Have You Played… The Beginner’s Guide?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

The Beginners Guide, aka, the sad one. After the Stanley Parable warmed the innards of human animals across the world, the two creators went their separate ways. One of them resurfaced a couple of years later holding a free game with a superbly long name called Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist. The other appeared with The Beginner’s Guide. Both were good, but for completely different reasons.

Dr Langeskov was, from the off, a comedy. It had tiger sound effects and a bossy narrator with the voice of Simon Amstell. The Beginner’s Guide, meanwhile, was… damn, I don’t know. Two paragraphs into this and I’ve already fallen apart. This happened a lot to the critics who tried to describe what the game was. Let me try. Ahem. It’s a first-person meta-fictional essay about human frailty. Did that help? No, I suppose it didn’t.

As the player, you are wandering around a series of videogame maps designed by someone who is not the narrator. But the narrator is telling you all about this person and guiding you through the maps, level by level. He plants you down in one and muses about it, then moves onto the next. It’s like an interactive lecture on level design. But as things move on the story becomes more personal. The narrator loses his professorial tone and you begin to become uncomfortable, unsettled by the things he talks about. By the end of the 1-hour-and-a-bit journey, you’re a confused, sad, conflicted, skeptical, concerned wreck. You feel like phoning all your mates just to ask them if they’re okay.

I waited years for someone in videogames to do service to the idea of meta-fiction, because I’m a huge twat who reads exclusively Flann O’Brien and Italo Calvino novels and then drops that fact on a videogame website. Then, in the space of a few years three games get the genre so damn right. Good stuff, videogames. Good stuff.

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  1. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Worth noting it’s in the current Humble Bundle too

    • G-Lord says:

      Yep, and that’s why I just played it yesterday.

    • buenaventura says:

      I got it in the bundle as well, played it yesterday and I was floored, it was beautiful and very touching, thought provoking. I wish I could make games like this! I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

  2. Faldrath says:

    Is Brendy joining RPS for good? That would be A Very Good Thing.

    And yeah, I really liked The Beginner’s Guide too. I think a lot of people were disappointed because it was a bit more straightforward than Stanley, but I think it set out to do a different thing and did it rather well.

    • thelastpointer says:

      Brendan for president!

    • Ross Angus says:

      Brendy’s too much of a loose cannon to join RPS. No website can contain him. He’s a soldier of fortune. A man on the edge, with nothing to lose. Just give him a packet of smokes and the road. It’s all he’ll ever need.

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      caff says:

      I hope so too. Brendy writes about all the things very goodly.

  3. dystome says:

    I haven’t but I intend to for the first time tonight. Hurrah!

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    teije says:

    Well worth a play through. Didn’t find it sad, more contemplative.

  5. Cheradanine Zakalwe says:

    There’s something about the way the narrative is structured that rubs me the wrong way. It took me a while to process exactly why, but here’s where I’m at.

    At the first level we get to play the ‘games’ of this chap. I’m happy to accept that they’re a metaphor in that they’re not actually that great at all. The ‘games’ are all quite clever at communicating ideas and I have no issues with anything here.

    Level two is the narrator talking about the games. He’s the one who supposedly put this collection together and recorded the narration, the guy who submitted the collection to Valve for approval etc. He’s sharing his thoughts as you play through the games.

    Level two is where this game sucks. If he’s put the game together, and put his narration together (presumably through multiple takes), and his narration is a flowing one (not snippets of dialogue like in half life 2 commentaries) then it is a construction. There is no ‘character arc’, its a script that hes written and edited non-stop. There is no ’emotional breakdown’, its him rehearsing and acting this out however many times it took him to get it right.

    As a result, it comes off as incredibly emotionally manipulative. This character is aware of the emotional ‘beats’ of the story, like the whole lamp post thing from the very beginning. So why act one way early on and differently another?

    Level 3 is where I think they should and could have fixed this problem. This level is the actual real life person who made the game, not the character from the story. If this level had been actualised, the story could have made sense. He could have said ‘here are some clips I recorded/reconstructed of me showing my friends games to other people’. Boom, the story makes sense. Instead of being a constant narrative, we get snippets of him reconstructing moments from the past two years, with an introspective at the end.

