Davey Wreden Delivers an Intimate Story Game: The Beginner’s Guide

This is the kind of gaming experience that compels me to get my thoughts out about it because I have been thinking about it nonstop since I finished playing about 24 hours ago. The Beginner’s Guide is a first person narrative experience with minimal player interaction. Instead of keeping you busy with mechanics and enemies, a narrator (Davey Wreden) guides you through a compilation of games to tell you what he thinks of them and of his relationship with a person named “Coda”.

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There’s always a man. There’s always a CS map. 

Please excuse my bad Bioshock Infinite joke.

Anyway, the player moves from level to level seeing what appears to be the slow progression of a game designer becoming more skilled and honing their creativity through games. What starts of as some kind of strange analysis of his friend’s games turns into this concerning dilemma of what Davey wants and how the friend reacts through his creative medium.

Spoilers ahead in the next paragraph.

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One of the biggest feelings I took away from playing this was creative inspiration. I was blown away by some of the imagery that the levels presented. Starting in pure whiteness or darkness blew my mind. The manipulation of space that made everything seem so magical and temporary reminded me the power that games really have. At one point, you enter a room with floating text of many, many game ideas. It fascinated me. I felt like I was being shown drafts and wanted to take any one of his ideas and run with it.

I am in love with this concept of minimal control, walking-simulator style game that hits hard on delivering a certain feeling or idea. There will always be a place for AAA titles, yes, but now that games are so accessible on Steam it only seems right that personal games like this are emerging more and more.

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Davey Wreden took this compilation of games (or made them) to show us just how hard the creative process can be. He shows us how the desire for creative freedom can often juxtapose the “rules” that we take for granted in games. He makes us question tropes, puzzles, and solutions. I think the most powerful thing he did in The Beginner’s Guide was use 3D space to metaphorically explore the inner mind space of the developer. I felt privileged to be led by Davey through such personal experiences like growth, frustration, and isolation.

The Beginner’s Guide artfully explored new territory with this one. I hope to see more projects from him, and other creators, that deliver a similar “auteur” experience. If games like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Jazzpunk were up your alley, don’t miss this one.

 

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The Last of Us: What I Loved (and Didn’t Love) about Naughty Dog’s Latest Action-Adventure Title

I was indeed very late to this party, but I finally got around to playing and finishing The Last of Us over the course of several weeks.  Had I had it my way, I would have marathon played this game over a weekend, but my life and job just kept me too busy to beat this in a handful of play sessions.  I also feel like I should mention the fact that I really had no idea of what to expect from this game going into it.  The only other title from Naughty Dog I had played was Uncharted but I gave up on that because I got tired of the “run then kill dudes” pattern of the gameplay.  I realize this is what Action-Adventure games are but I felt like it just lacked in too many departments, thus preventing me from ever trying Uncharted 2 or 3.  All I knew about The Last of Us going into it was that it had infected things in it that you have to kill given minimal supplies and that it had an actor in it who looked sue-worthy similar to Ellen Page.  

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That said, I don’t really mind that she looked like Ellen Page… What? Don’t look at me like that.

This “review” will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t finished the game, I highly recommend not reading this and playing it first so you can comment or have a discussion with me about whether you agree or disagree with me on the points I’m going to touch on during my evaluation.  I want to talk about what I really loved about the game and what I thought it lacked or could have gone farther with.  

To start off on a high note I want to talk about the opening cutscene and how it absolutely floored me.  I loved starting off playing Joel’s daughter, Sarah, and padding through the house trying to figure out what in the world was going on.  I found the father-daughter relationship and even the level design of the house painfully relateable so needless to say, I cried at the end of the chaotic opening sequence in which Joel fails to succesfully escape the city with his daughter alive. 

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The level design and environment art were highly enjoyable throughout the game.

That said, I think that the cut scenes were extremely well acted, animated, and shot.  They were never jarringly placed either.  The cut scenes fit very well in between action sequences and I think kept the game at a solid pace all the way through.  I also thought that the level design and environment art was excellent.  I almost wish there was some way the game would have let me enjoy those aspects a bit more… like with a first person cam toggle or more L3 moments that gave you good views of where you were.  I found myself using guns to zoom in on a lot of things in order to enjoy the art and posters all around.  Sometimes though I could tell in certain areas they almost didn’t expect the gamer to look closely.  There were moments when I’d see two identical pictures in the same room as each other or even within feet of each other because the level designer expected us to just chug through a particular area.  That was a little disappointing, as in a game of this length (it took me about 20 hours), I’d expect enough variety in the art to not roll my eyes at seeing two paintings of a mime in one room of a house.  Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to make it sound that bad when here I am trying to praise the art.  I’m just a detail person and those little things can kill immersion in a dramatic game such as this.  

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When Ellie commented on a scene or they had an exchange, I wouldn’t have minded if the camera moved around a bit to show you some additional perspectives.

