The Beginner’s Guide: A Review

Angella Ma, Staff Writer

 The Beginner’s Guide is a game about games. It’s also a game about relationships, self-expression, and creative burnout, all wrapped up in a rather unassuming 90-minute package that will leave you feeling lost and emotionally drained by the time it’s over. A friend of mine even described it as “The Beginner’s Guide to existential dread.”

 The game was made by Davey Wreden, creator of The Stanley Parable, a project known for breaking the conventions of what video games are supposed to be. While his first game is a fun and charming tale about the adventures of office worker Stanley, The Beginner’s Guide dials back the comedy and leads the player through a series of short games that form the autobiographical, at times depressing story of two game developers, and the internal conflicts that tear them apart.

 If fast-paced action and lots of excitement are your cup of tea, you probably won’t like this game. Some wouldn’t consider The Beginner’s Guide a game at all. It utilizes the medium of video games to tell a story, but barely any of the traditional mechanics are present. Most of your time in the game will be spent walking and listening to the narrator talk, but what it lacks in gameplay it more than makes up for in story.

 When you load up The Beginner’s Guide, you’re greeted by Wreden himself, who explains that he will be guiding you through a series of works made by a friend of hisanother game developer named Coda. Coda is an enigmatic character with a knack for unique and experimental projects, but he is also a private person, and rarely shares his work with other people.

 As you tour through Coda’s games, Wreden shares his interpretations of what the “bigger picture” of these games could be. To him, they offer insight into who Coda is as a person, and Wreden is enamored with this idea, “that [he] could just play someone’s game and see the voices in their head and get to know them better.” He concludes that Coda is dealing with creative frustration, and that he feels depressed and lonely, all dangerous assumptions to make solely based on someone’s work.

 In Coda’s final game, one entirely dedicated to Wreden, there is a message left for him. It’s truly heartbreaking to read, as he asks for Wreden to stop speaking to him, citing a serious breach of trust as the reason for cutting ties. Fueled by misguided determination to help a friend who he thought was in need, Wreden had shown several of Coda’s games to other people without his permission, violating his boundaries so severely that it couldn’t be amended.

 Surely, he was just making things worse by compiling all of Coda’s games and releasing them publicly for thousands of people to see. Isn’t that the problem that ruined their relationship in the first place? It’s gut-wrenching to witness Wreden break down in front of you, as he had relied so much on Coda’s games and the validation of others that he feels completely lost without them.

 Thankfully, the story of The Beginner’s Guide is fictional. There is no Coda, and the character of “narrator Wreden” isn’t accurate to who he is in real life. There is no great betrayal and no falling out with a friend, but there is no doubt that aspects of the game are based on true events.

 It would be easy to speculate about the well-being of real-life Davey Wreden based on The Beginner’s Guide, to conclude that he is unhappy and dejected. However, that would mean falling into the same trap as narrator Wreden did—believing that an artists’ work acts as a window into their soul. 

 There are instances where it can ring true, a creator pouring so much of themselves into a project that it ends up as a deeply intimate glance into their psyche, but most attempts to reverse-engineer the inner workings of an artist’s mind through their art will prove futile. Coda speaks on this in his message to Wreden, writing “the fact that you think I am broken or frustrated says more about you than about me.”

 As an artist, The Beginner’s Guide hits right where it hurts. I know too well the feeling of needing external validation to keep me motivated. The game changed the way I view my work, reminding me of the importance of creating for the sake of creating, without having to cater to others or share my work. It’s something I struggled with for a while, and I’m glad this game was able to help me get rid of that mindset.

 The Beginners Guide is a short but thought-provoking piece that tells a story that never fails to make me emotional. The way it delivers a message is unique and beautiful, and I can definitely recommend anybody interested to play it, especially if you are a creator of any kind: a writer, an artist, anything. It’s a powerful experience I’m sure will stay with me for months to come, and the impact it has left isn’t something that I’ll be shaking off anytime soon.