Thoughts on The Beginners Guide

Very rarely I get this feeling when clicking “exit” on a games menu. It’s this comfortable but almost suffocating invisible room that appears around me. All that exists in it are me and the sound of my throat and my blood in my ears. It’s the feeling I get when I know I have just experienced something really important, and need time to figure out why.

I’m a programmer by trade, which allows me the freedom to be creative in a confined space. I don’t need a studio, I don’t need to refill my paints or replace worn brushes. I just need a laptop, and I can create things. That’s my life, and I love it.

The Beginners Guide takes a atom thick needle and pokes it at the one thing that makes the joy of creativity completely fall apart. Why are you making things? I sit here in front of my computer with a lump in my throat, and eyes damper than normal, and feel like the answer to that question is even more distant than before.

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The creator of the game, Davey Wreden, plays himself in Beginners Guide, with the game opening with a self introduction to himself and his work. He invites you to take a tour of a selection of game prototypes created by a fellow indie developer named Coda, whose work he idolised. Wreden provides his own interpretation via omnipotent narration on the meanings behind the prototypes and the gameplay elements that inspired some of his own work, and his reflections on the creative process. Having messed around with a fair few game engine editors, Beginners Guide captures that feeling of the “white box” world of a super early prototype, or of someone experimenting with an idea. This extends to crude geometry, programmer art and at points straight up broken gameplay elements. At points it even goes as far as to take the prototyping textures from the Source engine powering the game, which made the developer part of me giggle internally.

To go further than that would ruin the magic of the game, but I feel it’s important to know what to expect in terms of content when going into something like this. From start to finish the game is approximately 90 minutes, possibly slightly longer if you really take in the surroundings. In opposition to Wreden’s previous work, The Stanley Parable, this is a strictly linear game with a through-line that the player is carried through. It has a story tell and is in complete control of how and well it tells it. This is not a bad thing. Every step of the way is crafted to tell part of the tale, and nothing is wasted. Every part feels intentional and important.

I felt that it was important back when I reviewed Gone Home, and I will say the same thing I said there. With some provisos this is entirely worth your time and money. In a similar way to the Stanley Parable really landing for people familiar with video game trappings, if you would consider yourself a creative person, by either profession or otherwise, then Beginners Guide will hit you in a very specific spot you either never knew existed or knew all too well. It will hit in a way that I didn’t expect to be hit, and left a lasting impression with me.

Even if you are a fan of narrative focused games, there is plenty hear to like. Wreden is the only “character” in the game, and his performance is pretty spectacular. The fact that Wreden is telling a tale that may or may not be true is almost irrelevant. It might be more autobiographical than he is letting on, but over the hour and half you spend with the game, listening to the story of a man coming to terms with his art is heartbreaking, and moves the narrative out of the confines of a game level and into your own head.

It disappoints me that I cannot be more specific in regards to The Beginners Guide, but every scrap of information presented here ruins a moment in the story, and every part is valuable and worth seeing. For (at time of writing) less than the price of a movie, you can have an experience that will stick with me for a long time to come.