The Beginner's Guide review: A weird, fiercely personal game

Surreal to a fault.

The Beginner's Guide

Here’s Davey Wreden’s Steam description for his latest game, The Beginner’s Guide:

The Beginner’s Guide is a narrative video game from Davey Wreden, the creator of The Stanley Parable. It lasts about an hour and a half and has no traditional mechanics, no goals or objectives. Instead, it tells the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand.”

Turns out this disarmingly honest appraisal is a sign of what’s to come. To get a bit more specific: The Beginner’s Guide is short, weird, and either fiercely personal or painfully self-indulgent—or both, if you’d prefer.

New beginnings

The game opens with Davey Wreden himself narrating. What we’re about to experience is, he says, a compilation of games made by his friend Coda between 2008 and 2011. Wreden’s goal is to demonstrate that the player can get to know a designer through his or her work—that given enough examples of Coda’s games, we’ll be able to understand him.

The Beginner’s Guide

It’s an interesting pursuit in video games, given that most are not the work of a singular individual. Few people become household names in this industry—Ken Levine, Sid Meier, Tim Schafer, Cliff Bleszinski—and most of those were supported by teams of dozens or even hundreds of people. Auteur theory tends to break down in video games even quicker than it does in film.

But the works compiled in The Beginner’s Guide are different. They’re small, they’re experimental. They’re the half-formed games you find on the fringes of the indie scene, spawned from a single idea and sketched into being. They’re the gaming equivalent of art house cinema.

There’s the level where you can only walk backwards. There’s the level about doing chores. There’s the level where you’re halfway up a flight of stairs and Coda slows your movement speed to a crawl. We get about a dozen glimpses into Coda’s mind, through The Beginner’s Guide. And Wreden’s around to talk us through them. Here, he explains some decision Coda made. There, he rationalizes why Coda made such and such level.

The Beginner’s Guide

Wreden even helps the player past some particularly frustrating points. He skips us past a labyrinth, admitting he doesn’t really know why Coda put it in. When Coda forces the player’s movement speed to a crawl, Wreden tells us he’s fixed it so if we hit Enter we’ll go back to full speed. He builds us a bridge over an invisible death trap.

He thinks Coda is a genius.

The thing about The Beginner’s Guide—what makes it interesting—is how many different readings it supports. Where Stanley Parable was a deconstruction of video games, The Beginner’s Guide is one step further removed—a deconstruction of the discussion around video games.

There’s a theory in literary criticism known as “Death of the Author.” To put it plainly, it says we should judge each work on its own, regardless of the life experiences, politics, religion, et cetera of the author. We shouldn’t seek to know what the author meant, but instead to interpret a work of fiction in light of our own lives.

The Beginner’s Guide

It’s a question that’s doubly important in games, because authorial intent is often limited at best. There is no way to ensure players experience the game “the correct way,” and thus it’s often impossible to ensure a game conveys what its author/designer intends.

The Stanley Parable played with these ideas, but Death of the Author is central to The Beginner’s Guide. As Wreden talks us through Coda’s works, offering up interpretations and opinions, it raises questions: What role does the creator play in games? Does a creator owe anything to the audience, or vice versa? Is a game something personal or something public? Does designing a game for other people to play necessarily change the way the game is constructed and thus change the message?

And when Wreden allows us to bypass Coda’s vision—to, for instance, skip past a labyrinth because the act of solving that labyrinth is in his mind meaningless—has he interpreted Coda’s works correctly or has he in that very act ruined some valuable part of the message?

When Coda spends six months making prison levels, does it reflect something about the creator or...does Coda just find prisons fascinating?

The Beginner’s Guide

I began to wonder about this last question (or at least the ideas behind that last question) from the very first level, as Wreden talked me through Coda’s first “game”—actually a modified Counter-Strike map. Here, Wreden expounded on Coda’s genius. The way he subverted expectations by placing random floating boxes, or dousing objects in abstract splashes of color. This, he says, is a window into Coda’s process.

And maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just a result of Coda playing around in a level editor, doing what everyone does—adding random boxes and testing out the texturing tools. Both are pretty common, mindless pursuits.

Is Coda a genius? Is Wreden correct? Incorrect? Does it matter? We’re determined to ascribe meaning, to find meaning even where there is none. Whether or not that’s a valid approach—that question lies at the heart of The Beginner’s Guide.

But…

Whether it’s worth playing? That’s a much harder question. Again, I’d refer you to Wreden’s Steam description. If the idea of a game that “lasts about an hour and a half and has no traditional mechanics, no goals or objectives” sends you into conniptions, well, turn and walk away.

The Beginner’s Guide

And I don’t even think The Beginner’s Guide is entirely successful. The levels are by and large not incredibly interesting. You could say “That’s part of the point” and make a compelling case, but it doesn’t change the fact these are mostly throwaway ideas contrived so Wreden can draw out some meaning. They’re musings over the sorts of weird experiments all creators do. The difference being that most creators don’t later package those experiments together and sell them.

Plus the final level I think undercuts its aims, due to some melodramatic voiceover on Wreden’s part that doesn’t quite (in my opinion) hit the way it was intended.

I do want to commend Wreden/”Coda” for creating some fantastic surrealist landscapes, though. Be it a million floating staircases or a cave full of tiny lights, there are some gorgeous vistas in this game I wouldn’t have expected from the aging Source Engine. The aesthetic of the game is easily the most accessible bit of it all, with each level introducing a new look.

Bottom line

It’s an unconventional game with interesting ideas—questions we don’t ask often in games, mainly because most games aren’t interested in this sort of dialog. We subsist mainly on a steady diet of summer blockbusters, and it’s not often a weird art house game like The Beginner’s Guide comes along, let alone gains any traction.

Does that mean I enjoyed it? No. I didn’t. It’s not the type of game you enjoy. It’s not fun, nor is it really meant to be fun. It’s a cerebral sort of experience—one I’m thankful I played, one which I’ve spent much of the last few days thinking about, but not one I’d invite to a party.

Whether it’ll be of interest to anyone outside of critics and creators, I’m not sure. It is, as I said, a game you’ll either applaud for its rawness or condemn as self-indulgent, or both. But at least it’ll give you plenty to talk about.

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