Before we start, if you’re reading this, you probably have a good idea of my mindset, and to gauge yours accordingly. I very much enjoyed The Stanley Parable and it’s kayfabe-shattering subversion of gaming tropes/expectations, and bought this on goodwill. THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE is creator Davey Wreden’s second published game (announced on 2 days’ notice!) and much like the first, is not a game in the traditional sense, but a rudimentary interactive experience where a narrator (Wreden) leads you through a series of unfinished basic level designs made by his friend Coda.
Game-wise it has very limited input: you’re a floating camera in a boxy 3D low-complexity environment, that can move and look around, and occasionally interact with a lever or choose from 3 dialogue options. Music is generally reduced to a few sound effects, although Wreden suggests a level where bullet shots make no noise, and no baddies is perhaps a clever thinking point.
It’s not so much a game but a conversation about gaming and what it means to be a creator; expectations, the pressure of ingenuity, popularity, auteurship and the relationship with fans. There’s no fourth wall (sometimes it isn’t rendered either!) as it’s made up of a series of abandoned short concept levels, whilst being addressed by the creator on what he believes the programmer was thinking at the time; that through examples you can glean great insight into the mind of the creator. Wreden relates each level to his actual friendship Coda at the time. It’s a very interesting premise, one with huge potential.
Unfortunately, it boils down to walking around half-baked one-note levels, whilst this wildly insecure, self-involved pit of despair tries to convince you how this is actually the work of a genius. Wreden repeatedly hits you over the head with incredulous feats of ignorance and fanaticism to verbally fellate this (probably fictional) Coda. I gather this desperate reaching is supposed to be enjoyable or engaging, it had the opposite effect. What about these level designs gives you the impression that this is the work a genius? Walking up a ladder where you slow down near the top? Using the same basic puzzle multiple times? A house to repeatedly clean? Ooh and floating boxes in a Counterstrike map, intentionally there to break immersion – are you sure they’re not a coding error, or straight up laziness by the programmer?
It’s uncomfortable hearing what amounts to a crazed, obsessed fan repeatedly show you average and convince you of it’s greatness. It’s made even more odd as Wreden shows he is capable of critique. Perhaps this type of conversation means more to videogame makers, or to philosophers, or those wracked with the guilt and pressures of creation. The fact that this game has received almost unanimous glowing (GLOWING!) reviews tells you it’s extremely effective and affective. However to me, it’s like a stereotypical random modern art painting: Others are deeply touched, is a catalyst for deep conversation and are moved by it, but all I see a splodge on the page, as pretentious hipsters jump at the chance to seem intelligent, pulling motifs out of their ass. Funnily enough, there is a random expressionist painting on the wall, why is it there? Probably because it’s part of the art assets of this source engine and he didn’t want to put in a TV.
It also feels mighty unfair that all other games are not deconstructed with the same pretentious mindset, whilst this turkey tells you a level where you can only move backwards was programmed by the second coming of Miyamoto. Wreden poses “why does a man spend 6 months making prison maps?” Maybe he likes making prisons. Maybe he’s trying to improve his technique. Maybe he’s not very talented. Or maybe, just maybe, it represents the ongoing plight of the Zimbabwe Shona tribe and the destruction of the 19th Century Rozwi empire. Yes. That must be it.
The game culminates as if a depressed Woody Allen monologue went supernova, where the author blurts out his deep-rooted insecurities and his terrifying serious mental health issues. It is painful, and Wreden should be paying us to listen to his psychoses, shouting “tell me I’m good”, desperate to find answers in Coda’s work. A small point, but it’s a cop-out to not end the game at the point of highest tension, but have a monologue afterwards.
Overall: Highly recommend avoiding this like the plague. Horrific, pretentious tripe. I appreciate that this kind of game, unlike any regular game, can be made, and is out there. But by God, this is a swing and a miss. If you’re anything like me, do not play it. If you do, I hope you have the opposite experience – as every other videogame reviews seems to. I would recommend The Stanley Parable or Gone Home way before this.
By the way, I couldn’t even launch the game unless I force it to start in windowed mode. Is that a deep metaphor too?