I’m pretty sure the entire foundation for The Beginner’s Guide is fictional but I know it still manages to be one of the most brutally honest games to have come along in a long time. Coming from The Stanley Parable‘s Davey Wreden, it’s clear this creator trades in honesty. With it, he has delivered one of the most impactful games you can play.
The setup begins rather benign and even exceptionally high concept. (The Steam description even reading more like a warning than an invitation.) Wreden himself bursts onto the audio landscape with a voiceover telling you that he is going to explore a series of games from another developer that is only known as Coda. He’s apparently a friend of Wreden’s and he’s since stopped spinning Source Engine yarns.
Our introduction, in fact, is what appears to be an excised portion from Counter-Strike‘s de_dust or de_dust2 maps. There’s nothing to it but a pseudo desert vibe and strange, floating or half-glitched crates amidst a blocky set of sandy brick walls. You can’t do anything but walk and look around and maybe jump or crouch if you feel the need, and it still feels oddly compelling.
Wreden then takes us chronologically through more of Coda’s odd little experiments, none of them lasting more than a few minutes with most of them phasing in and out in a matter of seconds. Wreden is deconstructing them with nearly criminal, philosophical intent. Here is a fellow who has clearly spent a lot of time playing Coda’s works and thinking about them, breaking down themes and reflections on his relationship with the creator.
Or did he? While plausible, it feels too…neat for Coda and Wreden’s lives to converge and subsequently drift apart as a one-way street of game after game flows into Wreden’s hands. There’s an uneasy similarity of aesthetics between Coda’s projects and Wreden’s. Not only that, but if this were true, it would feel prohibitively invasive to write about it. Needless to say, this review is a bit of a leap of faith in that regard.
But either way, Wreden’s analysis of Coda’s games is gripping. It starts almost clinical, like a doctoral thesis and he is in the middle of his two-hour defense. This, in and of itself, is a fascinating practice. Just the concept of having a developer break down and walk and talk through another’s lifetime of works is impossibly tantalizing.
Then it slowly descends into a personal, psychological inquiry. It’s especially revealing when Wreden leads us through a set of prison levels, an idea that Coda can’t seem to shake as he explores isolation and loneliness. Wreden has already taken us by the hand and pointed us at perhaps subconscious tells of Coda’s Freudian design schemes, and now we watch it all unravel as this man spirals out of cogency.
The final turn is heartbreaking. After the surprise of what you think the game will be and then what it might turn into before it arrives at what it is deliberate and swift and incredibly affecting. This is where the game feels the most brutally intimate while also feeling the most obviously fabricated.
I actually paused at an open door, waiting for a lump in my throat to decide if it wanted to be tears or a more masculine whimper. It’s a massive credit to the writing of Wreden’s voiceover. It’s economical, pointed, and sharp. At stages, its structure is complex enough to where the bridges between mini resolutions has equally compelling paths leading under it.
Even disregarding the veracity of Coda’s existence (this very well may turn into an Exit Through the Gift Shop or Catfish situation), the insight this game provides on the relationship between creator and player is paralyzing. There’s a question poised somewhere along the way about whether games necessarily need to be playable, with Coda providing examples of single-room, wholly empty games as playable but uninteresting products.
This invites questions of responsibility and whether either side of the equation owes anything to the other. Wreden turns off the visibility of the walls to one of Coda’s games, revealing that the one corridor you walk through is actually one of hundreds that you can never actually reach. Is it owed to the player to explore those? Should the player even want to?
As Coda begins to extract these out external symbols, Wreden wrestles with the vague semiotics of it all, dipping into the problem of other minds. He stops diving into specifics and we are led more by sensation than by critical thinking. It halts the growth of strict cerebral pleasure and turns into an appreciation.
It’s not very likely you will have a good time with The Beginner’s Guide. It’s not even likely that you’ll think back on it fondly. But the journey through its blocky walls and Coda’s brain and Wreden’s thoughts is one worth appreciating in the moment, letting it point you around at all the sights worth seeing and all the moments worth experiencing, even when they exist only in someone else’s mind.
+ Emotionally and psychologically impactful
+ Invites great questions regarding creators and players
+ A raw exploration of two minds
– Doesn’t hold up on specifics, working better on broad strokes
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: The Beginner’s Guide
Release: October 1, 2015
Genre: First-person narrative
Developer: Everything Unlimited Ltd.
Available Platforms: PC, OSX