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2013's The Stanley Parable wowed me for plenty of reasons: Its many branching pathways, the always surprising manipulation of its world by a malevolent but well-meaning narrator, and its status as a trenchant allegory for the state of modern video games. (Just to name a few.)
While Stanley openly challenged players to break the rules of its world, with his newest game, creator Davey Wreden personally walks them down a much narrower path. After starting up The Beginner's Guide, Wreden's voice greets you, and makes his intent clear: Over the next 90 minutes, he'll be your guide on a tour of the many games made by an estranged friend who he simply calls "Coda." What follows is a deeply personal journey into the heart of creative frustration; one that offers little for the player to do or process thanks to Wreden's tight, didactic control over the experience.
As with The Stanley Parable, The Beginner's Guide takes the form of a first-person experience with an all-powerful narrator changing the world as he sees fit. You're dropped into a game of Coda's, and Wreden goes to great lengths to point out what makes each one special—hacking into them at times to allow your escape—before moving on to the next. Some of Coda's games are extremely traditional, like his space station FPS, while others almost seem like a parody of the artful indie game: One traps you in an endless loop of cleaning someone's house, which reminded me more than a little of Sunset. This game-jumping definitely stands as The Beginner's Guide's greatest element, if only because something new and different lies around every corner.
The real issue, though, is that there's not much required from the player while exploring these worlds. Wreden may call them "games," but each one amounts to steering yourself through a simple 3D environment until Wreden's said everything he has to say. At best, you'll solve a single, simple puzzle—a common idea that pops up in many of Coda's games. Before playing The Beginner's Guide, the promise of playing an assortment of game nuggets struck me as an irresistible concept—especially after how much Undertale experimented with genre-jumping—but, again, you're rarely more than a camera floating around inside Coda's worlds. And any possible meaning pulled from your observations are essentially irrelevant; Wreden goes to great lengths to make sure he underlines every thesis statement. There's an intentionality to Wreden's behavior—he's desperately trying to convince you of the surrounding brilliance—but at times, his presence can become needlessly overbearing.
There's a point to this extremely focused 90-minute experience, and Wreden doesn't let The Beginner's Guide come to a close until he hammers it home much too forcefully. After a certain twist late in the game, The Beginner's Guide becomes an aggressively sincere exploration of Wreden's own insecurities as an artist, to the point where the experience can become uncomfortably confessional at times. You don't necessarily have to be a game designer to sympathize with Wreden's plight, though; he does a great job of making the terms broad enough to apply to anyone out there who creates for the sake of validation. But at no point is the player ever required to interpret or even think twice about the creator's intent: It's all there, clear as a bell, making The Beginner's Guide as unstimulating intellectually as it is to play.
I hate to come off as cruel with my distaste for The Beginner's Guide: Wreden's narrative is admirably personal, and it quickly moves from set piece to set piece over the course of its 90-minute running time. But I can't help but think how much better the experience could be if Coda's games amount to more than sparse maps accompanied by Wreden's ever-present narration. The recent—and woefully underappreciated—The Magic Circle also gives players a tour of unfinished games by a frustrated creator, but works legitimately interesting and fun play into this concept, all while looking at the creative process from many different angles (and without committing to a single interpretation). As an exploration of Wreden's insecurities, The Beginner's Guide excels, but, from the player's perspective, don't be surprised if you grow tired of the creator's schtick by minute 60.
ConclusionWith The Beginner's Guide, creator Davey Wreden starts with a brilliant premise, only to waste it with his insistence on telling rather than showing within his barely interactive worlds. Games don't necessarily need to be fun to work, but they should at least be engaging—something The Beginner's Guide can't maintain during its 90-minute running time.