Reviewing (kind of)…The Beginners Guide

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It’s hard to talk about a game like The Beginners Guide without lessening it for people who haven’t already played it. This is true of near everything of course, but not usually to the same extent. Modern Warfare type games for instance might have a plot, but that’s not why people play the game. They play Modern Warfare for the skill and thrill of twitchily taking out the enemy, or for the skinner-box reward of constant level ups and unlocks, or to be the best player in their match – and so on and so on. The point is that learning about which guns are in the game before you played it might spoil a little bit of your fun (because you lose the thrill of discovery and experimentation), but it won’t spoil the game as a whole. For things like The Beginners Guide, spoiling what happens in the game and how, is spoiling most of the game for you. Because the game is about discovery and the experience of that journey. Which obviously makes talking about it with someone who hasn’t played it much harder. That said, I’m going to do my best for you here. Just bear with me while I awkwardly segway around to it.

Sometimes, especially when I’m feeling low, I go on a spree of impulse game buying. I think it’s basically computer-game retail therapy. I’ll hunt through Steam and GOG for a game that captures my attention, and buy it. Most of the time, I’m profoundly disappointed. I buy the game hoping it will fulfil something, and it rarely does. Again, the retail therapy comparison seems apt. I’ve got to the point now where I recognize that these game-hunting sprees are probably a bad thing, though that doesn’t actually stop them from happening. It’s a dangerous road to go down for multiple reasons, not least because you spend a lot of money on shit you don’t really want.

But there is actually a reason I go a-hunting when these moods hit, I’m searching for something, but I never know quite what – only that most things don’t give me it. I want to ‘scratch that itch’, sure, but it’s hard to know what that actually means. I think, today, that I’ve finally hit on what I’m really hunting for; I’m searching for things that feel truly original. Now, I’m not going to get into a pedantic argument about what is original, what’s not, how you can say that everything is technically original and so on, because that’s kind of missing the point and you damn well know it. But, I do need you to be on the same page here, so to pinpoint what I mean, I’m going to steal from Ken Robinson , who said this: “creativity… I define as the process of having original ideas that have value”. So Ken uses the word ‘creativity’ where I’ve used the word ‘original’, but his description nails the spirit of what I hunt. It’s not just something new – it’s something new with merit.

So those things I chase, these things that are creative, I think they need three things to fulfil my needs:
*One, they need to actually be original – this eliminates a large number of things. In all honesty, it probably eliminates most of them.
*Two, they need to be original with value – which is to say, it needs to be something original with a spark. This cuts out another massive swathe of things, because ‘having new ideas’ can be hard, and ‘having new ideas and then sifting through them until you get something with a real spark’ is a lot harder.
*Three, it needs to communicate that spark to you. This eliminates another bunch, though not as many as you might think; because if coming up with original ideas is hard, and coming up with good original ideas is much harder, then the chances are that if you get that far you’re going to put in the hard graft to get the last bit right. Which means you might actually succeed.

As the introductory paragraph and title might have tipped you off, yes, I’m talking in a roundabout way, about The Beginners Guide. Because without spoiling anything, that is exactly what The Beginners Guide manages to do. It has an original idea and concept (which I’m not going to tell you about here), it ensures that that concept is actually good (which is to say, interesting), and then everything else in the game is designed around communicating that to you, to the player.

And it manages to do so while being very simple, very sparse, having graphical fidelity that would get you fired by any major games company, and gameplay mechanics that would get you fired and shot by any major games company.

So what I’ve been building up to saying, in a very non-specific way is this: You should play The Beginners Guide. Everyone should play The Beginners Guide. There have been a number of games in the past that I’ve thought “yeah, I think Person Who Doesn’t Play Video Games would really enjoy this”. The Beginners Guide may well replace all of them. This isn’t just a game I think you should play – you, who probably plays games, or at least has a passing knowledge of them. I think this is one of those games that should be used to introduce people to them, to show them what games can be (because if they don’t know about video games, what they do know will most likely come from major releases big enough to secure advertising/hysterical news scandals). Sure, they won’t get some of the references. Sure, they might not immediately get some of the culture that pervades the game. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they will be able to play the game. Similar to The Stanley Parable, TBG isn’t a game you can really lose. It’s not really a game that you can’t get through, even if you’ve never played a video game in your life. There are many different games that appeal to a huge range of people, but the bar to entry on a lot of them is really quite high. Try explaining – in any detail – a game like Dota 2 to someone who doesn’t know a thing about video games, and you will very quickly find that there is a gulf of understanding fit for Philippe Petit to tightrope. The Beginners Guide sets the bar to entry so, so much lower. It says “hi, if you have sound, a keyboard and a mouse, then you can probably play this game.” And that’s it. My mum could play this game, and would probably enjoy it. My gran could play this game and probably enjoy it. And they’d probably enjoy it a lot, just like you might too.

One last thing, a precaution really. A frequent problem that comes up with this kind of game or subject matter is that if you’re not particularly invested in the conversation, it can all sound rather wanky and pretentious. But… well… it’s just not. Pretentious games (or people, or whatever) try to make themselves seem better, more refined, more intelligent than they are. They seek to give the appearance of something greater, without actually trying to be greater. Really, I would argue that pretentiousness is when something tries to act as if it was creative (in Ken Robinson’s definition), without actually putting in the work. So if The Beginners Guide was crap, then yeah, it would be pretentious. But it’s not crap. It’s extremely well crafted. Every single part of every single part of the game has been meticulously constructed, and because of this, the game doesn’t really fall down from it’s sky-high perch of subject matter and tone. In short, TBG isn’t pretentious, because it isn’t trying to make itself seem better than it is; it simply is better.

To ground myself a little, I should say that I’m not claiming it’s the best game evarr. I’m not even saying that it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea. What I am saying is that it’s a game that is worth your time. Even if – as I suppose you could – you play the game and really don’t like it, I’ll still say it was worth your time. The world is filled with games that you won’t like. Most of them you won’t like because they’re badly designed. Or not worth the money you paid for them. Or really offensively fucking creepy. But on the balance of things, I don’t think you will dislike The Beginners Guide – and even if you do, you will have still found it to be an interesting, stimulating and creative experience.

So. It’s not long – you can play the entire game in one sitting if you want. It’s not hard in any mechanical sense. It’s not graphically intensive, so unless your computer is over 10 years old it can almost certainly run the game without problems. It costs less than £10. The music’s really good. And it’s more engaging than most £60 triple A blockbusters on the market.

Off you go then.

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