Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Everything Unlimited
Publisher: Everything Unlimited
The Beginner’s Guide states on its Steam page that its total runtime is just an hour and a half and that it has, “no traditional mechanics, no goals or objectives.” It’s a clear statement made in a time when Steam allows refunds provided you’ve not played for more than three hours. If you aren’t someone who enjoys or otherwise appreciates the so-called “Walking simulators” or non-traditional games that aim to deliver something a little different from the norm, such as the developer’s previous work in The Stanley Parable, then it is best to step away now – this isn’t the game for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Now having said that there’s something else we need to tackle; The Beginner’s Guide isn’t really a game that can be reviewed well, especially by someone like myself who lacks the writing brilliance of other reviewers. Frankly a game like this, at least in my view, would be best tackled by Adam Sessler and his almost terrifying vocabulary, who sadly has stepped away from reviewing games. It’s driven heavily by narration done by Davey Wreden, the game’s developer, while the gameplay is simply walking around the linear environments with the occasional interaction thrown into the mix, like pulling a lever or tapping the enter key. There’s not much to break down and examine from a traditional standpoint. Meanwhile the game’s plot is pretty personal and large parts of it are open to interpretation, making it inherently difficult to talk about in my usual manner. I feel like I know what the tale was about, but could be wrong in so many of my assumptions.
But I’ll try anyway. The game presents itself as being a real-life story about the relationship between a character by the name of Davey and another known as Coda. Davey is the narrator of the entire journey, his voice a near constant presence, while he presents to the player a series of “games” created by Coda that he has stitched together, the initial idea being to gain an insight into who Coda is by playing his unique creations that he never releases to the public and usually deletes. It’s a simple idea; through game design we can glean an insight into the inner-workings of the developer. Coda’s work is odd and baffling, ranging from a collection of prison levels to a calming jaunt doing housecleaning and a door puzzle that keeps returning, plus one level where you can only walk backwards and another that gives you a gun but nothing to shoot. Again, none of them are games in the traditional manner, forgoing almost anything that could be viewed as a gameplay mechanic. As you progress through your guided tour the tone changes as things become clearer. Pay attention and you’ll probably be able to see what’s coming quite well, but that doesn’t stop it from having quite an impact.
Comparisons to the Stanley Parable are inevitable; it’s all done from a first-person viewpoint with the player’s only interaction with the world being that of movement. However, whereas the Stanley Parable was based around the concept of player choice and a reactive narration that commented on your every decision, The Beginner’s Guide is a linear title with no room for deviation. The Stanley Parable had its dark moments, but there was always a humorous undercurrent, an absurdity to it all. In contrast The Beginner’s Guide has a few light jokes, but overall its tone is serious.
Davey’s voice comes through the speakers (or headphones. Or soundbar, even.) and explains how he met Coda, and even sometimes asks you to press enter to activate a quick shortcut over or through an area that is otherwise supposedly incomplete or will leave you standing there for an hour. A massive staircase, for example, slows players to an almost painfully slow speed, to which Wreden combats by asking you to press enter to return everything to normal speed so he can show you the room at the top, which would otherwise not be accessible. It’s a nice use of theme, especially when you rapidly jump through a few variations of a level, or Davey adds a bridge over an invisible maze. He also quietly guides you through what he thinks certain levels mean in regards to Coda’s personality, providing a guided tour of how Davey views the mysterious Coda.
So what’s it all about? Well, that’s there things become difficult. Much like talking about The Stanley Parable even attempting to break down and discuss something that is so open to interpretation is a daunting prospect, especially when it has to be kept completely spoiler free. Ultimately on the surface it seems that The Beginner’s Guide is about the developer himself, focusing on the emotions he went through after The Stanley Parable garnered so much media and public attention. But there are many other aspects to the short story that provide other ways to interpret the concepts being shown, including how it can be dangerous to try to see meaning where none may exist, or to project our own thoughts about what something is supposed to be on to a person, game or piece of art. It touches upon how we often reflect our own ideals, weaknesses, strengths and joys on other people. I could even argue that The Beginner’s Guide could be seen as the rocky relationship between publishers and developers. In a short time it hits on quite a few notes that will resonate with people, most of which probably aren’t deliberate but are a natural byproducts of the subject matter.
