We gamers sometimes forget how personal games are for their creators. Often they’re a reflection both the creator’s intent and the creator themselves, especially for games that are created by one person or small independent studios. I think this is partly due to the arms-length relationship most of us have with games due to the developer/publisher ecosystem, something which removes much of the potential for a personal connection. The Beginner’s Guide however is a game that attempts to connect with the player on a very personal level and, I feel, is the developer’s way of working through some of the issues he endured after the success of a previous title.
The Beginner’s Guide is a narrated collection of games from the developer’s friend who’s named Coda. They’re a loose set of quirky titles, many of which defy conventional gaming standards by having things like unsolvable puzzles, areas of grand detail that are completely inaccessible and mechanics that are actively hostile towards the player. The narrator wants to show you these titles because he wants to encourage Coda to start making games again and feels like the only way to do so is to show his craft to the wider world. Whether that will be effective or not is something we might never know, but that might not be the most interesting thing about The Beginner’s Guide.
Graphically The Beginner’s Guide certainly feels like a group of cobbled together games with varying art styles permeating throughout the course of the game. Knowing that it’s built on the Source engine gives you some insight into where the aesthetic is coming from as it does feel like an overgrown set of mods for Half Life. Apart from that there’s not much to speak of in terms of visual aesthetic as the game is much more about the levels themselves, rather than how they look.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Now this is usually the point in the review where I give you an overview of the mechanics and gameplay before I delve into each of them to give you a feel for what you can expect. However with The Beginner’s Guide, whilst there are mechanics which I could discuss, I don’t feel that’s the real point of the game at all. Instead The Beginner’s Guide is a well crafted narrative, told through the medium of games, about how the game’s developer (Davey Wreden of The Stanley Parable fame) struggled with the burden of success. Indeed it becomes very clear towards the end that Coda is a fictional character and these creations that we’re playing through are actually the product of the narrator who is dealing with his issues through the creation of this game.
I’ll admit that for the vast majority of the game I played along, figuring that this was just a quirky set of games that was cobbled together for the fun of it. Indeed there was a part of me that was annoyed at Wreden for doing so, charging me $10 for the privilege of playing games he himself did not create. However towards the end, where it’s revealed that Coda had abandoned Wreden because he simply couldn’t be around him any more, it becomes clear that this is a story of fiction. At that point though the game changed for me, instead of wondering who Coda was and why he left now I wanted to know why Wreden would create something like this. It didn’t take long to find out.
After rifling through numerous discussion threads I eventually landed on his blog, specifically the most recent post which is about The Stanley Parable’s widespread acclaim. In it he details what the success of that game has meant to him and the burden which he feels he carries for everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might not have reached the level of fame and acclaim that he has I can very much relate to the burden that success can bring to you; how success is supposed to negate all feelings of doubt or worry and erase all problems in your life. Indeed success can do quite the opposite, often dredging up issues or exacerbating current ones.
The Beginner’s Guide then serves as a catharsis for all these feelings, an expression of all the mixed feelings that a creator feels when their work is recognised and praised widely. The not-so-subtle hints towards Coda’s creative machine no longer working, the fear of being public, wanting to recluse himself away from society, all these take on new meaning when you realise they’re actually about the developer himself and not the fictional being of Coda. In that regard The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most personal games I’ve ever played and I’m very glad I did.
The Beginner’s Guide is a personal journey, both for the player and the developer. It’s Davey Wreden working through his trials and tribulations that the success of The Stanley Parable brought him and you’re along here for the ride. Indeed The Beginner’s Guide shows how games can be used as a medium to work through things like this, just like more traditional mediums have been in the past. It might not be a game for everyone, especially for those expecting something more along the lines of The Stanley Parable, but it’s a wonderful experience all the same. One that had me playing long after I closed the game down.
The Beginner’s Guide is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.5 hours.