If we can believe what we are told, the ‘beginner’ of The Beginner’s Guide is a friend of the game’s narrator. The narrator in question is Davey Wredon, a real-life game designer who hit indie super-stardom after the release of his first game, The Stanley Parable. The Beginner’s Guide is Wredon’s hotly-anticipated second game, in which he plays the role of narrator as himself. Or does he?
This is a story-driven first-person game that finds you navigating through a series of half-finished 3D levels and environments that we’re told were created by the ‘beginner’–also known as Coda–at different points in his life. As you play chronologically through Coda’s games, his story and his relationship with Wredon, the narrator, unfolds. Essentially there are three characters: Coda, Wredon, and you.
According to Wredon (who narrates to you throughout the game), the design of each level, both in form and function, is a representation of Coda’s internal world. Each game is interpreted as if Coda treated the Source Engine, the program used to make the game, as a blank canvas to express his mental state at the time he made the game. A single lamppost alight in the dark; a simple house revealing a hidden underground labyrinth; an on-stage encounter becoming a high-pressure social situation; a staircase that is impossible to climb; it’s a game rich in symbolism that becomes ever more intriguing as we learn about Wredon’s connection with Coda.
It’s never clear whether Coda is a real person, known by Wredon in real life, or a fictional mirror character that represents Wredon himself. This autobiographical aspect becomes more apparent as we discover the background to Coda’s life and his state of mind during the making of the levels through which you play. The game becomes an exploration of obsession, self-esteem, fear, fame, fortune, and meaning.
The game is short, so should be completed over a few hours, but it is paced perfectly. I, like many others, found the journey through the game profoundly moving, which is not to say that the experience was in itself depressing or a struggle to complete. There’s room for reflection and introspection but this isn’t forced; it feels natural in the space it creates. I believe one of Wredon’s aims was to help the player empathise with the feelings and behaviour of someone struggling with negative thinking and to offer some solutions to those in such a situation. This is achieved in a fun and playful manner that often surprises due its ingenious design and the apparent honesty of the emotive account the narrator gives of his relationship with Coda.
One criticism could be that the ambiguity surrounding the true identity of Coda diminishes the connection the player feels with the game’s subject matter; however I believe the likely underlying autobiographical subtext means these feelings presented within the game are/were real. For me, this ambiguity adds to the game, however for those who enjoy a more complete, neat gaming experience it might be frustrating.
The Beginner’s Guide is truly original in its conception and execution and I highly recommend it, especially for those looking for a gaming experience that is more thoughtful than the typical first-person shooter. It continuously plays with the notions of perspective and interactivity in storytelling, yet still manages to engage the player on a deeper emotional level that creates an experience unlike any other. It is available to play on PC and Mac via Steam or Humble Bundle.