Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Game Review - 'The Beginner's Guide'

There is something oddly, and almost uncomfortably, intimate about the experience of playing through The Beginner's Guide. The basic idea is simple enough - we have game developer Davey Wreden, co-creator of The Stanley Parable, gathering up a collection of strange and experimental little games made by a fellow developer referred to only as 'Coda' and releasing them to the world. Why would he do that? Well, presumably, he is simple a fan of his friend's work, and wants to make sure that these strange little games receive the recognition that he feels they deserve. The truth is that, at first, we simply have no way of knowing.

All we do know, going in, is that we have been invited to come along on something of a virtual tour of a handful of Coda's games, with Davey providing commentary as we play. At first, this commentary plays out like something of a lecture in the art of game design (something that fits with the game's title), with Davey taking the time to explain aspects of each game as he walks us through from one to the other. Davey is clearly quite eager to share his thoughts on not only how Coda made these games, but also why - offering up his own interpretation on each game's use of imagery and symbolism. It's an interesting experience, on its own - but, of course, a lecture in game design is not the true purpose of The Beginner's Guide. As we make our way through each game, Davey's narration begins to grow more personal in nature - less focused on the games we are playing, and more focused on his relationship with the person who made them.

As that happens, the experience becomes much more personal in nature - almost uncomfortably so, as I said earlier. There is, after all, a strong sense of 'reality' to this game, and its basic premise, that is only strengthened by the fact that Davey Wreden is, essentially, here playing himself. Whether it's the lecture on game design that opens the game, or the more personal reflection we hear later, the fact that we are hearing it all as commentary offered up by the game's actual creator effectively blurs the line between 'reality' and 'fiction' - even to the extent that it may leave some uncertain about which category actually falls into.

The Beginner's Guide almost seems to invite us to come to the conclusion that this is actually real - that Coda is a real person and that these games do not actually belong to Davey. And, that gives the game its uncomfortably personal edge - since it's made fairly clear early on that Coda (whoever he or she may actually be) never really intended for these strange little games to be released. If you buy into the reality of the premise, then the whole experience could end up feeling like an invasion of privacy - like you shouldn't be playing these games, and Davey Wreden had no business releasing them to the public.

But, all that being said, it hopefully wont be spoiling anything to admit that The Beginner's Guide actually is a work of fiction. The experience we are being led through, here, is a deliberately constructed one intended to lead us toward a carefully constructed moment of revelation (a revelation about which, of course, I intend to be deliberately vague). Knowing that shouldn't spoil the experience for anyone, though - or, at least, I hope that it wouldn't.

Admittedly, as fascinating as the game's basic premise is, there isn't really a great deal of interest in the actual game play. It's really much more of a virtual tour through a series of virtual environments than it is an actual game. Some will provide the opportunity of engaging in conversation with characters within the game, itself - by selecting from a handful of dialogue options in a fairly standard game mechanic. But, ultimately, these sections have no real lasting impact as Davey is always quick to move us along to the next game. Others allow for a minimal amount of interaction withe the environment (by solving a relatively simple puzzle, for example) - but, these are also kept to a minimum.

There is, in fact, often an unfinished quality to these games - which is, of course, entirely intentional. But, at the same time, it is a little disappointing that none of 'Coda's' games are really given the opportunity to be as interesting and creative as we are told that they are. I can't help but think that the experience of playing through The Beginner's Guide would have been improved if some of these strange little experiments had been allowed to exist in a more complete form - and, if we had been given more opportunity to actually play them. As it is, it occasionally feels like we are being rushed toward the end - which, in a game that is only really a couple of hours long, feels a bit strange.

In the end, The Beginner's Guide (much like the individual games which make it up) feels like something of an experiment in story-telling in game form - but, it is also one that seems to have mostly succeeded. The odd blurring of the line between fiction and reality allowed by its premise allows the player to be drawn in to the experience in a way that many other, more straight-forward, games would struggle to achieve. Also, the story that is gradually revealed to us through both the game, and Davey Wreden's narration, is a genuinely compelling one. It is, admittedly, a bit of a shame that there is not more actual 'game-play' in the experience, sure. But, in the end, The Beginner's Guide still manages to be great little story told in a clever and creative way.

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