I’m also happy that I never felt rushed after I cleared a level.  There’s nothing more annoying to me than games that have characters who won’t stop saying things like “HURRY UP!” when you are trying to explore, be a completionist, or just take your time during a level to appreciate what’s there.  The Last of Us, thankfully, didn’t ever do this.  Ellie always waited patiently for you to move on and would wander around, hum, mimic a jam, or adorable attempt to whistle while you searched.  That might have been my favorite aspect of the AI behavior in this game which I’m about to discuss a little more.  The fact that they took advantage of downtime to build Ellie’s character with ambient observations or audio design was brilliant.  To add to that, there were collectible comic books that would trigger conversation with Ellie as well as certain scenes that would spark conversation.  If you take the time to read each comic book summary, they are metaphorical to Ellie’s journey and struggle, but I wish that was taken further.  Ellie always tells you she’ll read the comic books later, but I wish she did something like talk to you about each chapter after she read it in the following level or tell you how she felt about it.  That would have been a great opportunity to develop her character and solidify her, and Joel’s, motivations along the way.  

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She says she’ll read it but she never talks about it! Argh. Also, not finding them all was frustrating when I felt like I searched every single corner.

I said I’d talk about AI behavior, so here we go.  This is the first and probably worst “didn’t love” aspect of the game.  The AI behavior of your companions (when you had Ellie and Tess in the beginning) and the enemies was often times very frustrating and confounding.  It was like the AI was a puzzle in itself to figure out.   There was not a whole lot of instruction on the game’s end as to what the rules of engagement were with particular enemies, making strategies very hard to develop until you were near end game.  At first, this made combat VERY frustrating.  The only thing the game really taught me was that Clickers reacted to sound, thus the best way to deal with them was with stealth/shanking.  This was fun when you succeeded at it.  However, the clickers were more often than not paired with gaggles of “screamers” I think they were called?  Just regular infected dudes who would groan and run at you like a zombie would.  I had no idea how to deal with them for the longest time and I often just wound up going all out with melee or a shootout to finish them off.  Their movements seemed unpredictable, and like every other enemy, we were never given any information about how to handle them or what was most effective.  

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Clickers: the scariest but easiest to deal with enemy.

Listening mode was fantastic and I really enjoyed using that to play up the stealth actions through the game.  But again, the AI behavior was just so unpredictable and unknown that it was a LOT of trial and error.  Frustrating trial and error.  I put a lot of thought into why combat frustrated me so much early on in the game and figured out what my problem was with it; there is no more reward for doing well or punishment for doing poorly.  Failure was made annoying by being granted the same cutscene and audio clip of being grabbed, bitten, and that high, screechy terror sound as it happened.  The checkpoints were spaced out well, so I had no problem with trying over and over, but then I learned the enemies’ paths (which were not randomized) making it more disappointing the more I had to re-do a scene.  I would have preferred more variety in death animation clips and methods overall and even a reward for when you do exceptionally well at handling enemies in a scene (e.g. a temporary health or damage boost, bonus item drops, or proficiency with your method of choice).

Once I did start to understand how combat worked better, which for me was towards the last half of the game, doing it right was so much fun and often got my adrenaline pumping when I pulled off a scene without getting hurt too badly or wasting too many supplies.  I really enjoyed the opportunities to upgrade my weapons but there was another thing that I needed more information on when it happened for the first time.  

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Sweet, a weapon upgrade bench! So uh… what would the weapon holster DO exactly? Guess I have to spend 75 scrap to find out. Oh, that’s what it does.

I suppose it was just by design that you had to figure a lot out on your own.  I feel like I’d enjoy the whole endeavor much more the second time through but on the flipside, it wouldn’t be the same.  Maybe Naughty Dog just wanted you to constantly feel confused, frustrated, and unsure the whole time.  Now that I’m actually typing that out I kind of liked it in retrospect.  Those feelings were supposed to be how Joel felt through the entire journey.  I guess if that was the intention, they could have connected it by giving us sound clips from Joel or something being like, “Now let’s see what this does…” or whatever.  There was just a lot of not knowing what the hell I was doing but most of the time I didn’t care.  I just wanted to move forward and experience more of the story.  I can complain about the unintuitive controls, UI, and crafting system in retrospect, but in the moment you’re not really thinking about it as much as you’re thinking about the last cut scene you just saw and where you need to go next. 

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Wait, so I need another 1/4 of a blade and a half a rag? When am I picking up fractions of supplies? I have no idea… WHO CARES!

It was easy enough to craft and I was always making molotovs instead of health kits because, hell, you either die in a scene or you do it right, right?  But the whole fraction of a material thing boggled me the entire game.  I STILL don’t understand what that was about.  I never realized when I was picking up 1/4 of a blade or a half of a rag.  Finding and gathering materials was always fun, but it was often a triangle spam-fest followed by an immediate press of the select button to see what I could make. When I couldn’t forge a shiv because I only had 3/4 of the tape I needed, I’d just stare helplessly and confused before closing the menu and moving on with a shrug.

