The Beginner’s Guide

the-beginners-guide

Introduction

In 2011, a budding game creator named Davey Wreden released a free modification for Half-Life 2 named The Stanley Parable. This mod was discovered through word of mouth by William Pugh, an independent game designer who had experience creating environments using the Source engine. Noticing that Mr. Wreden was seeking suggestions for improvement, the two of them began collaborating, eventually turning The Stanley Parable into a standalone game. The project found its way onto the game distribution platform Steam in 2013 via their Greenlight service. The game was met with nearly universal critical praise, with many reviewers calling it a masterful deconstruction of the nature of choice in video games.

Having found an audience, Mr. Wreden began developing a follow-up to his acclaimed work, which he would complete in 2015. Unlike The Stanley Parable, this new game, The Beginner’s Guide, was released with little fanfare; its existence was only made known to the world a mere two days prior. The gaming press gave Mr. Wreden’s sophomore effort many accolades; Gamasutra highlighted him as one of the top ten game developers of the year, and he was nominated for two Independent Games Festival awards. In both instances, critics cited his scenarios as thought-provoking and able to change the way people look at games. It’s impressive he managed to catch their attention twice in a row amid worries that The Stanley Parable would be a tough act to follow. Does it truly escape its predecessor’s shadow and shine as an example of good video game storytelling?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: The following review will contain unmarked spoilers. Feel free to skip it if you wish to experience it for yourself.

The gameplay of The Beginner’s Guide is as simplistic as its predecessor. It’s played on a PC, and it uses a standard first-person shooter keyboard layout of “W,” “A,” “S,” and “D” to move your character. Then again, that’s a bit misleading because the person you’re controlling is yourself. The Stanley Parable pretended to have a protagonist in the form of its title character, but he was obviously a stand-in for the player, so one could say The Beginner’s Guide takes that notion to its logical extreme.

The first thing you hear upon starting a new game is the voice of the game’s creator: Davey Wreden himself. He acknowledges his previous effort, and even gives you a real email address you can use to contact him. The framing device of The Beginner’s Guide is that you’re exploring various prototypes by a fellow game creator named Coda, whom he met at a game jam in 2009. Exploring these game worlds is accompanied with commentary courtesy of Davey as he describes the significance of his friend’s works. He also gives the player insight about the relationship between the two of them, describing the many ups and downs they had over the years.

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Coda learned the art of game creation through modifying the popular first-person shooter, Counter-Strike. It initially looks like a typical player-generated map, but there are myriad crates floating in midair, lending a surreal tone to what would otherwise be a fairly mundane environment. Coda then created a game that takes place in a futuristic space station where the player is given a gun, yet it can’t be reloaded and there aren’t even any enemies to shoot. You eventually reach a labyrinth, but before you can navigate it, Davey skips you to the exit, assuming you got the idea. From this point on, Coda’s games become even more abstract in terms of content. One is a game that only permits you to walk backwards while another has you ascending a staircase until your walking speed is reduced to a crawl. As with the labyrinth, Davey attempts to alleviate the perceived boredom one would feel when performing these tasks; he opens the cell door of a prison in which you were supposed to wait an hour and by pressing “Enter” on the stairs, your speed returns to normal.

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The premise this game is predicated on can give someone the wrong impression, for the Davey Wreden who acts as your guide through the experience isn’t the genuine article despite sharing his name, voice, and email address. The most obvious hint is how doubtful it is that the real Davey Wreden would take a bunch of prototypes from a friend and publish it as his own original creation. In the context of the game, not only is Davey Wreden a fictional character, he’s arguably the villain of the scenario, albeit of a non-malicious variety. Coda made these games purely for his own enjoyment, but Davey gave copies to his friends in a misguided attempt to help him. When Coda learns of what Davey has done, he makes a game specifically for him that is impossible to win without cheating. This game openly despises its players, as it features an invisible maze that sends you back if you touch the boundaries, a five-digit locker combination you must brute force your way through, and doors which won’t open until Davey hacks the code. Once these obstacles are cleared, there are messages on the walls that, among other things, tell Davey to never contact him again and to stop modifying his games. The last revelation is a bombshell because it makes the player question how much of what they just played is actually Coda’s work and how much of it is the result of Davey’s meddling. After this, Coda quits making games altogether and is never heard from again. To make amends, Davey compiled Coda’s work, releasing it to the public under the name of “The Beginner’s Guide.”

