October 7, 2015 Leave a comment
Spoiler Warning. This review is pretty much a giant spoiler since I want to talk about what I got out of The Beginner’s Guide. As strictly a game to be played, I thought it was probably the worst I’ve ever experienced. As something more meaningful? Well, play for yourself and then read below.
The Beginner’s Guide is popular, and despite not remotely liking it, I get why. People like to feel they connect on some kind of philosophical level with a game. I’ve always said this stuff is in the eye of the beholder. I fall into this too. I spent a night with my boyfriend one time trying to spin every possible interpretation of Journey’s meaning, then searching online to see if anyone else came up with the most outlandish ideas I had. When something is left up to interpretation, it’s kind of fun to find out if what you see is what someone else sees. That’s why people stare at clouds looking for shapes. Like, if you see the dog’s head in the cloud that I see, we’ve connected somehow.
A lot of people are connecting in this way with The Beginner’s Guide. Or, at least they think they are. This follow-up by developer Davey Wreden to his hit The Stanley Parable is sort of like a gaming take on the found-footage genre. The idea is Wreden was obsessed with the small, unassuming (and often incomplete) personal projects of someone named Coda. Wreden found deep meaning in this person’s work and narrates for you the insight he extracted from them. The thing is: all these little vignettes presented to you are the most fucking boring, shallow, uninteresting “games” ever made. None of them show anything remotely creative, or even potential for creativity if they had been completed. They’re just bad, with symbolism on par with what you would expect from a thirteen-year-old who fancies him or herself as “deep.” To say that Wreden sees them as something much more meaningful is an understatement.
The Beginner’s Guide is really about how scary some gamers can be with the titles they love. There’s a section in an early stage where Coda had designed a story element that would ask the player to commit self-sacrifice. When you step into this light, the game glitches out and you rise out of the stage and see a view of the world. Just the type of glitch you would expect in games like this. Only Wreden (an exaggerated fictional version of him, at least I hope so) sees it as anything but a glitch. He starts to look for depth, noting that he wasn’t sure exactly what Coda was aiming for with this glitch. Does it reflect the final journey to heaven, or surveying what you’ve accomplished? He never once considers that Coda has no fucking clue how to do anything and the glitch was just a glitch that he couldn’t fix. You know, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
From here, the stages get more and more stupid and pretentious, while Wreden’s take-aways become more and more delusional and raving. As the game draws to an end, Wreden has reached the point that he feels ownership and accomplishment from Coda’s work, which he has absolutely nothing to do with. The Beginner’s Guide is essentially an indictment against the creepiest gaming fans. That some people can become pretty weird, possessive, and clingy with how they view someone else’s work. In my Indie Ego editorial, I wrote about how J.R.R. Tolkien had no allegories at all in mind when he wrote Lord of the Rings and spent his twilight years telling anyone who would listen as such, to no avail. The Beginner’s Guide is saturated with points like this. There’s a door puzzle that repeats constantly through-out the game. Wreden becomes obsessed with the symbolism of this very rudimentary door puzzle, to the point that he comes across like a borderline-dangerous stalker. It never occurs to him that the puzzle keeps repeating because that’s as creative as Coda is capable of being, or that his ability (or will) as a programmer to create anything more complex is non-existent.
The point of the Beginner’s Guide is that Coda was simply screwing around with Source, not really aiming to accomplish anything or tell anything, and then along comes this wide-eyed creeper who sees depth and complexity where none was ever present. For Coda, the meaning of his work was killing time. For Wreden, it was the meaning of life. These two views come into conflict when Coda just wants to keep fucking around and enjoying his own process, while Wreden wants him to keep making stuff for his consumption, so that he can feel better about himself. A sense of entitlement that is fully unearned and unjustified. Developers owe their fans nothing. The Beginner’s Guide is a scathing look at gaming’s sense of entitlement, hardcore fanboys, critics, and the general mindset that there must be meaning to everything. That a cigar is never just a cigar. So, in a way, the Beginner’s Guide is kind of brilliant.
A lot of critics who dislike the Beginner’s Guide feel that the narration forces an interpretation upon you, instead of leaving it up to yourself to figure it out. But, that it’s not up to you how you interpret intent seems to be the point of the game. Which is funny because I’ve read no less than a dozen variations on what exactly the point of it was. I just contributed my theory to this. I think it’s the right one, obviously, but statistically speaking it’s likely not. You know what I really think? I think Davey Wreden is having the last laugh somewhere. I mean, this game fucking sucks and look at the response to it! Maybe the Beginner’s Guide doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it just means cash in the pocket for Davey Wreden at the expense of people who will find depth in his work whether he places it there or not. The fuck if I know.
The problem is, The Beginner’s Guide is still a game. And, in order to utterly blister the scene like I think it does, it sort of requires the actual gameplay to be bland, uninspired, lacking complexity, and just boring in ways that nobody in their right mind could ever read anything more out of. Where the “depth” is the type of depth that anyone else would laugh at if it was tweeted verbatim by Jaden Smith. That’s both the point of it and the problem with it. Maybe the message has value, but the game itself is so fucking boring. Ninety-minutes of pure, relentlessness boredom to be told “you know, some gamers can be kinda douchey” seems like overkill. The $9.99 price tag to get that message stings quite a bit as well. Even the $7.99 on-sale price feels wrong. This is one of those rare games where I don’t think the developer can justify any price point besides free. It gets people talking, for sure. There’s already dozens of theories about what the point was. Maybe by throwing in my two cents, I’m both a hypocrite and part of the problem. All I know for certain is this: the 90 minutes I spent with The Beginner’s Guide was the most unenjoyable game experience of my life and I would never recommend anyone else go through it. But that’s just one person’s thoughts. Remember, it’s all eye-of-the-beholder. Unless you’re Davey Wreden, in which case it’s money in the bank. And he earned it. Every dime. I salute you, sir.
$7.99 (normally priced $9.99) think the name itself is also just awful in the making of this review.