    Maybe this was the implication of it all along, but it wasn’t clear enough for me. With the story breaking the fourth wall as clearly as it does, I feel it needs to make sense as an entity in itself (so the self contained story of the character accumulating his friends games) or freely admit that the narrator is also just a character.

    • CdrJameson says:

      I listened to the commentaries as though they were episodic stream-of-consciousness – recorded one game at a time, with a gap in between each.

      But yes, they have the style of a live presentation but in a medium where it’s clearly pre-recorded. I think you just have to suspend disbelief on that one.

    • supercakman says:

      Yeah, I think pretty much everyone agrees that there’s some flaws with the narrative. There’s a certain… Hmmm, I think Jim Sterling was the one who said something to the extent of that the good aspects of the game weren’t so much the storylines and mechanics of the game itself, but of the feelings they brought out of you as you played.

      Cause yeah, the game doesn’t make a whoooole lot of sense within the universe it sets out for itself. I wouldn’t so much call it “emotionally manipulative” though. I just feel like the game itself wanted to go in a few too many directions.

      I definitely feel like it was a deeply personal piece by the developer, despite it being mostly fictional. I tend to view the entire thing through an analytical lens of a creator arguing with himself.

    • MrBehemoth says:

      I think that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The narrator *is* emotionally manipulative. He has clearly manipulated the player by trying to funnel them through his version of Coda’s world. He tried to manipulate Coda’s emotions, to tell him how he ought to be feeling, in what way his own work ought to be meaningful to him. He breaks down because he cannot mould Coda to his own world view, and such a failing is not acceptable to his sociopathy. The reason you (Cheradanine) didn’t enjoy that feeling is because the game succeeded in giving you that un-enjoyable feeling. I think that’s a good thing, because that discomfort makes you think about things you wouldn’t normally, but not everyone is into art/media that is designed to cause discomfort, so I get that it’s not for you.

      • Sturek says:

        Maybe that is the point of narration? That every narrator manipulates the audience? That’s why unreliable narrators work so incredibly well (to the point that people are offended by them, when they realize they’ve been got). The first game I remember doing this to me was Bioshock and it blew my mind.

      • Dynamique says:

        I agree. You might say The Beginner’s Guide is a film-length story about depression and emotional abuse. Which makes it an *unpleasant*, but interesting experience… There’s also lots of interesting “meta” going on, aka “Do games have to be enjoyable / meaningful?” (-> narrator’s modifications of Coda’s designs); you may also regard it as a commentary on The Stanley Parable (the bureau complex as the perfect prison) etc. …

    • Sturek says:

      Interestingly, I did not even think about the game like this for a minute. For me, games do not have to mimic the real world or have to be logical in that sense. So, why would we need a justification for this narration, where it comes from, how it was recorded etc.? What of the meaning of the game is changed, if we get the explanation that this is a Let’s Play (just that we control the game)? On the contrary, I was really impressed that it got away from all of these justifications and did not try to be “realistic” in that sense.

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      I must be misunderstanding something because your complaint sounds like you’ve just discovered that artistic works have been conceived, rehearsed, prepared, and edited before you consume them. If the idea that someone did multiple takes of something, or that a narrator can also be a character, is enough to make you dislike the game, I can’t imagine ever going to the movies with you.

      • Cheradanine Zakalwe says:

        Its confusing to explain because of how meta the whole thing is, but the basic idea is that I don’t think the story makes sense. The story is that a guy got a compilation of his friends games and has released it with his commentary it on steam as ‘the beginners guide’. So its an experience that he has hand crafted.

        But this game, that he has hand crafted, is told in chronological fashion, with his character changing and revelations occurring as we play through it. In reality, this character has already completed this developmental arc that we see towards the end.

        There’s an argument here that he’s trying to give us a simile of his relationship with this character and attitudes over time. Which is fine, a totally legitimate interpretation. My feeling is that it subverted the message though. I would have appreciated something a lot more candid from the beginning than the ‘gotcha’ he gets to pull with the lamp posts at the end (which doesn’t make sense to me in the context of the story – why pretend the lampposts are anything when 3 hours later he knows hes going to expose himself while acting out a breakdown).