The most prominent running theme of the game is deconstructing the idea that you can understand an artist through their work. There is a ring of truth to this assertion, as a creator’s work can’t help but reveal something about them, but many fail to grasp that you can’t make accurate assumptions unless you know them personally. In the case of Davey, he interprets the prevalence of prisons in Coda’s games as either a sign of creative stagnation or being mentally drained. Never once does Davey consider that the prisons could be completely meaningless and Coda just likes putting them in his game for its own sake. Early on, Davey draws the player’s attention to a missing texture, something that would otherwise be easy to miss, yet the reoccurring three-dot pattern passes without comment simply because it in no way fits the portrait of a tortured artist he has painted inside his head.

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He tries so hard to understand Coda through his work, yet he can’t honestly say he knows anything about him. Technically, even his gender isn’t known. The only reason I’ve been referring to Coda with masculine pronouns is because Davey does, yet the prototypes, which were originally only meant to be viewed by its creator, feature female voice acting. This reinforces the point that Davey is an unreliable narrator, and by the end, we don’t know how much of it really happened. In an instance of dramatic irony, these wild interpretations fail to tell us who Coda is, and the only person we can truly analyze based on what we know when all is said and done is Davey himself. Through his actions, he is shown to be selfish, uncaring, and oblivious to the harm he has inflicted until the relationship is utterly unsalvageable.

The analysis of fiction this game provides is certainly thought-provoking, so one could logically assume The Beginner’s Guide is a triumph of video game storytelling. What Mr. Wreden likely set out to prove was the inherit fallacy of, “The Death of the Author,” an essay written by a French literary theorist named Roland Bathes in 1967 which proposes that the creator’s interpretation of their own work is no more valid than the readers’. Unfortunately, with the method of presentation Mr. Wreden chose, what he accidently proved was that some storytelling techniques don’t translate well to a medium defined by its interactivity.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest failure of The Beginner’s Guide is that it doesn’t benefit from being played. The Stanley Parable may have set out to demonstrate the illusion of choice in interactive narratives, but you still had decisions to make – even if they were meaningless in the end. I have enjoyed games with minimalistic gameplay in the past, but even when the story is the work’s primary selling point, it’s essential to have some sort of entertainment value, for it encourages the audience to take a proactive role and engage with the material. As it stands, you don’t really play The Beginner’s Guide as much as you passively obverse it – you walk forward, wait around until something happens, and hit the occasional special key when neither of those strategies apply.

I will admit that it’s a little bit more insightful than The Stanley Parable because it touches upon themes that could be applied to fiction rather than limiting itself to being a blasé commentary on a single medium, but it’s still not enjoyable. Fans have argued that The Beginner’s Guide isn’t meant to be fun, but this very fact is the one from which I personally take the most umbrage. This is because, to be frank, this game is downright depressing. To put this in context, shortly after the Steam release of The Stanley Parable, Mr. Wreden wrote a blog post. It’s evident from reading his post that he was not prepared for the sheer amount of attention he would receive after the press nominated his work for several “Game of the Year” awards. His inbox was flooded with innumerable emails; some expressed that his work changed the way they look at games while others made him out to be a spineless coward. The volume of questions, comments, complaints, praise, and criticism became overwhelming, and it all faded into background noise. As a direct result of this, Mr. Wreden found himself battling bouts of depression, even going as far as drawing a short comic to illustrate his point.