To say anything more would damage any experience that you’d have with the game, and truthfully what I’ve already said is probably too much as you’ll be sent in with certain expectations, when really that’s the opposite of what you should go into The Beginner’s Guide with. You need to head in with an open mind. Arguably it’s even better to head into the game without having every played The Stanley Parable since even that will somewhat color your expectations in much the same way that someone going into the latest Michael Bay movie has certain expectations regarding insane explosions and low-down, spinning camera shots.
It’s one of those games that I foresee having one of three effects; you’re either going to find the concept itself fascinating and thus appreciate the game as a piece of interactive art regardless of your actual opinion about the art itself; you’re going to connect with the game on a personal level thanks to its subject matter, or you’re going to be bloody baffled by the entire thing and demand a refund at the end. For me there wasn’t a hugely personal connection, which is slightly surprising considering how many of the themes mesh with my own life experiences. However, I was deeply intrigued by the game, its concept, its storyline and what it was attempting to say. Toward the end the writing slips up and damages its own logic, although that could arguably be explained away by…well. again, spoilers and stuff. Even so I was hooked from start to finish, and was left with the feeling that the hour and a half it took me to complete the game was absolutely spot-on. It didn’t need to be any longer, or anything less would not have worked, either.
Before we round off this review I suppose we can touch upon the graphics and technical aspects of the game…or games. Whatever. From a technical perspective The Beginner’s Guide is very basic looking, which in turn means that provided you’ve got a computer from the last ten years you can probably run it just fine. However, despite its simplistic textures and lack of detail the adventure still manages to deliver some lovely visual moments, such as a house perched in the middle of a pure white environment. The audio design is incredibly basic, again in keeping with the overall theme of the game. Coda works using the Source engine and doesn’t have any sort of funding, thus his games are very basic on a technical level. Davey Wreden, though, does provide some impressive voice-over work, even if in the latter stages of the game he can’t quite stop himself from sounding like he’s reading from a script when the dialogue demands a rawer, unscripted feeling. Given that he’s not a professional and presumably hasn’t any form of training nor much experience, though, Wreden performs incredibly well.
We’re also left with a question over how real the story is. The way everything is presented is clearly aimed to make it feel like Coda is a real person, that these really are his games and that Davey stitched them together to form The Beginner’s Guide. But whether Coda is real or based upon a real person and whether most of what happened between he and Davey is real or based upon reality is hard to tell. Without spoiling anything, or at least trying to, then if what the The Beginner’s Guide tells me toward the closing stages of the game is true then I wouldn’t be writing this review. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. But I’m confident in saying that character of Coda and Coda’s games are fabrications built for the purpose of The Beginner’s Guide. I believe that there’s plenty of truth here, and that Coda may be based loosely on someone real, but that for the most part The Beginner’s Guide is semi-autobiographical fiction.
For everything good that you can say about The Beginner’s Guide you can counter it with a perfectly valid argument, such is the nature of any work like this. It’s the reason art sparks so many heated debates, and yes, I’m going to say The Beginners Guide is art, because I firmly believe that just like movies and books games are an artform.
You could argue that it’s self-indulgent and you wouldn’t be wrong, because it is. You could argue that its pretentious and that ultimately its a hollow experience, and you wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, depending on what you’ve personally taken away from the journey. Such is the nature of art. Its divisive and subjective.
The Beginner’s Guide knows this, and thus while the relationship between Davey and Coda plays out the game also talks about what games are and how they’re made, idly wondering if they need to have specific objectives or if it even matters if a game can be “completed.” It explores what games are, what they could be, how they can be a window into the mindset of the developer and how sometimes a game is just a game, nothing more, nothing less. It’s about creativity, despair, depression, insight and perception. It’s about how with the rise of indie developers games are now more personal than ever.
And that makes it a bit of a pain in the arse for me to review. With traditional game mechanics there’s plenty of room for subjective taste, but I can at least say with high certainty when something actually works and works well. I can’t do with The Beginners Guide. It’s with a sense of reservation, then, that I’m going to slap a sticker of recommendation here, because the game has stuck itself into my mind and isn’t letting go at the moment. If you have no problem with “walking simulators” or games that attempt to do something different then it’s worth your time and your money. If you do have a problem with them then don’t bother; you won’t get it. You’ll probably hate it, and end up talking about how pretentious or over-hyped it is on a forum, which interestingly means you’ve become part of what it’s all about, a never-ending discussion on what is and is not art, and whether something so personal and open to interpretation is genius or bullshit.
Oh God, it’s too damn early in this morning for this sort of pseudo-intellectual thought. I’m going back to reading Batman: Endgame. At least it doesn’t try to make me think until my brain catches fire.