Game developers pour hours and hours of blood, sweat, and tears into their projects. Many receive little to no credit for their endless work but still, they work to deliver the best possible product for us to enjoy. In our current day and age that is so saturated with annualized releases from gargantuan triple-A companies, we've seen a steady trend of extremely similar games with slightly different skins. Each successive entry from each massive franchise offers developers basically no creative voice within the triple-A space, which is unfortunate, because the gaming medium has so much potential for interactive experiences capable of transcending anything possible in any other artistic medium.
So many developers who toil so hard on these uninspired projects have their own unique stories and experiences to share with us. But the fact is there isn't much room for creative flexibility within the triple-A space and, although the indie space has opened the door for different experiences that offer developers a voice within this industry that so often stifles creativity in favor of safety, limited budgets and resources often prevent indie games from reaching their full potential. Fears of critical, technical, and business failures only add to the anxieties that game developers deal with. Needless to say, there are a lot of aspiring developers out there who are intimidated by the vast barrier of entry created by our current mass gaming market.
So that brings me to The Beginner's Guide. The Beginner's Guide is the second project from Davey Wreden, who formed the new studio Everything Unlimited Ltd. to try and follow up off the huge success of his first game, The Stanley Parable. Tackling game development topics in a really unique way, the inspiration from its antecedent The Stanley Parable is quite clear. Does it leave as lasting of an impression as its massively successful predecessor?
Who are the people behind the games we play? What are they looking for when they create games? How do their personal lives affect their creative process when making games? The Beginner's Guide attempts to answer these questions and more in a truly guided experience.
In The Beginner's Guide, you are introduced to a series of abstract games made over a four-year period by a reclusive developer friend simply known as 'Coda' that Wreden met at a game jam in 2009. Davey Wreden himself serves as your narrator through these short glimpses into who Coda is as an individual, attempting to find the solution to why Coda doesn't make games anymore within the progression of each game. Wreden explains to us that one of his driving motivations for making The Beginner's Guide was to encourage Coda to end his hiatus and return to creating games.
There's something very sincere about a famed game developer speaking directly to you and sharing stories about his life and personal relationship with Coda. Wreden excels as your escort through Coda's games. His personal interpretations of what each game is portraying are fascinating. As you explore, touches that Coda added to each particular game based off of his emotional state at the time become more prevalent and Wreden delivers lively commentary that often mimics my own questions at why Coda made certain decisions within each game. On top of that, Wreden sometimes makes decisions to make a game more playable or allow us to see something that previously was frustrating or not intended for us to go to. It poses an interesting dilemma of whether or not Wreden's intervening with Coda's games to make them 'better' is interfering with Coda's personal artistic vision.
Overall, the examination of who Coda is through his body of work is made extremely compelling through Wreden. He keeps the dialect going at an excellent pace and the game successfully manages to tackle issues such as social anxieties, depression, friendship, creativity through art, and more in such a unique way as a result.
The walking simulator genre in general usually doesn't offer much in gameplay features, favoring storytelling and exploration over actual gameplay mechanics. In The Beginner's Guide, you will be walking aplenty, (as the genre implies) but there are quite a few tricks the game has up its sleeves. Text choices, an integral "puzzle," and other interesting things that vary with each successive game keep The Beginner's Guide fresh. As for the actual walking, I never grew particularly bored with exploration. Movement speed is adequate enough, and Wreden's steady stream of dialogue keeps the show moving despite there not being a ton of things to interact with. This is very much a guided tour but the playable aspect of the game gets the job done.
This game definitely won't knock your socks off graphically. The entirety of The Beginner's Guide is made within the Source Engine so expect a lot of blocky environments and tight corridors. As I made my way through each one of Coda's games, I was impressed with the variety displayed. Each subsequent game is aesthetically different from the last and I loved being dropped into one of Coda's worlds and figuring out A. where the hell I was and B. what this game had to do with the one before it. Just note that the games are a bit rough around the edges, as they were never intended for public consumption in the first place.
When it comes to walking simulators as a genre, The Stanley Parable stands front and center as the game that took narrative direction and dictation for a spin. The Beginner's Guide isn't nearly as goofy as The Stanley Parable but Davey Wreden's candid conversation with me, the player, is something rarely, if ever, done in games. Wreden continues to push the boundaries of what games can do as an artistic tool and as I mentioned earlier, the many topics it dissects are quite unconventional. There are a handful of walking simulators out there but The Beginner's Guide definitely stands high on its own pedestal.
It won't take you longer than an hour and a half to complete The Beginner's Guide. So yeah, there's really not a bunch of content here. However, the long-lasting impressions The Beginner's Guide has left with me far outweigh any price on a tag. This game is seriously thought-provoking. Not only do I look at games differently, I look at people (including myself) in a whole new light than before. If anything, The Beginner's Guide is worth experiencing because it is the antithesis of the 'dime a dozen' offerings that we so often see in the gaming industry.
Well done, Davey Wreden. You've successfully managed to catapult yourself above the one-hit wonder status into a developer I'll have my eye on for years to come. The Beginner's Guide may not be for everyone. Some may find the story beats to be humdrum and 'overacted' but I genuinely believe that The Beginner's Guide raises extremely interesting points in an experience that doesn't overstay its welcome. I can confidently say that The Beginner's Guide does not fade under the shadow of its predecessor but instead shows expertise within narrative structure in a delightfully never-before-seen way.
If you're interested in what Wreden's former co-worker William Pugh is up to, you can read my review of his game here.