Review: The Beginner's Guide

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The Beginner’s Guide is the sophomore title from developer Davey Wreden, who previously found success as the co-creator of the award-winning Stanley Parable (2011). Those who have played Stanley will remember its quirky philosophy and biting sense of humor. When Wreden announced that he was going to release a second title in October 2015, fans expected something of the same style. However, unlike his previous work, Wreden’s new title is a game with no story, no gaming mechanics apart from the occasional pushed button, and only one character that the player gets to formally meet: Wreden himself.

With a runtime just shy of 90 minutes and no traditional game content, it’s evident that The Beginner’s Guide will not be the game of choice for players looking for a casual gaming experience. You wouldn’t bring a Sundance film to your friends’ summer movie night, and you won’t be playing Beginner’s Guide on a lazy Saturday morning. But if you’re willing to work with the game’s content and really listen to what Wreden has to say, you’ll find something novel to the gaming world: raw honesty.

The game fades open into what looks to be an unfinished fortress map made in Valve’s Source engine: the brick-like walls are blocky and awkward, there are gates that lead nowhere, and textured cubes hang inexplicably from the sky. Wreden’s voice soon comes to the player’s aid to explain what they are looking at. “We’re going to look at the games made by a friend of mine called Coda,” he says, and that’s a fairly summative description of what happens in The Beginner’s Guide. Players are guided from game to game of Coda’s, all made in the same vein as this fort level, some with more depth to them than others. Wreden gushes on about how wonderfully talented he thinks his friend is, although by the incompleteness of Coda’s maps the player might doubt Wreden’s tastes. The quality of Coda’s games aside, what Wreden offers us is a trip through someone else’s mental space, a guided tour through Coda’s mind. It’s a rare and perhaps unearned trip through another human’s psyche that leaves an impact long after the short hour-long runtime is up.

There has been some speculation as to whether Coda is a real person, or whether everything we see in Beginner’s is actually of Wreden’s fashioning. I don’t think this has a significant impact on the game, although it does lend some irony to a conclusion Wreden reaches about forty minutes in that, “You can’t talk yourself out of loneliness, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t be the one writing both the questions and the answers.” And although Wreden talks a lot about his concern for his friend’s apparent isolation, it is Wreden who comes across as the loneliest figure of all. He’s squirreled away in a recording booth somewhere, aimlessly ushering us from game to game, offering us his commentary with no one to validate his thoughts. He even gives us his email in the first level of the game and invites us to share our thoughts with him. As more and more levels unfold, it becomes clear that Wreden is the center subject of The Beginner’s Guide, not Coda.

Anyone who considers themselves the “creative type” will instantly recognize what Coda is trying to capture in his games. His levels are filled with unsolvable puzzles and invisible walls, staircases that lead nowhere and dialogue that loops into infinite. It’s the creative process, folded into playable form. In each of his games, we play as Coda, and are given the chance to take a glimpse at the way he wrestles with new ideas. Some people carry a notebook filled with half-formed ideas; Coda, apparently, carries a laptop with half-finished games. At times it’s almost humorous when Wreden complains that he can’t understand what his friend is trying to communicate, because it’s likely that Coda himself couldn’t put his thoughts to words. It’s like Wreden said— if Coda had all the answers, he wouldn’t be the one asking the questions.

If The Beginner’s Guide finds success with players, it won’t be for its gripping gameplay. Coda’s games are designed so that at many times, if Wreden wasn’t talking, one might find there is literally nothing to do. But where Beginner’s does find success is in the emotional connection it tries to make with its player. Wreden genuinely wears his heart on his sleeve here, and the passion he feels for Coda’s games— whether or not Coda is a real person or just Wreden’s developer pseudonym— is painfully evident when his voice breaks at the line, “I feel like I failed [Coda], and I don’t understand why.” Although everything we see and experience is of Coda’s creation, it is by Wreden who we are truly touched.

It is difficult to compare The Beginner’s Guide because even in the indie developers’ community from where it emerged, there are few titles to compare it with. How do you market a game with no gameplay, no stories, no playable characters? What can a self-reflecting game like Beginner’s offer your typical action-seeking gamer? …The answer, frankly, is nothing. Beginner’s exists on its own, and it’s unlikely that even Wreden will put out a comparable title unless Coda decides to publically release a completed game. Wreden makes no comment on this, and the answer seems to be beyond the scope of the game.

The Beginner’s Guide is slow-building (even Wreden admits that it “spins its own wheels” for a while), but it’s worth the pay-off in the end. I can see many people being bored by Wreden’s long-winded monologues and Coda’s stubborn determination to make unplayable games, but for anyone who struggles with the creative process— that is to say, everyone who struggles with the creative process— The Beginner’s Guide is trying to tell us something we so often forget: struggling isn’t just part of the process. It is the process.