The juxtaposition of Mr. Wreden’s highly personal blog post and the somber tone this game takes fit together too well for it to be a coincidence. The increasingly depressive prototypes, one of which includes destroying Coda’s previous work while another involves the protagonist lying to themselves that video game development is easy, could easily be seen as an allegory for Mr. Wreden’s mental state when he made that blog post. Although The Beginner’s Guide states that you can’t paint an accurate picture of an artist through their work, I feel the circumstantial evidence surrounding its development pushes this theory beyond any reasonable doubt. By playing this game, I felt as though I inadvertently signed up to be Mr. Wreden’s armchair psychologist to whom he could air his grievances for two arduous hours. Intrapersonal drama can make for compelling stories when written well, but participating in it is a tiresome process – especially when you can’t give any feedback in real time.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Somewhat interesting to talk about
Cons:

  • Nonexistent gameplay
  • Extremely short
  • Narrative isn’t compelling
  • Doesn’t even have the illusion of choice
  • Heavy-handed writing
  • Boring music

What little value The Beginner’s Guide has as an art piece lies solely in its ability to get people talking about it. In this regard, it’s doubtlessly successful, but I’m left questioning if that alone creates a worthwhile experience, and I can’t say the answer is yes. It’s true that countless people have written essays dissecting the tropes and themes covered by The Beginner’s Guide, which may sound impressive when taken at face value until you realize the same could be said about Metroid: Other M and other titles with equally abysmal storytelling. I’ve learned over the years that a work’s ability to stir up conversations is not an indication of how good it actually is.

Like The Stanley Parable before it, the biggest problem with The Beginner’s Guide is that it relies too heavily on the author’s one good idea. It’s certainly an interesting conversation piece while it lasts, but its impact lacks staying power; I would describe it as a “flavor of the month” feeling. The best stories in video games wholeheartedly embrace the medium’s oddities, and one of the biggest reasons I’m not a fan of interactive environmental narrative games, or walking simulators as detractors call them, is because they only seem to dance around the point rather than fully comprehending it. They invariably offer experiences with too little substance to justify their price points – however low they may be. Although I can’t say I enjoyed The Stanley Parable, I at least see merit in what it tried to accomplish. Its commentary may not have been insightful, but the narrative remembered to have a sense of humor about itself, and it’s a marginally better artistic statement because its whimsical nature lends a degree of self-awareness that makes playing through it tolerable. The same can’t be said of The Beginner’s Guide; it’s so wrapped up in itself that whatever points it tries to make are subverted by its overwrought angst. The Stanley Parable demonstrated Mr. Wreden’s potential as a storyteller, and the most disappointing aspect about The Beginner’s Guide is that he failed to live up to it, deciding not to venture too far from what he knew and creating something which is about as far away from fun as possible. Considering the name of the medium, one could say that’s a bit of a problem.

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Final Score: 2/10

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10 thoughts on “The Beginner’s Guide

  1. Interesting concept of a game, especially since you mention it tries to grapple with the idea that we can’t know someone by simply observing them or the things they do, but rather should be active when trying to understand someone. Too bad the game doesn’t seem like it delivered this as profoundly as the concept deserves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is an interesting concept, but playing through it is far less interesting than it sounds on paper. I’ve found that the discussions The Beginner’s Guide inspired are far more interesting than the game itself, and that’s not necessarily a sign of a quality title. If he was trying to go for a depressing tone, then I’d say he succeeded too well; even Mother 3 and The Last of Us weren’t this relentlessly somber. Despite the short length, I was actively wishing for it to end already when I was going through the last chapters. It seems like Mr. Wreden could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he simply decided to write a thorough rebuttal to Roland Bathes’s essay rather than trying to rope the player into an experience that comes across as a session with somebody else’s therapist.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am really, really happy that after the success of The Stanley Parable, he didn’t just try to repeat something along those lines. Rather, it speaks well to his integrity that he did try to mix his creations up, delivering a completely different kind of experience.