        But hey, I’m just trying to make sense of how it made me feel. I think there were moments of brilliance (the level where you select dialogue options to break down the wall is amazing) but it left me unsatisfied, and I’m still trying to puzzle out why.

        • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

          Fair enough. I guess it really just comes down to whether one was able to keep their disbelief suspended through the whole thing. I was, you weren’t; the things that bothered you kind of made it worthwhile for me. I enjoyed seeing where he managed to take his conceit, even while I was aware of it as such – the emotional connection it made with me allowed me to cement over the seams, while you didn’t have the same experience. Hooray for art and its unpredictable messiness!

          I’m not sure I agree that the character has completed the arc at the beginning, though – we just kind of have to accept this is a first-time, off-the-cuff presentation – or an iteration of that presentation that goes wrong. And of course, that doesn’t make sense if you dwell on it, but that’s true of 95% of things about films as both stories and actual consumable artifacts. In the end it’s a matter of whether we feel it’s worth the investment to believe unbelievable things for the duration of a story. I can totally understand why someone else might come across a dealbreaker in TBG before I did, since the story and its presentation are definitely uneven and implausible at points.

      • Matt_W says:

        It sounds to me like you’re discounting any criticism of how effectively the narration pulls off its conceit. I get annoyed when authors seem to try to preclude criticism of their work by either pre-empting it (“You can see how the Source engine is best used for blocky shapes.”) or by presenting it an act of exposure that makes them vulnerable to criticism. I mean, that’s the whole goddamn point, but now he’s reaching meta-levels of pre-emption by pre-empting the criticism of pre-empting.

        The other thing that’s unfair about The Beginner’s Guide is that there actually is a huge body of work created by people who are making weird, wonderful, awful, creative, shocking, surprising, unsettling, anguished, exposing games. They’re out there, and they’re real people, with all of the attendant complications that being actually human entails. This fiction created by Wreden subverts all of that to a certain extent. It’s not like his ventriloquism is very seamless (indeed it’s meant to be somewhat apparent); it feels remarkably solipsistic. And he’s asking for money for it, which most of those other creators do not. A game like this requires some degree of authenticity, and instead The Beginner’s Guide feels like manipulation.

        The Beginner’s Guide is too easy, too over-the-top. It hints at the deep rifts that always lie in the way of human interaction and empathy, but then pretends that shouting over the top of that deeply unsettling realization is anything like a useful examination of it. There’s nothing here to grab on to.

        • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

          I don’t see what the existence of real indie artists has to do with anything – the author wanted to tell a story that didn’t exist until he told it. That’s the point of fiction. And sometimes fiction is the best (or only) way to effectively deal with or share certain personal truths.

          Wreden may have failed more than he succeeded (though I feel it’s probably the other way around), but either way, there’s nothing wrong or strange about his asking for money for the resulting product, and it’s kind of weird that you single that out.

        • Sturek says:

          Yeah, I can’t really follow your argument either, sorry. How does it subvert these super-indie (or whatever you want to call them) games? If anything, Beginner’s Guide criticizes the people who take these games too seriously (in that they feel like they know and understand the creator behind them through playing the game), but not the games or their creators. At least that’s how I understand it.

    • Frank says:

      [Mildly spoilery:] I just thought of it like the audio commentary over a film, recorded as it plays. Our narrator dude recorded this in one or a few sittings, realized at the end that he wasn’t keen on releasing it, and we the viewers found the game + voiceover on his desktop. Even with that interpretation, you’ve got to suspend some disbelief for it to hang together, but I found myself able to do that.

    • banana says:

      Please, do yourself a favor and Google “coda music definition”. After that, go watch Errant Signal’s Video on The Beginner’s Guide.

  6. criskywalker says:

    I began it but never finished.

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      InfamousPotato says:

      If you ever have 98 minutes to spare, I would highly recommend giving it a second try (98 minutes being how long Steam says I took to play it).

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      gritz says:

      You have to pay extra for The Finisher’s Guide.