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I can’t wait until you all spread out so I can shoot you in the head with an arrow or shank yo ass.

I want to talk a little more about the characters (other than Joel and Ellie) and the roles they played in your journey.  Like I said at the start of this thing, the cut scenes were highly enjoyable and the virtual actors felt real enough to draw very heavy emotions from me at the right moments.  At the same time though, I can’t help but feel like some of these characters’ stories fell short or could have been played out with more meaning.  The characters would say and do one thing in a cut scene, but then be contradicted by the gameplay that would follow.  For example, when Tess painfully sacrificed herself to buy Joel and Ellie a little more time in running away from the… military guys… in the Boston Capital Building, if you don’t hurry your ass up and waste time trying to look around or search for stuff, the sacrifice was completely futile because the dudes catch up to you and fight you anyway.  I had a problem with that and felt like they should have either put more pressure on me to RUN or just play out the cutscene of Joel and Ellie escaping so I wouldn’t sit there and say, “well, gee, that was a waste of a sacrifice” right after an extremely dramatic moment. 

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He’s an asshole! Wait, why again? What happened exactly? Oh, that’s why. Wait, he’s an asshole?

This kind of happened with Bill too.  The game kept telling me this guy was an asshole, a dick, a jerk.  But what did he do?  Helped us at every turn when we were with him.  Then we find out he’s gay and his partner hung himself, but not before leaving behind a letter telling us how he hated Bill’s guts.  That WOULD have been a good reason for him to be an asshole were it not for the fact that he reads this letter right before sending you off on your separate ways.  We never really see him be an asshole other than saying things like “don’t touch anything” to a kid, which… who wouldn’t?!  Everyone’s dead and you gotta look after your stuff!  Joel just sort of halfheartedly apologizes about the death of Bill’s “buddy” before we never see Bill again, so I don’t know.  I loved watching these characters interact and learning more about Ellie and Joel’s personalities through the cut scenes along the way, but maybe I just wanted to see more of the characters come out through gameplay and mechanics too, not just the cut scenes.  

 

Henry and Sam are especially good examples of this.  You meet them and Henry seems very level-headed and in control of his brother and their situation, but then they do ridiculous things in the game.  

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Sam, what happened to being like GLUE?! WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT?

Everyone except Joel seems keen on teaming up, but then they ditch you the first opportunity they get after barely helping at all in a combat situation.  Henry tells Sam to stick to him like glue, but then the second you’re left alone with Sam, the kid LITERALLY goes running up to enemy AI and you have no control over his movements whatsoever.  That was an extremely frustrating moment for me.  There was just so much dissonance between what happened in the cut scenes and then what followed that I found myself furrowing my brow trying to understand just how Henry could be so unobservant of his own brother to not see him get bitten?  Or that he wouldn’t even let him have a toy… they were brothers not father and son.  Why didn’t Sam stick up for himself?  He just wound up being a scared victim and Henry gave up on himself when his brother was lost to the infection.  It was a gasp-eliciting moment but I couldn’t help but question that series of events later on.  

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You collect a lot of these through the game. Each time I found one I thought, “wow, maybe I’ll meet them all or get paid scrap metal for each one later!” Nope, they’re just contest winners on tags for you to look at. Wh…why? Huh? ~_~

I feel like I’ve been ranting too much about the negatives now when my overall experience of the game was one I would call “fantastic”.  I would recommend this game to any gamer, certainly, but maybe to have lengthy discussions with them about this stuff just as equally as wanting them to have the experience.  I guess to summarize, it was a huge artistic success, told a great story, used virtual actors extremely well, and was beautifully unpredictable, but had a lot of weaknesses in terms of game design.  I think Naughty Dog will improve and blow us away with their next title.  There were so many good ideas but maybe they could have left out the extras to focus on what was important.  

 

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Most of the game you are focused on the most important thing: this girl, right here.

Ending this with what I loved most about the game: the last scene.  My heart…  I loved that you got to be Ellie in that last little level going towards a promising looking town before a scene that concludes everything that had been developing between Ellie and Joel on a parent-child level.  Joel does something that’s hard for an adult to do and lies to Ellie’s face because he realizes she is the most important thing he has left in his life and she knows that too.  Maybe it was a cheap, quick ending to some.  To me though the fact that Joel fought so hard and recklessly stole her back from the fireflies because, selfishly, he loved her and she was all he had left to live for, was one of the most touching moments I’ve experienced in a video game.  It made me think a lot about my own dad and that definitely brought some tears.  

I never edit these things or do second drafts, but I feel like I have gone on long enough at this point and covered a lot of bases.  I just feel like I could discuss every single piece of this game.  So what did you all think?  Please feel free to comment and let me know what you liked or didn’t like, and if you agree or disagree with me on any of these points!  I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Of Us and highly anticipate seeing what Naughty Dog comes up with for us next time.