The Beginner’s Guide PC Review
From the mind of Davey Wreden, widely acclaimed for his work on the fantastic Stanley Parable, comes a new tale of interactive fiction. Mr. Wreden has made himself known for his ability to subvert expectation, over and over, and just when you think you know what’s to come, to have an almost literary depth make itself manifest. In this sense, The Beginner’s Guide does not disappoint. For those familiar with The Stanley Parable, the ‘expectation’ might be Wreden’s wry sense humor suited to a Portal type universe would pervade the work – this is not the case. With The Beginner’s Guide, there is an enormous tonal shift from the lighthearted to the stark; witticisms are replaced with an honest, genuine look at creation, depression, and friendship, and the bearings of these concepts on happiness.
The Beginner’s Guide has a simple premise, as narrator, Wreden takes the player through a series of games created by a friend of his, who goes by the moniker Coda, over a three year period from 2008 to 2011. By games I mean explorable setpieces with playtimes of only a handful of minutes (if that) where often Wreden himself takes control of the experience to make it “playable”; if he didn’t intervene, progress would be, at times, actually impossible. These games aren’t polished, they aren’t meant for mainstream consumption. Wreden himself notes Coda never meant these games to be played; he would create them simply to create them. This will be the hardest thing for the average gamer to get past. While The Stanley Parable toyed with what the role of choice in a game is, The Beginner’s Guide readily gives the player none. With $10 to spend (the game launching with a 20% off sale, and normally retailing for $10) many will surely find themselves more engaged and entertained by two episodes of Life Is Strange or any Telltale game; however, these people are probably missing the point. The goal of The Beginner’s Guide isn’t to entertain, but to explore the nature of digital entertainment itself from both the viewpoint of the player and developer.
What conversation does The Beginner’s Guide insist on having? As the game unfolds, Coda’s games become less and less abstract think-pieces, digital punchlines punctuated by the completion of a level, and more and more cohesive experiences. These games, as a collection, document Coda’s struggle to find meaning in creation or with what he’s created, and on another plane, Wreden’s difficulty in interpreting the emotions of and helping his friend. Coda’s growing apathy coincides with Wreden’s increasing frustration and feelings of ineptitude until Wreden’s attempts to ‘fix’ his friend blow up in his face and force Wreden to confront the deeper issue at hand: his own need to seek validation and derive meaning from the approval of others.
Who truly was in crisis, and to what extent, is left up to the player. Part of what makes this game brilliant is its ambiguity. What I took from this experience is a thoughtful lesson on the pressures of creation and artistic expression juxtaposed with the end goal of creation itself: fulfillment and happiness. Someone could read this game totally differently – yes, read, just like a good novel, The Beginner’s Guide is open to interpretation.
The Beginner’s Guide is a poignant and thought-provoking journey into the minds of game developers who are merely people with struggles and insecurities of their own. $10 might seem a steep price tag for an hour and a half of playtime without traditional mechanics, goals, or objectives, but if you take a chance you might find yourself moved (and even changed) by the time the credits roll.