      • Darth Gangrel says:

        Oh, I can’t wait for the sequel, The Beginners Guide 2: Advanced Guiding.

  7. Synesthesia says:

    Still one of the best games I played last year. Wreden knocked it out of the park with this one. Such a close look at the drive to create.

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      caff says:

      Totally agree. I think having dabbled with a bit of mapping/coding and stuff in recent years I found it absolutely fascinating.

  8. Matt_W says:

    I hated this game more than I’ve hated any other game I’ve completed. It’s too clever by half, winking at its own cleverness, completely devoid of empathy for its subject. Barf.

    • banana says:

      The guy isn’t real.
      It’s about you, thinking that you “know” a creative just by looking at his work.

      It’s about the critique in general. Get it? ;)

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    gritz says:

    More than any other game, this one got me to pay attention to the authorial role of the level designer, and motivated me to look for games where that voice is more prominent (mainly weirdo indie stuff on itch.io)

  10. Sturek says:

    I am still intensely fascinated by this game, even though I played it right when it came out. There are so many different readings flying around, people seem to have taken this game to mean all kinds of things, which is tragically rare when it comes to video games.

    My first interpretation was that this is a discussion of the concept of authorship in the digital age, of authorial control and power in a time when every copy of digital art is a freely modifiable original. At the same time, I took it to also question the role of the player and their interpretation of games. Ironically, the game seems to argue that we should not try to find the designer within the game (and, thus, should refrain from trying to psychoanalyze the creator through the game, and from guessing at the creator’s intentions (the author being dead and all that)), but that is exactly what many people did when interpreting The Beginner’s Guide.

  11. r3negade says:

    I played it just a couple of days ago (courtesy of Humble Bundle). Fun game. I played it without pausing or stopping, and I think I lost my mind. It’s make a great VR game.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Errant Signal had an interesting analysis: link to youtube.com

    • banana says:

      Thank you!
      Should’ve scrolled down a bit first… silly me.

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    Jekadu says:

    There’s a lot to say about what is in essence a very short game, but what has stuck with me is how the game examines creative motivation and intent. Essentially, the game posits that there are two ways one can make art: for oneself, or for others. By sharing something you’ve created with others, you open yourself to compromise; even if you isolate yourself from feedback, you end up making concessions to accommodate your audience. If art is truly just a creative outlet and you require no extrinsic validation then this might not be acceptable. Conversely, you might have created something in order to provoke a reaction, and keeping it to yourself might not be satisfying.

    I don’t create things myself, so I don’t know how true this holds for other people. I thought it was a fairly clever examination of how art has context.

    • Sturek says:

      The funny thing is, the existence of this urge to create (whether for yourself or for others) is denied by our current copyright regime (which supposes profit as the main motivation to create works of art). Legal authorship is strongly intertwined with incentivization, but that does not seem to play a role here at all.

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        Jekadu says:

        I’m not following. I’m talking about how art is shaped by the context it is created in. Did you mean to reply to someone else?

        • Sturek says:

          Oh, no. Sorry if I wasn’t being clear. I thought you described how this game defines authorship and was trying to juxtapose that with our legal conception of authorship (and, thus, the justification for copyright). Sorry, I work on copyright and games, I just see this everywhere ;)

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I did but not being an artist or other creative type I do feel that I missed out on a lot of the subtext just by lack of being able to relate.

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    InfamousPotato says:

    The Beginner’s Guide, though certainly not the best game, is my favorite game of all games that currently exist. I would highly recommend it.

    For the best experience, go in without knowing anything more than you do now.

    I also feel compelled to say that Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist does reading better than any other game I’ve seen so far. In most games, when you find a book or a note (a good example would be Skyrim), you click the “use” key and it immediately appears in front of your face, as if it teleported to the correct position and distance in front of your eyeballs. In Dr Langeskov, there’s a lovely little animation where it comes from the bottom of the screen to make it seem more like you picked it up. It’s the smallest difference, but I want to see more of it (in the same way I want more games to let you flush toilets and see your feet).

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      “though certainly not the best game, is my favorite game of all games that currently exist.”

      This is a lovely way of putting it, and probably not far from my experience.

