The Beginner's Guide Review

November 7, 2015 by Mathew Kumar

First-person navel-gazing.

How do you review a game like The Beginner’s Guide? As a narrative experience that lasts an hour and a half (and that’s not a rough estimate—you’d have to go some lengths to make it any longer) one is almost tempted to say, “look, it’s really not that long, if it sounds like the kind of thing you’d like, you’re only losing an hour and a half to it.”

It’s strange, because a movie—you know, a narrative experience—also generally lasts an hour and a half, yet if someone said that to me about a film, I’d be like “uh, an hour and a half is a lot of time to spend on anything, pal” and yet if a game has got out of the tutorial by that point we’re probably feeling pretty good. And if it’s any shorter than about six hours we’re probably feeling ripped off, no matter how much it cost.

(If you’re wondering, The Beginner’s Guide is $9.99.)

So I can’t use the length—or price—of The Beginner’s Guide to cheap-out on writing it up properly. Which is problematic, because The Beginner’s Guide really goes out of its way to be difficult to talk about. Developed by Davey Wreden, creator of The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide follows that title its attempt to challenge the nature of games. Whereas The Stanley Parable played with the concept of a narrator and the player’s interactions, here something rather different is being done.

It helps, perhaps, to think of The Beginner’s Guide using some language borrowed from film (heck, most of games criticism is borrowed from film). The Beginner’s Guide is an “essay game” akin to an “essay film.” Let me crib from Wikipedia: “the evolution of a theme or an idea rather than a plot per se; or the film literally being a cinematic accompaniment to a narrator reading an essay.” I’m not a huge fan of the films Wikipedia’s editors use as examples—sorry, Supersize Me is clearly not an example of this—but you might be familiar with the work of Adam Curtis (Bitter Lake) or Mark Cousins (The Story of Film).

(If you’re interested in the genre, much of Adam Curtis’ work is available on YouTube, and he’s made some very short documentaries, such as this mere five minutes on “non-linear war” which will give you a good idea of how this sort of thing goes.)

The Beginner’s Guide’s essay concerns Davey Wreden’s relationship with another, much more mysterious game developer, Coda. Coda, according to Wreden, spat out tens, hundreds of Source games—often merely sketches of an idea—that he’d share with Wreden, and since his disappearance from Wreden’s life, Wreden has decided to share a selection of the games with the player while talking over the top.

So, in The Beginner’s Guide, you play these often short, usually simple games while Wreden talks to you—occasionally reacting to your input, but mostly just talking. This isn’t a game where there’s any challenge or any real sense your input is doing anything; there is a grand total of one puzzle in the game, a simple one repeated for narrative purposes, and Wreden often steps in to stop you having to do the dull, repetitive or even impossible tasks that Coda likes to place in his games. It’s a tour; you get to choose where to look, but it’s not like that choice matters much. You don’t spend a lot of time looking in the opposite direction of the Eiffel Tower on a trip to see the Eiffel Tower, you know?

It’s impossible to discuss The Beginner’s Guide’s contents in any particular detail without spoiling the game in some irreparable fashion, but Wreden pushes the envelope with games by not just creating likely the first “essay game” but also the first pseudo-documentary game—we’ve apparently decided to skip “documentary” entirely unless I missed some particularly groundbreaking things (I probably have, though.) The best comparison I can give is that players are expected to come out of The Beginner’s Guide with the same feeling of a viewer of Banksy’s 2010 pseudo-documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop: was what I saw real? Is Coda real? What did it mean?

I played The Beginner’s Guide across one evening, and I consider it to be an interesting idea. I’m not sure even Wreden himself places any more significance on The Beginner’s Guide than that, though it does strive to say things about the experience of game development and, in general, the challenge of “being a creative.” Yet despite being only an hour and a half long as I reached the end of the game—the emotional pitch, the coda, in fact—I found myself holding the “up” key down to walk through the environments while mostly looking at my phone. The way you do, actually, if you started watching a movie, on Netflix or whatever, but found your attention dripping away more and more—but you don’t want to stop watching it, you might as well just let it finish.

The Beginner’s Guide has moments—one segment spent cleaning a house as some gorgeous music plays has stuck with me—and it’s entirely possible that the narrative simply did not chime with me as it could with others. However, I wonder: does The Beginner’s Guide gain anything from being a game over being an essay film? I’m not sure it does. At this point, in fact, I’m sure you can probably watch the entire thing on YouTube—with or without the extra commentary of some personality—and only suffer the indignity of not getting to choose where to look. For comparison’s sake, about a month ago I got the chance to see the essay film Stand By For Tape Back-Up by Ross Sutherland. Sutherland takes the viewer backwards and forwards through a tape full of television recordings made by himself and his Grandfather, using the physical act of rewinding and fast-forwarding, in combination with his own voice to create something incredibly powerful, something that could only be done in film and yet—and I seriously don’t consider this hyperbole—something that feels entirely new. It blew me away. I ended the screening shaking.

The Beginner’s Guide I ended looking at my phone.

Mathew Kumar a real boy.