    But yeah, the experience he did give is problematic. Just like you said, it gets nothing out of being played. I found out about the game by watching a full LP of it. Then I played it myself. It was exactly the same experience both times. The Beginner’s Guide is basically a movie about video games. Sure, the player controls the pace at which it moves to some extent, but it’s just a movie. There’s no room for player agency. They just want to show you something, and don’t much care what you have to say about it.

    And yeah, there is the issue with the whole “you can’t know what the developers are thinking just from their games” when it’s something that Davey is putting a whole lot of his own personality into. Which, to be honest, it’s completely fair that what we may be gleaning from that may not be what the developer is feeling, but that doesn’t make the experience any less real for us. So take that, Death of the Author for the win.

    I wonder how much the fact that this is a commercial release lends towards my feelings on it. I got it as part of a Humble Bundle, so I didn’t pay much for it, but just the fact that this was something they expected money for put it in a different sphere for me than it would have been if it was just something they released for free. If it was one of those personal expressive releases you see so often on the internet, I doubt I would have had much to complain about it. That they charged money both changed the expectations there, and it kind of ruined the whole narrative framework of the piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I may have said that I’m disappointed that Mr. Wreden didn’t stray far from what he knew, but I do give him some credit in trying to tackle different subjects. That said, I still think the conversations about the game (such as this one) are far more interesting than actually playing it.

      Most of the time when I run into a game that I have this negative of a reaction towards, I can at least think of what could have been done to improve it, but this is one of the few times where I ultimately drew a complete blank. There are no execution issues like there were in other bad games I’ve played; Mr. Wreden captured exactly what he was going for… and that right there was the problem. The concept itself is so at odds with the medium on which it was created that trying to come up with improvements is a lost cause.

      I’m under the belief that Mr. Wreden’s depressive mental state had some kind of impact on the creation of this game; the only thing I’m not, and admittedly can never be, sure of is the extent of its influence. That whole thing about not judging an author by their work while creating something that obviously had a lot of his personality thrown in and after that depressing blog post resulted in quite a lot of cognitive dissonance, didn’t it?

      I do think you have a point, and one reason I have yet to award a walking simulator a passing grade is because I know at least one person is going to feel ripped off if I gave it my seal of approval. To be honest, the other reason is because I don’t see much potential in the genre; sometimes I wonder if it’s going to be to the 2010s what FMV titles were in the nineties. Granted, The Beginner’s Guide is only $10 (I got it for $5 when it went on sale), but so is Undertale, and if you only had that much money left to spend, I’m going to recommend the latter every time.

      Speaking of which, when I was writing this review, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why is there such a widespread backlash against walking simulators?” I know why I personally don’t care for them (they have almost no gameplay), but The Stanley Parable is one of the most popular examples of the genre, and even it got bombarded with negative user reviews on Metacritic, so I surmised there was a little more to it than my own reason – especially because it wouldn’t explain why there isn’t a similar backlash against visual novels despite sharing many of the same traits. Sure, there are people who don’t like them, but you’re not going to get conspiracy theorists trying to prove collusion when one becomes a critical darling as was the case with Gone Home.

      After thinking it over, I came up with my own theory (that hopefully comes across as a bit more sound): walking simulators evoke a feeling something similar to the Uncanny Valley effect on those who don’t enjoy them. Visual novels roll with the fact that they may not have any gameplay (some don’t even have choices to make), so the average player will go into them with different expectations than they would reserve for an experience that’s all about the gameplay such as the average Mario installment. I speculate that, on an unconscious level, walking simulators occupy the lowest spot on that parabola because even if there are no puzzles to solve or enemies to fight, the interface and what players are made to do is usually just enough to make them feel as though they’re playing a game without any of the gratification associated with doing so.

      Liked by 1 person

      • At one time, I was thinking of putting together a post about the subject, why some players have a natural aversion to the ‘environmental narrative’ games or whatever they’re technically called, and did put some thought into it before figuring I’m not educated enough on the genre to really make a thoughtful treatise about it. But hey, may as well drop those thoughts here.