      Many of us like to talk about how games deserve the same consideration as other media for their artistic potential, but this is the first actually existing game-type-thing I’ve experienced that concretely makes that seem less than absurd. Warts and all. I’m glad it exists.

      • Sturek says:

        Yes, the first thing I thought about after finishing Beginner’s Guide was that this game shows just how much more potential “video games” still have. It’s so different from the vast majority of games out there.

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        Jekadu says:

        This is the game that made me realize what separates video games from other media: audience agency. Despite being, for all intents and purposes, little more than a walking simulator*, The Beginner’s Guide would not have worked as anything but a video game. Even just having some control over the camera creates an entirely different experience than watching a movie.

        When you give the audience the controls, each scene becomes a small puzzle, an exercise in finding the most interesting vantage points. They can dawdle and take their time exploring, moving on when it suits them. Game mechanics engage them on an intimate level, by making them directly responsible for the outcome of a situation.

        *I’ve taken to reappropriating that term; I’m not being ironic about its use.

        • Sturek says:

          While I agree completely, I was just wandering about your use of “walking simulator.” I’m still conflicted about this term, I agree that it’s useful in that enthusiasts know what you mean, but on the other hand it’s not really clearly describing the main feature of these games. I’ve been calling them “narrative focused” or “story-games,” when trying to describe what they are, but that’s not very catchy. Why aren’t they just called “adventure” games or “first-persin adventure” games, though? Isn’t that basically what they are?

    • Frank says:

      I went into it (this week, after the HB sale) having read quite a bit about it, and it really worked for me.

      In fact, entering the game with preconceived notions is perhaps the best way to go.

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    alison says:


    I thought this was a great game, and perhaps I am too drunk to read past all the long words in the other comments right now, but it seems to me like a lot of you guys are reading way too much into it. To me this was a very simple, linear story about the experience of being stalked. Toward the end the script laid it on a little too thick for my taste – I think the effect would’ve been creepier if the narrator had not broken down and instead just gotten progressively more obsessive – but it is still one of the creepiest thrillers I have ever played. It actually gave me a nightmare the night after I played it.

    And the story is even more poignant this week with all these obsessive mega-fans turning the release of a computer game into some kind of epic broken promise. Ugh. I am getting chills just thinking about this game again. You don’t need to be an artist to understand it. You just need to have the tiniest bit of empathy for anyone who has been harassed by a psychopathic individual.

    • Sturek says:

      I think that reading is absolutely valid. I would argue, however, that the strength of Beginner’s Guide is that all of the other interpretations above are just as valid. In my opinion the only people who truly read too much into this game are those who thought Coda actually existed and it was all real. ;)

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        Jekadu says:

        The disconnect between audience and creator, the breach of the barrier between fandom and idol, is definitely a major theme of the game.

        I hope to one day make something that will make other people happy. If I make it as a video game developer, will I have to give up a bit of my life for the audience? Will I be able to keep making the stuff I want to, or will I try to buy myself some kind of peace of mind by making what other people want me to?

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          alison says:

          Your response is exactly what I mean by I think people are trying to analyze this game a little too deeply.

          Back when I was a hobbyist musician and I put out my first album, my mastering guy – a veteran of the electronic music scene – said to me, and I paraphrase… The moment you release your music, it isn’t yours any more. People will interpret it differently. People will take it too seriously, or they will not take it seriously enough. They will steal it. They will remix it. They will love it and they will hate it. Most of all, they will not get it. But that’s the beauty of releasing it. It’s to find out all the other interpretations that are out there. To change someone’s life with a song you wrote about your belly button lint. To hear how someone thinks your most personal song since ever is actually about toenail clippings. It’s humbling. It’s disappointing. It’s life. It’s the lesson every artist learns the first time they release something.

          But all that philosophizing about the experience of releasing art is, in my opinion, something totally different than the story of The Beginners Guide.

          The game, somewhat ham-fistedly, depicts a psychopathic, obsessive stalker. A “fan” who believes that every output of a creator is dedicated personally to him/her. The kind of “fan” who imagines him/herself so in touch with the creator that their own fanfic is as much canon as the original work. It’s an old story. I am not really into the history of thrillers, but I do know Stephen King did this decades ago, and I’m sure classic writers have done it long before him. It’s still fucking creepy.

