Back to the Backlog: The Beginner’s Guide Review

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A New Parable

I began playing The Beginner’s Guide thinking I was playing a documentary. Thirty minutes passed, and I felt like perhaps I was actually playing a love letter from one game developer to another. An hour later, the game had concluded and I’m now convinced I’ve been playing a clever, but scathing social commentary.

Following the excellent genre-exposing The Stanley Parable was always going to be a challenge for developer Davey Wreden. How do you create a video game after creating a seminal work dissecting their very nature?

The Beginner’s Guide, released by Everything Unlimited Ltd. in 2015, is the answer to that question. Much like its predecessor, it takes the shape of a first-person walking simulator directed by narration from Wreden himself. This time the player is not Stanley, or any other fictional character designed to push a narrative. Wreden begins The Beginner’s Guide with a white screen and the following narration. “My name is Davey Wreden, I wrote The Stanley Parable. And while that game tells a pretty absurd story, today I’m going to tell you about a series of events that happened between 2008 and 2011.”

The Beginner's Guide stage screenshot

A Learning Journey

The series of events referenced are Wreden’s associations with another game developer called Coda. The Beginner’s Guide allows Wreden to speak as himself, and the player to simply be the player. You experience a virtual museum of minutes-long video game concepts that Coda has written over a three-year period. Through the earnest narration, and over a dozen playable game areas, The Beginner’s Guide takes the player on a learning journey to understand the personality and motivations of Coda and his relationship to Davey.

The games themselves are barely passable as games, and one of the many themes explored by Wreden throughout is what makes a game playable or unplayable. The relationship between video games and their players was thoroughly dissected in 2011’s The Stanley Parable, but Wreden more directly addresses the issue here, as many of Coda’s environments intentionally prevent the player progressing. One example is a jail cell that locks the player inside, and Wreden explains that it is designed to only open after an hour has passed. Here, as in other occasions, Wreden-as-narrator intervenes in the interest of progress, altering the game code to let you through.

Outside of these moments, the games play out as a series of corridors built within Valve’s Source engine. For this reason, the games are graphically unimpressive compared to modern visuals, and technically have little more for the player to do than move forward and interact with doors and switches. A crude dialogue choice system exists later into the game, but there is no purpose to the decisions made from the available options. The result is a varied experience between individual areas— some areas have strong evocative settings and eerie, stirring soundtracks, but others are no more complex than a corridor with some stairs. Much like a museum or even a skit show, individual pieces fly by quickly and some of the concepts land harder than others— Wreden’s voice is ever-present to critique these moments along with the player.

The Beginner's Guide word wall

The Role of Perspective

Early on it is made clear that the game prototypes are being shown off without the permission of Coda, with the suggested ambition of returning him to his passion of making games. This knowledge gives The Beginner’s Guide a voyeuristic slant, not unlike other “walking simulator” games such as Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch. The games that make up Coda’s journey are intimate reflections of his art and his self, and his relationship to game development. Wreden’s poignant observations throughout seek to dissect the mind of the man behind the code.

Players looking for a complete gaming experience will find little purchase with The Beginner’s Guide. From a pure gameplay standpoint, there is little here to review, and the full on-rails experience lasted less than two hours. However, the reason to dig The Beginner’s Guide out of your backlog is to experience the meaningful narrative and social commentary that makes it an interesting experiment. Wreden explores themes of human perfection, imprisonment, social anxiety, depression and how art reflects the inner self. He also continues the mission statement started in The Stanley Parable, questioning the relationship between player and game, game and developer, developer and player.

The Beginner’s Guide is a smaller experience than its predecessor and does not offer replayability or multiple endings. What it does offer is an analysis of the role of perspective, and the ending satisfies in offering a twist in how perspective can influence narrative. Sadly, Wreden foreshadows the conclusion too heavily through the story, including his narration, but that doesn’t soften the impact and through its two-hours of play you will be constantly revising your personal understanding of the game.

The Beginner's Guide press

Conclusion

Some have suggested that the reason for the title, The Beginner’s Guide, is because Wreden intends this game as a beginner’s guide to the process that led him to develop The Stanley Parable. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend The Beginner’s Guide over its more critically acclaimed predecessor. Many of the themes explored were better positioned in The Stanley Parable and in a more complete and subtle gaming experience. However, if you enjoyed that seminal work and want to see more behind the mind of its creator, The Beginner’s Guide achieves that goal and provides a thought-provoking interactive fiction for the two hours it lasts.


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The Beginner's Guide

6.99
7.1

Score

7.1/10

Pros

  • Unique mode of storytelling
  • Thought-provoking social commentary
  • Evocative environments

Cons

  • Minimal gameplay
  • Dated Source engine visuals
  • Short play time
gavin hart

I have had a passion for writing almost as long as my passion for video games. Which came first, the controller or the pen?

My earliest memories include stapling A4 papers together to make books to write on, and playing Super Mario on the NES with my brother. Now I play a huge variety of game genres, platforms and styles, from indie to AAA, from 2 hour experiences to 50 hour marathons, from RTS to FPS to RPG and every three letter acronym in-between.

E-mail: gavinlhart@googlemail.com

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