Recently, I’ve been thinking about a certain thesis surrounding video games: we’re currently in a renaissance, similar to the one that independent film went through in 1994 (and we’ll be talking about cinema a lot here, just to preface for you, the reader). It’s suddenly much easier for people to explore this young, artistic medium and create to their heart’s content, then to share those creations with the world. It’s an incredible, wild-west sort of landscape that opens up video games more so to the more film-centric concept of “auteur-theory.” Writer and game developer Davey Wreden, creator of the brilliant The Stanley Parable from a couple years ago, comes back with a new game in The Beginner’s Guide, which explores this thoroughly, not only from a creative standpoint, but from a personal, existential one as well.
As such a singular experience, I’m going to have a short review out right here, so if you’re even interested by the notion of “a new game and experience from the guy that made The Stanley Parable”, I will say that it is worth the $10. It’s so intriguing and creatively charged for a game in its independent landscape that I recommend the game and experience; it’s quite good. So yeah, stop reading here if you want to go in untainted, and simply enjoy. Maybe come back after for a little bit of discussion and exploration, because from here on out, I’ll be prodding at this game’s mystique, and how it’s approached as a story, video game, and dark, foggy space in-between.
The basic set up of The Beginner’s Guide is almost like a personally confrontational documentary in the form of an adventure video game. The interactivity here doesn’t lie in choice, but purely in experience. Creator Davey Wreden introduces and guides us through the game, essentially presenting it as a series of game prototypes from a developer friend of his named Coda, whose work inspired analyzing and interpretation for their abstract, expressive design. Often these games explore deep emotional troubles, such as anxiety and depression through the locales of theaters, homes, prisons, and caves. Each level tends to include a puzzle (in fact, generally the same puzzle), or simple item interaction, and eventually dialogue prompts with branching choices, though the branching effect doesn’t seem to stretch too far in multiple paths.
Wreden charts the games on a linear timeline (from Coda’s early work in 2009 to what seem to be his last games in 2011), and even helps you past some of the games’ imperfect or impossible moments, followed by very direct narration and even control on the exhibitions. During gameplay, he analyzes pretty deeply what each aspect means, and how it relates to Coda as a game designer, and a developing, isolated human being. Sometimes it is hard to even stay focused on the gameplay and narration at the same time.
As you progress, the games get stranger and even creepier, if not more provocative or engaging on their pure strangeness. Playing these individual games and levels function like putting on someone else’s shoes and walking around, trying to get an understanding of the art, the artist, and their emotional connection. It gets quite heavy and melancholy to a philosophical extent; the levels of tone are quite fearless, willing to jab at some really dark questions about life and creativity.
Wreden as a narrator and director really digs deep with every move, and it’s a storytelling choice that I find both ambitious in its turnout, but inherently cumbersome in delivery. Many people would consider these types of Source-engine games “walking simulators”, and while yes, the mode of gameplay is quite simplistic, it’s at least for the sake of the narrative, and even relevant to today’s independent games landscape. Plus, once you start to feel it get dull, the game jerks things back into a cycle of intrigue, with design motifs and off-kilter actions taken through the seemingly simple mechanics.
Where it gets a little troublesome is when the narrative itself is overbearing, thus causing the gameplay and the pacing to be slightly off. I had similar problems with a game like Portal 2, wherein there are maybe two or three more levels than necessary before the next plot beat, and when it comes, it’s either too sudden, or overdue. A lot of independent games struggle with this, and some work around it, like last year’s Jazzpunk with jokes per minute rattling off, or the aforementioned The Stanley Parable, that at least has the hook of effective choice within play. It’s a strange problem to have, but a game like The Beginner’s Guide has such strong narrative ambition, striking similarities to fiction/non-fiction line-blurring documentary films, or the work of Charlie Kaufman. The mind-bending qualities at hand, as a result, never make form and function easy to take in.
The Beginner’s Guide is about the boiled down essence of control, thrust forward at the narrator’s emotional clip. He can change the game on you at any time, or sometimes just let you go, which can be confusing for the player on occasion, determining how much actual control or depth there is in front of them. This adds to a sense of eeriness in each level, which are already filled with a dreadful isolation. As it moves along, the feeling of being observed, even by Davey as the narrator, starts to get a little unnerving. I won’t go in depth into why or how, as I feel the narrative is the mojo this game deserves to flaunt; just know that it truly goes places, and is clever enough to earn it at least on paper.
The designs of each game and level not only maintain artistic motifs, but progress in breadth, intensity, and ingenuity. From funny to creepy, and often to the downright melancholic, it is one hell of an emotional roller-coaster on a beat-to-beat basis. It’s a beautiful looking game, and as it unfolded every cinematic and gameplay trick it had, The Beginner’s Guide managed to capture my attention on the spot. In a way, what goes on here is a magic trick, with revelations, twists, turns, and, as expected from the creator of The Stanley Parable, a pretty incredible script and tale. Though the overall experience spans, really, no less than 2 hours in runtime, it’s a good play, especially for the price of a slightly discounted movie ticket. The replay value isn’t necessarily through the roof, unless you want to share the narrative with someone and re-experience it that way. These “games” work more as parts adding up to a whole than individual sequences, though when they come up, they strike a nerve or two no matter what.
By this point, I’m sure you’ve decided whether or not this game is for you. It’s a moody, interesting experience that can open up a lot of discussion, or just generally satisfy the part of your mind that likes reading New Yorker articles and watching documentaries about people who make sushi and would rather die than do anything else. I compare the game to cinema, and I mean it as a compliment, but this game’s unique edge comes directly from the fact that it is being directly curated and played. This game is ABOUT games, though explores that concept in ways that affect the very idea of creating art as a whole. It works within a formula, albeit a new one; a new way of looking at video games and how they play. It stretches boundaries within the medium, but definitely still needs some more experimentation. Games by Davey Wreden are fantastic, progressive steps in the right direction, even if it still succumbs to inherent design pitfalls. For trying, and this being the result, it’s absolutely applause-worthy. I’m glad someone like Wreden is bothering to poke at the possibilities of video games in such a fashion. It legitimizes the beauty of the art in a very modern and relevant way, which deserves major kudos.
Despite getting confused within its own walls, The Beginner’s Guide is a poignant, progressive exploration of art, and the artist.