          What makes the trope work (in my opinion) is that the experience of being harassed is not something unique to game developers, or writers, or artists, or whatever. It is a universal experience. Often it is encountered when psychopathic “romantics” fall in love with an idea that is not the reality. Whether you take The Beginner’s Guide as a statement on computer game fandom or some other kind of stalker-ish obsession, its message is still delivered like a blow to the head – this shit is unacceptably creepy.

          Except now I am a lot more drunk than on my first reply so all ranting should be taken with a shot glass of soy sauce.

          • Sturek says:

            I’m not sure I understand your argument fully? But I would argue that Beginner’s Guide offers both the thriller about a stalker and the philosophizing about what it means to be author and/or audience. What you described as the “experience of releasing art” was my biggest takeaway from the game, to me the “thriller” you describe was just the metaphor to discuss this.

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            alison says:

            In the light of day I am not entirely sure what I meant last night either :)

            I think what I was a little cheekily suggesting was that if our discussion of the game starts hinging too much on theorizing what it all meant, we are becoming miniature versions of the game’s antagonist. Like the narrator, we can’t just let go and enjoy it for what it is. I guess my takeaway is the opposite of yours – the relationship between an artist and his/her fans is just the setting for the story; it’s the suspense and horror that was the point.

            But, regardless of what we each took away from it, I think it’s a sign of a high quality game that this discussion is happening. It’s because it’s so well executed that we all want to talk about it. So, although I personally find the more academic debate going on up-thread more than a little ironic, I definitely agree that this is one hell of a great game.

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            Jekadu says:

            Well, it comes down to what you yourself said: once a work is out it’s not yours anymore. It stops being about what you’re trying to say and starts being about what your audience thinks it says.

            That’s what’s going on here. Ironic, yes, given the plot of the game, but it highlights just what a brilliant game this is, to inspire such conversation.

          • Sturek says:

            I don’t know if a more “academic” discussion of the game is all that ironic, though. The difference I see is that the narrator in the game is trying to get closer to Coda (like you said, he’s a stalker), reading things into Coda’s games in order to come to conclusions about Coda. I would argue that that’s not really happening in the comments here (although I do agree that it was shockingly common around the time of the release of Beginner’s Guide).

            In any case, I could not agree more, this game is so interesting, because it allows for these discussions. I love playing games that make me think about what a game (or art) actually is. And this game does that on so many levels.

        • Dynamique says:

          There’s also the relation between author and publisher / editor. If I remember the plot correctly, Coda did not intend a publication. So one could do an (exaggerated / misleading…) comparison with the relation of Kafka and Brod (as it’s about the posthumous one): The latter was instructed to burn Kafka’s manuscripts after his death. He decided to publish them and made Kafka (and thereby, himself) famous. Yet he also revised the first editions of the novels – ordering the fragments in a particular manner, adding an ending to “The Castle” – in a way that priviledged certain interpretations.
          Editorship and the (alleged) value of some “original” are quite a topic of it’s own, though…

  17. iamthereplicant says:

    I don’t want to get too deep into this game because there’s a lot to be said on all sides, but the game involving the house fucking broke me. Easily in my top 5 gaming moments of all time. If anyone knows of other games that hit a similar range of emotions please let me know.

  18. Gnoupi says:

    I did, this week (thanks HumbleBundle), and I did again yesterday, this time without the narrator (you can switch it off in settings).

    I wanted to see to which extent the narration influenced my perception. I’ll just say that stairs and machine felt really like something else to me. I realized that without the narrator, the machine actually felt like a less explicit version of the later tower level, but conveyed the same message (that one, however, is not doable without narrator, obviously).

  19. Czrly says:

    I never played this because I really, really didn’t like the Stanley Parable. I got the joke in that one but just didn’t find it funny or particularly life-altering. It was nicely executed and a cute idea but, mostly, it was trolling.

  20. April March says:

    You mention O’Brien and Calvino, but not Borges? *walks out of restaurant*