        Honestly, I think the biggest factor is just what you mentioned here, the expectations. There’s going to be plenty of players, just like yourself, for whom games don’t resonate unless there’s something to play there. Even so, you may not know that until you’ve started cranking through a few walking simulators, forcing yourself to play something that’s just not a good fit for you and having a bad time because of that. Or you may be picking something up that has gotten a fair bit of hype, you’re not feeling anything near worth that hype because, again, it’s not a good fit for you, and you add your voice to the conversation there. When you get a piece that’s hyped enough, and this process runs through enough people, good old traditional hype aversion leads to a pretty sizable backlash there. Given the nature of the stories that really fit with this genre compared to others, they’re going to have a lot less universal appeal than do stories in other games as well. There’s also the fact that with plenty of the more popular pieces, people may be getting into them without really knowing there’s no gameplay there, and if they don’t expect that, it can and arguably should lead to a pretty strong negative reaction.

        Gone Home’s a great example of expectations running awry. I really enjoyed Gone Home. But it had been out for a while when I picked it up, and I knew mostly what I was getting into there. A lot of the marketing and the early parts of the game itself present it as some sort of horror experience when it’s really not. There’s going to be a lot of justifiable resentment for that alone. Then, I don’t know whether it started with the developers or the community, but a big deal was made out of the fact that the central relationship in that game was a homosexual one. In fact, that was given a fair bit of focus in the game itself. Both of which already draw the lines in the sand as far as the culture war goes. But the fact that it’s a same-sex relationship ends up not being a big deal in the game. I’d argue that’s both stronger writing and far better for the cause, just making it a normal thing, but the fact that it was such a big deal in everything you’re seeing surrounding the game does twist the knife when you’re going into the experience, and leads to some expectations that are really harmful to it.

        As for why that backlash is getting so aggressive, well, first we need to control for the fact that a lot of people on the internet are just jerks, and that strong negative opinions tend to rise to the top of discussion a lot faster than strong positive ones or even more mild ones. Beyond that, though, there are just too many of these environmental narratives on the market. And too many bad environmental narratives on the market, for that matter. Frankly, the genre is comparatively easier to create than others, but it requires thoughtfulness to pull off well. And that leads to a lot of bad works coming out. Not just shovelware, straight up failed games. Good intentions aren’t enough to make a good game in this genre. The Beginner’s Guide is a great example. Davey Wreden may have been making every effort to craft just the experience he wants, and may have put in a lot of time, energy and stress, and, yes, thought, but the thoughts he was working in there weren’t lined up in a way that would really deliver a strong experienced. He tried, and failed. That’s going to be far easier to do than succeed. And there will be a mountain of developers who did the same thing, tried, and failed, drawn to the genre because of its ease of creation but without the chops to pull it off. There will also be a mountain of developers who just want to go for the quick, easy buck. This will flood the market with crap, make it a lot harder to find the good in this genre out of it, and make it somewhat more difficult to jump into the unknown and untested side of the pool in other genres, as well. The ‘90% of everything is crap’ maxim is very true in almost all mediums, and that makes it a lot worse for the portion of the 10% that isn’t crap but has the same amount of presence in the collective consciousness as most of that 90%.

