"The Beginner's Guide" Review: Getting to Know Someone
When “The Stanley Parable” was released in July of 2011, it was met with critical acclaim. The game’s excellent use of narration and subversion of players’ expectations turned a mere “walking simulator” “art game” into something that was enjoyable without being irritating or too pretentious.
The lone developer, Davey Wreden, went from a nobody to a minor video game celebrity with “The Stanley Parable,” and so his next game, “The Beginner’s Guide,” came in with high expectations.
The best tone-setter for “The Beginner’s Guide” is the game’s own announcement, which came out on September 28, a mere 48 hours before its release on October 1. The game had nothing in the way of marketing except for a single-page website that contained the game’s title, release date and that it was being released by a new publisher, Everything Unlimited Ltd. Wreden releases a scant few enigmatic screenshots on Twitter with no context. There was a brick building in the middle of an untextured white environment and a theater stage, but no explanation. To say that “The Beginner’s Guide” was a mysterious game was a bit of an understatement.
The lack of marketing and hype could have been chalked-up to the independent nature of the game. But after playing “The Beginner’s Guide,” it’s clear that the lack of information going into the game was intentional.
Just like “The Stanley Parable,” “The Beginner’s Guide” is best experienced completely blind and possibly in one sitting. They are both minimalistic narrative-driven games played from a first person perspective with little gameplay beyond moving around and looking. But the ongoing narration carries both games. The former being a hilarious subversion of video games, the latter being a tense character study of a game maker.
In “The Beginner’s Guide,” the player is immediately greeted by the voice of Wreden himself. It’s immediately obvious that this is a game that knows it’s a game, and that Wreden is using the medium for a specific purpose. Said purpose is to show-off the levels and half-finished games made by an enigmatic friend of his named Coda.
By touring through Coda’s games with Wreden’s narration, we gradually learn who Coda is and what relationship he has with Wreden. From there, the game spirals down the rabbit hole of introspection and discovery with a tone that borders on psychological horror.
Games like “The Beginner’s Guide” often receive criticism for that “walking simulator” nature and lack of gameplay. Players are often tasked with just walking around, looking at stuff, as a narrator reads lines that are supposed to be deep and meaningful. These games are often short (“The Beginner’s Guide” was finished in less than 90 minutes) and stuffed with pretention.
Where so many “art games” fail is that they attempt to convey meaning and thought beyond their actual capacity to do so. Often their overall narrative is not actually strong enough to maintain the player’s interest over the length of the game, or purposefully obtuse gameplay distracts players’ attention.
Sometimes “art games” also lack an inherent sense of humanity that allows a player to empathize with the narrative, and thus players can never make the necessary emotional connections to actually care about what the game is trying to say.
“The Beginner’s Guide” sidesteps those issues gracefully. The framing device of Wreden himself introducing the player to games developed by a friend allows the player to understand Wreden’s own mission to understand the mysterious Coda. The short length of the game means the game does not overstay its welcome, and the individual portions of the game are only just long enough to get their point across.
Then there’s the strength of Wreden’s spoken narration.
As the game goes one, the player learns just as much about Wreden as we do about Coda. The inherent symbolism and metaphors within the game are usually obvious enough, and even blatantly explained by Wreden. But that’s when the meaning passes from the game itself to Wreden.
Soon it becomes difficult to discern if Wreden is talking about Coda, about himself, game development or even the notion of creativity and art itself. His voice and words become less confident and less “read,” as if he is actually acting and reacting as the game goes on.
This creates a deeply personal end game that borders on uncomfortable. By the end, it becomes difficult to tell if the game is biographical, autobiographical or even fictional entirely.
“The Beginner’s Guide” may not be for everyone. The lack of gameplay will turn off many and pretension can still be found by those players not accustomed to a narrative-focused game. But the game is cheap and short, so trying it out is almost no problem.
If an actual good art game is something that interests you, and you’re willing to let yourself get uncomfortably close to someone through a video game, “The Beginner’s Guide” will not disappoint.