The Beginner’s Guide is the latest product of Davey Wreden, the mad genius behind 2011’s surprise hit The Stanley Parable, and while this new entry lacks the signature dry wit of Wreden’s previous work, it is a masterpiece in video game storytelling. Surely one of the best games of 2015.
The Beginner’s Guide (2015)
Written by Davey Wreden; published by Everything Unlimited, Ltd.
FPS, RPG, MMORPG, F2P, P2P, 2D Side Scroller, Top-Down Action, Twin-Stick Shooter—if you know anything about video games, you probably recognize all of these monikers for how video game genres have developed over the years. More importantly, you probably also understand that many of these classifications tend to be outdated. As smaller games have become simultaneously easier to make and easier to publish, more and more experimental games blend multiple genres, or at the very least, they push the boundaries and supposed capabilities of these accepted modes for video game design.
Still, in terms of narrative games, which are themselves still ‘the new kids on the block’ in the video game market, short-form storytelling experiences are not a common offering. While most attempts at such an experience remain in Steam Early Access forever, like some kind of digital purgatory ameliorating the sins of both the games and their developers, there have been some standout examples over the past few years. The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home (2013) and The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther (2012) are both wonderful short-from storytelling examples in gaming, but sadly, they pretty much complete the list.
At least, that is, they did complete the list until October of this past year, when Davey Wreden, the creative mind behind 2011’s breakout hit The Stanley Parable, released his latest game: The Beginner’s Guide. The entire game will only take you about an hour and half to two hours to complete, but in terms of storytelling, this may be the most moving game I have ever played.
In The Beginner’s Guide, Wreden has discovered a formula for the video game equivalent of the short story, and the story he tells, coupled with the way he tells it, is nothing short of a masterpiece. When it comes to storytelling in video games, I prefer experiences that, even if they fail overall, attempt to create something that can only work in the gaming medium. Some games, like the Mass Effect or Uncharted series, for example, have interesting and creative storylines, but in the end, they are too cinematic. Others games move to the opposite end of the spectrum, where they eschew cinematic, interactive storytelling for large walls of text. Neither of these design poles, however, get to the heart of what video games can and should do in a storytelling space.
In the case of The Beginner’s Guide, however, Wreden has found a way to convey a story that can only be experienced to its fullest as a video game, and the fact that he was able to do so in such a short, tightly crafted form makes this achievement all that much more astonishing. As any writer can tell you, crafting a tight, seamless short story is so much more difficult than hammering together a sprawling novel. Wreden has mastered the form here, and I can only hope others take notes from his final product.
In terms of the story, there isn’t too much I can say about the specifics without spoiling the narrative arc (it is, after all, only two hours long). Still, I can tell you that The Beginner’s Guide has several layers of game that you’ll be contending with, and keeping those layers separate will help you enjoy and comprehend the experience more effectively. The first layer, or what I’m calling the framing layer, is what you would expect from any game. You are the player who clicks “Start” on the title screen, and as that player, you understand yourself playing a game. Once inside the game, you are on a second level of narrative, where Davey Wreden is a god-like voice-over narrator (in much the same way as the narrator in The Stanley Parable functioned). As Wreden speaks, he guides you through a series of games made by someone else, referred to only as Coda, and these snippets of partially completed game ideas constitute the third level of the game. As you move through each of the incomplete games Coda programmed, you learn a bit more about Coda, Wreden, and the relationship between the two.
Without getting into any more story details, I can still talk about the themes of The Beginner’s Guide, which are both interesting and original. In some ways, this journey through Coda’s unfinished collection of games is about depression, anxiety, and relationships, and on another level, it is about the anxiety of creativity, about the nagging voice in your head that tells you your work is garbage and your ideas aren’t worth anyone’s time. The Beginner’s Guide is an honest look at such anxieties—one that gaming has needed for a long time, in both personal and creative terms.
When we think of a video game in today’s mass market of faceless, triple-A mega-corporations, it is easy to forget that many of the games we consume were once the passion projects of individuals who have the same concerns, frailties, and insecurities as the rest of us. The Beginner’s Guide puts a human—and sometimes disturbing—face upon such creators in a way that is satisfyingly nuanced and complex.
Another of the game’s positive features is its visually stunning design. Each of the game snippets that Wreden guides you through is an exercise in visual storytelling. From space stations, to empty caverns, to modern homes, The Beginner’s Guide uses both massive and confined spaces to bring players into the story, and it creates a sense of wonder I haven’t felt since I played the Myst series games so many years ago.
The game has few generally negative qualities, so the issues I address here will often be personal rather than objective. Obviously, if you are looking for a traditional game, where you’ll be collecting items, leveling up, fulfilling quests, etc., The Beginner’s Guide is not for you. Here, the game is the experience of the narrative, and your movement through the narrative is the game. I have no problem with this kind of gaming experience, and my guess is that once you’ve gone through the entirety of what Wreden has put together, you won’t either. Still, you should know what you’re in for and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Another issue I found personally annoying is that Wreden himself does the voice work for the game. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. Even though Wreden isn’t a voice actor, he does a fine job of relating the story, especially toward the end. Still, there are moments where Wreden’s lack of expertise shows through, like the way he tends to over-enunciate words at certain points in the narrative. My guess is that this practice comes mainly from inexperience, and even though this isn’t a game-ruining issue by any means, it tended to stand out and distract me from the overall experience.
The final problem I have with the game is one that I can’t discuss at too much length here because it has to do with some end-game content that I don’t want to spoil. All I will say is that Wreden pitches himself—his biographical, real-life self—as the narrator of the game, and he positions the game’s events as a story of something that once happened to him. This makes some of the issues that are brought up at the story’s end, particularly concerning video game fans and consumers, a bit backhanded, and, I think, preachy and/or whiny in ways that don’t do the overall narrative’s subtlety and style any justice. You’ll recognize these moments when you get to them, and I’d be interested to hear if any of my readers felt the same way about them that I did.
In the end, The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most satisfying short-form gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time, and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, regardless of if you prefer narrative games or not. What Davey Wreden has created here is a wonderful experiment in video game storytelling, and it absolutely should not be missed.