        And, hammering this point in again, I think cost is a significant part of it. $10 is way too much for something like the Beginner’s Guide. $20 is way too much for Gone Home. The Stanley Parable comes closer to filling out it’s asking price, but still, $15 is too much to ask. I know if I didn’t get the Beginner’s Guide in a bundle with a bunch of other games I wanted, I’d be pretty resentful of dropping a few bucks even on sale for something that only gave me about an hour’s worth of really light content and a story that wasn’t really adequately delivered. And I remember being really, really pissed at paying however much I did on the Path, when all the content ended up being pretty much worthless except for six cutscenes. It’s something you see all the time in the visual novel world as well, where the prices are higher and the amount of content delivered is lower than in games in other genres. Which, I get it, the economies of scale are coming into play here, and the developers’ hands are somewhat tied if they’re trying to make a living as an indie developer with what’s usually a more limited market than you would usually find with other genres. But at the same time, that’s a one-sided argument, and it is totally valid for the consumer to be concerned about the value they’re getting out of their commitment, which, usually, the nature of the genre and indie game development makes it a lot more difficult to reach the same way as other genres do.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s definitely a big part of it; I myself went into The Stanley Parable completely unaware that the walking simulator was even a thing, so I was expecting actual gameplay only for me to become disappointed when there was none to be found. I’ve found that hype doesn’t really play a big factor in what I ultimately think of a work. Limbo and Undertale were both hyped like crazy when they were released, yet I had completely different reactions to them. Having said that, I can understand why it could sour one’s perceptions. After all, if people are hyping something like it’s the greatest achievement in the medium and you end up not agreeing, the dissonance is still enough to make one feel as though the critics are at fault – even if the work in question is good.

          I had no idea that Gone Home even existed until two years after its release, and consequently, I didn’t pick up on the fact that it was ever marketed as a horror game. If what you’re saying is true, then yeah, I’d say the creators (or whoever was in charge of marketing) brought at least part of that backlash on themselves. You can’t afford to be disingenuous with your marketing tactics; you can deliberately be vague about certain details if you’re, for example, setting up a plot twist, but you have to play fair – you can’t outright lie to the audience. Now, I definitely think some of the detractors go too far, and spewing vitriol over the homosexual relationship is, in a word, ludicrous. From what I’ve heard, there’s more to it than that, but thanks to these loud voices, the average person will think of it as that walking simulator with the lesbians. That’s the part of the backlash I have zero sympathy for, as genuine bigotry is likely a factor behind it.

          If what you’re saying is true about environmental narrative titles flooding the market, then it sounds like the genre mirrors the gaming industry of 1983 before everything went pear-shaped. The problem would be exactly as you say – that a lot of creators are noticing high scores for these types of games and thinking something along the lines of, “Well, I can make something like this in two weeks and rake in the dollars, no problem,” but in reality, it’s probably the most subjective genre out there, hence its lack of universal appeal. It’s not like a platforming game where you can test it and objectively be able to tell if it works. You could be hitting all the wrong notes and not know it until the negative reviews prove otherwise. If it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the good works from the bad and the public feels they can’t trust critic scores anymore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the walking simulator suffers a fatal backlash in the near future.

          Yes, I definitely think that cost has something to do with it as well. The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide come across as a little more than clever Flash games one would find on Newgrounds or any other similar website. In those cases, the consumer is right to judge whether it was worth playing or not based on the money they spent; especially when one considers that an overwhelming majority of these games are released on digital download services, meaning that if you don’t like the game you bought, then tough luck; you’re not getting your money back (unless the developer pulls a No Man’s Sky). If something similar happens with a AAA effort, you can at least sell the game to recoup some of the loss.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I did enjoy The Beginner’s Guide, but I can understand your viewpoint. It’s very much a one-off experience, and it’s almost certainly fictional, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I felt that there’s a good narrative found in it, going off of the idea that two people in a friendship might view their relationship differently.

    It struck a chord with me, but I can understand that others might find it to be a boring, cerebral experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel I appreciate The Beginner’s Guide more as a conversation piece than as an actual game. I can see why people enjoy because it is a legitimately interesting concept, but the experience is too one-dimensional for me to recommend playing. I think Mr. Wreden perfectly captured what he was going for; the problem I had was that I found the drama wasn’t compelling.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It definitely falls into the same category as games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Virginia. Not much to it. The value comes from what you take from it. If it doesn’t resonate with the player, it failed.

        Like the others I mentioned, The Beginner’s Guide only works if the player is invested, though that isn’t the fault of the player.

        But like I said, I did enjoy it. I can still totally understand why you didn’t however 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The PANDA Award – Conquering the Gaming Backlog

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