The simplest way that I can think of to describe The Beginner’s Guide is that it is a short story wrapped in game worlds.
The game is Davey Wreden’s follow up to The Stanley Parable, a game interested in our relationship to games, to rules, to voices of authority, to whether or not free will exists in the face of rules and authority. The Beginner’s Guide is also concerned with games, with will, and with voices of authority, though it is one that is perhaps more focused on our relationship to a game’s developer and how the way that we interpret games may or may not create impositions on games and their developers, on art and the artist.
The game is notably much more linear than The Stanley Parable and much different in tone. Like The Stanley Parable, the game features a fairly omnipresent narrator, gone however is the witty and snarky narratorial voice of the The Stanley Parable, which is replaced by a much more didactic tone. A character named Davey Wreden serves as the voice of a kind of documentarian and also as an interpreter of a series of games made by a friend of his named Coda.
Coda’s games are experimental and philosophical. He is especially interested in games that explore the theme of imprisonment (an idea that probably should be familiar in some sense to those that have played The Stanley Parable), and Davey is very much interested in describing those games to us, interpreting them for us, and suggesting what they tell us about these games’ developer.
Those who were sold on The Stanley Parable due to its playful and often comedic tone may find themselves less easily engaged by The Beginner’s Guide. The manner in which the story is told, through Davey’s didactic and often heavy handed observations, reminds me very much of the didactic narratives of the short story writer and novelist Donald Barthelme, whose philosophical musings often take the form of strange, esoteric fictional worlds described almost in the voice of a pedant.
That being said, while the Beginner’s Guide is not as immediately engaging as The Stanley Parable and offers its players fewer choices, it features any number of interesting worlds to explore with Davey, and as the plot develops and one begins to see the relationships between these worlds and the interests of the narrator, it reveals an equally interesting exploration of how we relate to what we play and the kinds of conclusions we draw as a result. It also becomes clear why this more didactic tone is necessary to tell this story, whose tone is absolutely wed to its own philosophical concerns about the nature of interpretation.
While the game is seemingly about the art of Davey’s friend Coda, the game itself also features a coda (in the sense of the word as it is used in classical music) that causes one to reflect back on its themes and to reconsider everything presented to the player over the course of the game. The Stanley Parable with all of its forking paths, dead ends, and differing resolutions requires multiple playthroughs to be appreciated. Despite being a more linear game with a singular conclusion, it seems as if The Beginner’s Guide might best be experienced at least twice, seeing it once in a linear fashion and then a second time in light of its coda.
Indeed, the first thing that I did after playing it was to load up several different chapters to reconsider them following what is explored in the game’s epilogue. This is a game to be pondered more so than merely played. It reveals itself best through its own recursiveness.