From the excited gushing about The Beginner’s Guide, you’d be forgiven for thinking it ushers in a new paradigm in interactive storytelling. Its creator, Davey Wreden, previously brought us The Stanley Parable, which asked searching questions about game design and player agency, all told through a fairly mysterious yet whimsical story with a widely branching path. The Beginner’s Guide, though it tries its best, can’t quite repeat the success.
The basic setup is that the player is taken through a collection of simple games made by Wreden’s friend Coda – and we’ll get onto that later. It suffers from being a tad predictable, but Wreden’s voiceover and the deliberately cheap-feeling production values gave it an endearing charm.
The most basic problem with The Beginner’s Guide is with believing it all. The next few sentences will involve some spoilers, so if you’re intending to buy the game, you’re best to look away now.
When the plot starts to come together, and we find out that the person really suffering throughout all this has been Wreden, acting creepy and obsessive towards Coda in a way that’s pushed them away, it instantly throws away the air of mystery that has thus far hung over the game.
You see, if Coda didn’t take kindly to Wreden showing off some of Coda’s games to a limited range of personal friends, he’s sure not going to be fond of Wreden packaging the collection up and selling it for six quid a pop down the old Steam store. If Coda was a real person, Wreden wouldn’t have any right to their intellectual property for one thing, but for quite another he’d be making the estrangement far worse when it’s clear he’s (in-universe) pretty cut up about it anyway.
If you have a big question mark hanging over the veracity of large parts of your game, it’s fine either to resolve it or not depending on how you want your plot to work out. But it’s ill-advised to end up in a situation where a question mark you leave hanging as a mysterious talking point is easily cleared up with the application of five seconds of rational thinking.
The Beginner’s Guide has all the hallmarks of a game about to receive Game of the Year status from everyone and their dog. It’s an accolade that seems recently to have adorned quite a few games with unconventional gameplay or storytelling – Journey and Gone Home are two examples – but it’s one which isn’t always deserved.
This game may be unconventional, but unconventional can still be unconvincing. The game runs for only an hour or so and has close to zero replay value unless you have a friend round and want to show it off. The script is well written and some of the in-universe games have a certain charm, but it’s not quite enough to justify the price tag.
If you’ve already played Flower, and Journey, and Gone Home, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and The Stanley Parable, and loved them all, The Beginner’s Guide is definitely for you.
But those games, flawed as some of them are, should be ahead of this on your list of priorities. Perhaps it’s another example of the internet making hype all too common and difficult to contain, but it doesn’t remotely live up to its reputation. An interesting exploration of game design and personal relationships, yes – but if you seek a monument, look elsewhere.