where you slow down as you climb steps to the point where you can barely perceive that you’re moving. At the top of a staircase is a door that’s open, just waiting for you to get to. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel in this situation, but it would take ages to get there without the narrator allowing you to speed up your character once again.
So once he allows this, you go up into a room where text boxes of short video game ideas are floating in the air. There’s so many of them you can’t read them all before you’re whisked away to a new level. It shows the depth of Coda’s ideas and how his brain has concocted so many original plans.
But he’s stuck. He can see his ideas, but he can’t make them a reality. That’s the metaphor behind the staircase. It’s a relentless climb with a goal just out of reach. Only through great duress, or the help of another, can the end be reached. Coda has all these ideas but something is keeping him from getting to them.
The Endless Fight
That’s what it’s like to suffer from depression and anxiety. You have all these great ideas, all these ambitions and goals and wonderful, wonderful thoughts, but getting them to come out of you is a struggle. Part of having depression is having lethargy, apathy, and even chronic fatigue. It makes it physically impossible to get things done because the mind of the afflicted simply won’t let them. Meanwhile, having anxiety can work in a different manner to the same effect. The person’s mind will conjure up every and any horrible possibility that can come from a situation to the point where the person will avoid a subject or activity entirely. In their mind, it’s easier to ignore and avoid a situation than it is to confront it.
And these two things can feed off each other as well. A person with depression can become upset at a situation they can’t fix, but then their anxiety will make them worry about it, but then they’ll become even more depressed because they’re having anxiety. Eventually, the person is buried under their own thoughts, and it takes the help of others to pull them out of their self-obsessive mire.
The Cleaning Cycle
I had a bit of a different interpretation for this level than the game’s narrator. This level features a modern style house with a faceless NPC who is a house cleaner. When you show up, the NPC asks if you could help with the cleaning. Then you commence an endless cycle of cleaning the house by fixing rugs, making the beds, cleaning the tub, putting away the dishes, clearing off the dining table and so on. These are all simple tasks since they can be done by simply pressing the action button, so it gets a little monotonous.
All of your cleaning is punctuated by brief conversations with the NPC who comments on how the cleaning life isn’t so glamorous, but they go about it anyways. It’s not about living a glamorous life but doing what you need to in order to take care of yourself. The narrator eventually has to stop the infinite loop of cleaning and comments on his interpretation about moving on from something that has you stuck.
However, this level hit me on a different note…
“Oh I’m so OCD about that!”
A statement that makes my blood boil. It’s a phrase that I hear too often and it’s understandable how colloquialism have made their way into our language. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a rather odd psychological disorder in which the afflicted person has thoughts that are illogically founded and are relentless in interrupting the person’s ability to think. These thoughts are all consuming and prevent the person from being able to think about anything else until they give themselves over to their thoughts.
Some people are nitpicky or have their own personal quirks, but OCD is more than that. In the case of this game, they have you cleaning a house and without the narrator to move you forward, it would be an endless loop. For some people, this is what OCD presents, a train of thought that is endless and consuming. In some cases, yes, it is about cleanliness. In fact, organization and cleanliness are two of the most common intrusive thoughts for suffers of OCD.
But for others, OCD can mean some drastic things. Sometimes it means self-harm. A person can’t stop thinking about the “need” to be self-injurious even though it doesn’t make sense in reality. Other times it’s a matter of consumption or lack thereof. A person cannot stop eating or purging (forcing one’s self to throw up) because again, their psychological functions are saying that it’s necessary. There are even some bizarre cases of OCD out there.
In the book, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop,” the author details various case studies of OCD. One in particular is odd in that the young women’s thoughts were tied to her having the compulsive need to eat the wall in her room. You can imagine what years of consuming construction materials can do to one’s internal organs. And this goes to show how OCD is less of a need to clean and more on how drastic the intrusive thoughts can really be.
And this game depicts the struggle, for however brief, that OCD can trap someone in an endless cycle.
This level is one of the more impactful ones in terms of visuals. You’re tasked with climbing the inside of a desolate and seemingly endless tower. The feeling of coldness and isolation is really driven home as the concrete and metal textures are combined with the vastness of the tower stretching up into oblivion. Your climb is again narrated by Davey and he even comments on how the level feels distant and isolating, like Coda was trying to craft something symbolic of how lonely he was inside and out. And Coda succeeded…
Words are lost
One of the hardest parts about depression is trying to explain to others exactly how you feel. The Tower does a great job of visualizing this. Coda’s creation has two symbolic meanings that I’ve found. The first is the internal isolation. When you’re depressed, you have this physical feeling of emptiness, that your skin and bones are a shell, and the real you is a much smaller version floating in the blackness between your outer shell and inner-, actual-self. The Tower is this massive structure that stretches as far as the eye can see. And it is impossible to leave.
The other aspect of The Tower’s symbolizing depression is that The Tower was actually designed to keep people out. There are unsolvable puzzles placed in your way that Davey has to give you ways around or you’d never be able to get through them. And at the top of the Tower you find a rather drastic reality about Davey and Coda’s relationship.
Another part of depression is shutting off one’s self from those around them. At times, a depressed person will feel burdensome, or simply the idea of socializing is displeasing. Again, these are thoughts that are unfortunately unavoidable and often wrong. In this case, depressive people will make excuses and simply avoid contact with others because the strain of having to simply be a person is too much. They’ve set up their own tower, an impregnable fortress where they can retreat and no one can reach them.
You Dear Writer’s Thoughts on The Beginner’s Guide
This article was probably the most challenging one I’ve had to write yet. First off, there was the game itself. The first time I played it, my day was over. I was hit so hard by the impact of the story I had to go lay down and sleep it off. There were so many aspects of this game that hit me in too many sore places. It was a kind of hurt that I needed. It was cathartic but exhausting.
And then there was the scope of the game. This game works on so many levels that it was hard for me to narrow down what to talk about. The physical levels themselves can be played without the dialogue and be impactful in and of themselves. Then there’s the story of Davey and Coda’s relationship to discuss. I just couldn’t pick one thing to talk about. It was impossible. So I chose some highlights to talk about different subjects in each one.
The Beginner’s Game encompasses so many different aspects of life’s struggles as well as mental illnesses that I can’t possibly talk about them all here. I would highly recommend you check this game out. It’s short, cheap, and it’ll go to help the developer who I desperately hope will keep making games.
Trigger Warnings for The Beginner’s Guide: The game itself doesn’t have any visually striking images. There’s no violence to speak of. More so, the story between Davey and Coda can get really heavy at times. Once I started relating to their struggle, I found myself dealing with emotions I couldn’t explain. But I’d rather not let this deter you. It was ultimately a cathartic experience and one I’m glad I had. If you’re looking for a piece of fiction to commiserate and relate to, I’d say give this one a shot.
Dylan Robert , dubbed 0ptimysticGamer for his boundless love of video games as a form of art and entertainment. You can follow him on twitter at @0ptimisticgamer!