Reviewed on: PC
Also available on:
Developer: Everything Unlimited, Ltd.
Publisher: Everything Unlimited, Ltd.
I find myself unsure of precisely how I should go about reviewing The Beginner’s Guide, the new game from one half of the creative team behind The Stanley Parable. For starters, it’s not a game. Sure, it takes place in the Source Engine, and it acts as a repository of experimental, intensely personal “games” created by what seems to be a person battling extreme social anxieties. However, you aren’t really “playing” them. You’re being shepherded through them at intervals, and shuffled along from one game to the next as you are plunged deeper into the narrative being spun. You’re a willing participant, but your role is that of a person strapped into a bumper car — yes, the steering wheel works, but you can never leave the boundary of the attraction at hand. This hearkens back to to The Stanley Parable, but the similarities end there.
The main issue I find with reviewing this game is how to detail its worth as a playable product, when in reality, very little “play” actually takes place. The experience is split into multiple games made over the course of a few years, all of which follow the Source Engine standard of being WASD + Mouse affairs. They all ask you to walk through particular scenarios, with very few instances of interactivity or agency. A few menial tasks here, a few conversation trees that end in the same terminal events there, it’s all very basic stuff. There’s moments of interesting perspectives, a few times where you see something that exceeds its simplicity in presentation, but they’re all very fleeting things trampled roughshod by the urgency of this train’s chatty conductor.
Furthermore, I would like to refrain from spoiling the game, but I will need to point at a few finer details in order to illustrate my misgivings. In order to give you perspective, let me just say that I absolutely adored The Stanley Parable. I found it to be an incredibly interesting treatise on the illlusion of free will and player agency, all inside of a scripted environment that constantly seeks predetermined outcomes in order to advance the scenario. For the first time, the true fourth wall of video games — the actual barrier between player and simulation — was exposed, deconstructed and examined in very subtle and subversive ways. That said, it pains me to say that The Beginner’s Guide does not take a similar route, nor does it take a related one in terms of insightful impact.
In many ways, The Beginner’s Guide starts off as a trip down the personal Memory Lane of a video game auteur, and through a series of honest and thoughtful musings packed with self-reflection and introspection, it finds itself devolving into a Hallmark Card of the “I’m Sorry, Baby” variety. The finale in particular is very hamfisted and overstated, while the game itself drags on and loses steam two-thirds into the proceedings, no matter how many barely-clever callbacks the game makes between earlier and later pieces in the timeline. I literally found myself falling asleep during the course of play, which isn’t a good sign. I found myself a rapt audience member right from the start, and then as time passed I felt more and more like someone on a museum tour of half-finished, experimental art games. The closer I came to the end of it, the less it held my interest.
The Beginner’s Guide feels like an exercise in cerebral masturbatory pretension. It is a game that does not know what to think of itself, and as the vector of an apology to another person — which I really hope isn’t targeting anyone real — it rings hollow as hell, considering this game will likely be sold for a dollar amount. Someone will profit from making an apology. This is that iconic scene in Say Anything, except with a laptop where the boombox would be, and passerby throwing money at John Cusack. Something doesn’t feel right about this.
If that’s not the case, and this game doesn’t cost money at launch, I’ll update this to reflect that fact.
With all this thinly-veiled negativity, I find myself at a very strange crossroads with this…thing. I can’t really call it a game, but it is something that could only exist in this medium. I don’t think it’s fair to judge this product on a normal grading scale, as it isn’t a normal product. As such, I’m going to decline to assign it a score. I don’t think I can quantify a thing like The Beginner’s Guide on the same level or criteria as I would a more focused, traditional piece of interactive entertainment. Beyond that, as much as I didn’t feel any profound level of resonance with the content of The Beginner’s Guide, I will certainly defend its right to exist. I think that it makes a showing in a side of the industry that doesn’t get a lot of attention, and that’s a good thing. However, my personal opinion is that there are other games that do a far better job of making that showing, and this includes The Beginner’s Guide‘s immediate predecessor.
The review copy of this title was a digital code provided by the publisher.
I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to be.