WARNING: I’d rather not spoil The Beginner’s Guide in this review, but I feel like there is no way to describe it without giving away at least some of the experience. For those concerned, please read at your own risk. To summarize I would advise you to neither buy nor play this game.
The Beginner’s Guide is a series of small “games” narrated by Davey Wreden, one of the co-creators of The Stanley Parable. Davey tells us that these games were created between 2009 and 2011 by his friend Coda, a lone creator who would put together these short titles in Source (they’re really more like small levels) and then never return to them. We’re told that Coda no longer creates games, but by showing us his work and talking about what makes them so interesting, our narrator hopes to encourage his friend to start creating again. Coda’s work begins with a rehashed copy of Counter Strike’s Dust level, but throughout the story his work becomes more of a reflection of his personality, and it’s going to go to some dark places as we learn more the relationship between the narrator and Coda.
First off, even if you’re a fan of the Stanley Parable this may not be the game for you. Whereas The Stanley Parable is light and funny and outlandish, The Beginner’s Guide is dark and dead serious, and while it’s still outlandish, it’s not in the same way. Certainly not in an enjoyable way. We’ll get more into that later, but suffice it to say there’s nothing to laugh at here.
Next, I’m going to come out and say that I don’t think this is a true narrative. The game never does explicitly state that it’s true, but the implication certainly seems to be that this is a real story told by the real Davey Wreden about his real friend. Now maybe I’m just the world’s dumbest asshole for not being able to tell from the start, and maybe we’re all supposed to just know that it’s fiction, but through most of the game I got the impression that Wreden is trying to make you believe this is a real account. Without trying to give too much away, I think this is shitty and manipulative, because the only way this story is going to succeed is to make you care about the narrator and his friend. Given how much The Stanley Parable relied on playing with and defying your expectations I could almost give The Beginner’s Guide some credit for playing tricks with its story, but if that was their intent it comes off as more deceptive than clever.
The game itself is pretty much the definition of a walking simulator. You move from corridor to corridor, game to game, basically doing nothing more than listening to the narrator psychoanalyze the meaning of doors and lamp posts and sofas. To a point I didn’t think it was entirely bad, as a few of the games did look pleasant in a way that reminded me of a slightly older era of gaming, but the look of these games is really the only thing that was appealing. None of the games are really games in the sense that there is any challenge or content. There is a door puzzle that repeats pretty much from beginning to end, but other than that you’re basically just going to be pressing the W key until you move to the next stage.
I need to drive the point home that there’s no game in this title, but also explain that isn’t why I hate it. I can enjoy a game that’s a work of fiction to be experienced, and I don’t feel like putting a controller in my hand needs to mean that the story is second to gameplay. What’s wrong with The Beginner’s Guide is that it’s a bad game accompanied by a bad story. A story that’s cocksure about how engaging it is. Cocksure about how much you’re going to care about fragmented corridors and cube-headed mannequin people. Cocksure that you’re going to be so interested in the story of Coda.
But in the end the game isn’t about Coda, it’s about the narrator. Or it’s about nothing. Actually, while I would love to dismiss this game as being entirely meaningless, I think it’s more about either a very vain or very deluded creator who thinks he can deliver an emotional, human story with a few trite metaphors and package it for a $9 price tag. You’ll pick up what he’s going for easily (it’s nothing if not heavy-handed) but there’s nothing engaging about the narrator, nor his bipolar (and probably fictitious) friend Coda. It’s just a slightly pompous art house game with some melodramatic nothings stuffed inside. This game contains at least one weepy breakdown where the narrator looks into the mirror and asks no one in particular “Why?”. At this point I didn’t know if we’re still supposed to be believing this is a true story or if we’re supposed to realize that we’ve been had, but it’s well past the point where I said “Fuck it”.
At the end of The Beginner’s Guide I was well past the point of feeling strongly about what it had to say, or even if it tried to lie to me in saying it. By the time you complete the last content-less level and sit through the last sloppy metaphor I mostly felt embarrassed. Embarrassed for Davey Wreden’s cringe-worthy monologue, whether or not he thought I was buying the spiel and embarrassed for myself for putting more thought into this overblown self-indulgence than it was worth. If I can’t dissuade you from wasting your time on this nonsense, at least know that any sense of “experience” you could derive from The Beginner’s Guide could just as easily be obtained by simply watching the game on YouTube.