Games like The Beginner’s Guide aren’t easy to review. It’s not that I’m at a loss for words; quite the opposite, really. The thing is, where exactly do I begin? How do I describe a narrative-based title without divulging too much of the story? How do I talk about an experimental game without spoiling the surprises? How do I review a game that’s not really a game at all?
I guess the best place to start is to offer up some context. The Beginner’s Guide is the brainchild of Davey Wreden, who achieved critical acclaim in 2013 with his surreal, experimental game The Stanley Parable. If you’ve not played it – and really, you should rectify that immediately if it’s the case – then you’ll know it’s the functional equivalent of Dadaism in game form. It took glee in tearing down typical gaming conventions and it toyed with player perceptions with tongue firmly embedded in cheek.
The Beginner’s Guide, however, is a different beast moulded from the same clay. It dispenses with the humour and has Wreden himself take on the role of omniscient narrator. He presents to players a series of small, Source engine-based games developed by a friend of his he calls Coda. Wreden implores players to view each game as would a connoisseur, suggesting that they’re an insight into the mind of his friend, reflecting his own ideas, personality, insecurities and struggles. Many of the games are walking simulators with single gimmicks, though there are a few surprises such as a puzzle, a rudimentary first-person shooter and even an abstract Counter-Strike map.
As the game progresses, Wreden rapidly develops the dual role of narrator and museum curator, explaining his own interpretation of Coda’s games while inviting players to draw their own conclusions. For the sake of keeping this review spoiler-free I won’t go into specific details, but suffice to say things take a darker, more sinister turn before too long.
“It’s a reminder that you get a glimpse into someone’s mind by playing the games they develop…”
Coda is a mystery unto itself. Wreden remains extremely vague about this person’s identity, offering scant details about their friendship and the challenges that resulted from it. Their relationship is described as difficult, with assorted creative differences and various heated exchanges. There is also the possibility that Coda doesn’t exist at all and is merely a pseudonym for Wreden himself. It would offer an ironic twist in that players would be examining a dual personality, one side speaking directly while the other side shows its creations with little regard for human interaction.
In the end, Coda’s identity actually doesn’t matter. What matters are the themes that The Beginner’s Guide explores, such as loneliness, depression, isolation, self-doubt and the need for recognition and validation. All of these ideas are presented within the games on show, sometimes overtly and sometimes by subtext alone. It’s a reminder that you get a glimpse into someone’s mind by playing the games they develop, and it’s new and refreshing. It’s also surprisingly emotional, and I walked away from the experience feeling like I got punched in the gut.
The Beginner’s Guide may not be what the world was expecting as a follow-up to The Stanley Parable, but it’s nonetheless a worthy successor which pushes the boundaries of gaming just a little bit further. It’s weird, it’s avante-garde, it’s insightful and it’ll stick with you long after you’ve reached the end. Get it.