As is the case for all game reviews on this blog, this review is intended for people who have played the game. As such, it contains spoilers. You’ve been warned!
I haven’t written a game review in a long time, and that’s mainly because I’ve been slow to complete new titles recently. But I wanted to write this review if only to push back against some weird misinterpretations of the game that I’ve seen floating around.
On Friday afternoon, I posted a comment to the A.V. Club’s Gameological section asking what games fellow commenters would redesign from the ground up. By sheer coincidence, later that day, I played The Beginner’s Guide and realized that it would fit well in that category. It’s tempting to play the part of backseat game designer when reviewing a game, and since I’m not a professional reviewer, I’m going to give into that temptation. The Beginner’s Guide has a kernel of a good idea in it, but it’s utterly misguided in execution and needs to be redesigned from the ground up.
The entire value of The Beginner’s Guide hinges on its twist, when the narrator, a fictionalized version of creator Davey Wreden, explains that he compiled this compendium of Coda’s games in an effort to reach out to the game designer, even though that man wanted nothing to do with him; Wreden was reading whatever he wanted into Coda’s games because he was seeking validation. Prior to that, The Beginner’s Guide spends most of its two-hour playtime putting the player through a series of Coda’s games, while Wreden provides something akin to developer commentary.
Though I have my problems with the twist – which I’ll get to shortly – I strongly agree with its message; the twist reveals The Beginner’s Guide to be a condemnation of eisegesis, of inserting one’s preconceptions and biases into interpretations of another’s work. But The Beginner’s Guide runs for an hour and a half before it gets to that twist, and that hour and a half of gameplay just doesn’t work. First and foremost, it’s poorly paced. The player will often reach their destination before Wreden is done narrating, leaving them stuck in a single location, waiting for the story to advance. I often used this time to try to jump on tables and run into walls. It’s the familiar Half-Life 2 problem of cutscenes that aren’t actually cutscenes. If you give me a gravity gun, I’m going to lob office supplies at Alyx’s head. And if you’re not going to let me progress, you might as well wrest control from me.
But the much bigger problem with the first hour and a half of The Beginner’s Guide is that the games in Wreden’s compendium are kinda shitty. They’re shoddy creations, with little to no actual gameplay; they’re kind of games that people derisively refer to as “walking simulators,” and they’re deserving of the name. Environments have crappy textures, and shadows have alarmingly low resolutions. It’s nearly impossible to believe that anyone would consider these games worthy of further analysis.
You might be thinking, “Well, that’s the point; these games are supposed to be crappy.” That actually brings me to the point I alluded to earlier: the game’s twist is problematic. It specifically takes aim at the kind of over-analysis conducted by regular folk on the Internet; Wreden isn’t some ivory-tower snob. The game frames this over-analysis as the result of an obsession which stems from a desperate need for validation. But Wreden is really the only character in The Beginner’s Guide, so the implication seems to be “fans need therapy.” The crappiness of Coda’s creations only compounds the impression that Wreden is in need of help; only a crazy person would attempt a deep reading of these games. Thus, The Beginner’s Guide “punches down” (or at best sideways) at obsessive Internet commenters instead of “punching up” at critics and academics who have built their careers on over-analysis.
Here’s the thing: I really like the idea of walking through a compendium of fictional games. I also frown upon eisegesis. The Beginner’s Guide has the right basic framework to make something that I would truly appreciate. But it would have to be redesigned from the ground up. For one, Wreden – the creator, not the character – should have focused his target more specifically on people who are actually worthy of ridicule rather than pity. Secondly, Coda’s games should have been actual games, not just stupid walking simulators. It would have reinforced the idea that Wreden – the character, not the creator – was reading whatever he wanted to into Coda’s work. In fact, I don’t think The Beginner’s Guide should have even had a twist; it would played better as a satire. If the narrator had never wised up to his folly, then it would have been easier to mock him for his pompous, vapid bullshit rather than cringe at his mental breakdown. However, this would have required the experience to make its message a bit more obvious from the start, and it would have required that Wreden’s character be a snob instead of an eager fan.
The Beginner’s Guide is by no means an awful experience, and it more or less succeeds at what it sets out to do. But it’s deeply flawed, and I can’t seriously recommend it.
By the way, if you accuse me of “over-analyzing” The Beginner’s Guide, I’m going to punch your smart-mouth through my computer screen.