The second game from the creator of The Stanley Parable is an intensely personal character study and one of the most daring games in years.
Davey Wreden's debut effort The Stanley Parable was vaguely autobiographical. While its whimsical tale of a narrator consistently butting heads with an unpredictable player character was funny, it also touched on more universal themes like the nature of free will, the void between thought and action, and the conflicting internal monologues that drive, confuse, and haphazardly guide us through life. It was heady stuff, but tackled in a cutesy package that primarily satirised conventional game design. Wreden's sophomore effort, The Beginner's Guide, dials down the humour, nixes the satire, and cranks the meta narrative up to 11 in one of gaming's most overtly autobiographical commercial projects.
Much like The Stanley Parable, The Beginner's Guide is a linear first-person game shorn of conventional mechanics like combat or puzzles (besides a single, relatively easy one early on). It also has a narrator commenting on your journey. That's where the similarities end.
This time out, the narrator isn't an enthusiastic Englishman, but rather Wreden playing himself. Wreden explains that he's here to show off the works of his friend, Coda, an enigmatic figure with a penchant for unique, experimental games. Coda is an odd duck, however, in that he never shows his games to anyone. He makes them, deletes them, then makes more. Wreden hypothesises that we can get to know this man through his work, so off we go cataloguing the digital scrapbook of this hermetic oddball.
It's a fascinating premise that flips the way we usually think about games. Typically video games present worlds that we're meant to buy into. They usually contain their own lore, characters, mechanics and stories. Even more abstract titles like Journey, Rez or El Shaddai have a thematic or metaphorical consistency that guides us through their fantastical settings. With The Beginner's Guide, however, we're not meant to make sense of Coda's postmodern landscapes on their own terms, but rather to use them to paint a picture of the person who made them.
As such, The Beginner's Guide is actually a character study. Coda is one of gaming's most intriguing, mysterious figures. His games tend to deal with themes of alienation, self-doubt, obsession, depression and occasionally giddy mania. At one point he becomes obsessed with making games about various abstract interpretations of prisons, another title is a tranquil love letter to the simple pleasures of household chores, and one project mockingly uses fake online player notes scattered around a cavern as a metaphor for loneliness. Some of these games aren't particularly interesting on their own, but when splayed out in an anthology they start to tell the story of who this person really is.
Despite this, The Beginner's Guide isn't about Coda as much as it is about Wreden, the young developer from Sacramento who went from a nobody to a minor celebrity after releasing only one game. Wreden is obsessed with Coda; he's in awe of the man's rampant idea generation, unconventional design choices, and most importantly his aversion to seeking validation. Wreden's stubborn journey to understand this unique creature through their work is as captivating as the work itself - perhaps even more so.
What makes The Beginner's Guide work so well is that Wreden's quest is an inexorably human one that touches upon several universal struggles: How do you get to know someone who doesn't want to be known? How do you respond to a seemingly kindred spirit who may not be as relatable as we think? How do we interpret others by placing ourselves in their shoes when we're still trapped in our own heads?
It's a shockingly personal look into Wreden's psyche and the more we learn about his in-game persona and friend, the more we grow to care - and quite frankly worry - about the person who made this. Some will no doubt argue that it's self-indulgent, but I for one appreciate its rawness. Wreden doesn't hold back on his complex - and not always flattering - feelings about his plight in recent years, which makes The Beginner's Guide a gut-wrenching experience at times.
The Beginner's Guide is one of the most daring and creative commercial games to come out in a good long while. Some may call it pretentious or navel-gazing, and one could argue that its tight, linear design and scripted narration almost feel like an interactive LiveJournal entry. But when it's told with this level of craft and imagination I simply don't care. The Beginner's Guide's provocative imagery and personal prose set it apart from just about anything else out there. Those interested in how to tell personal stories in interactive media without resorting to waxy-faced NPCs or collectible audio diaries will find Wreden's latest a masterclass in character-driven storytelling.