In 2011, a budding game creator named Davey Wreden released a free modification for Half-Life 2 named The Stanley Parable. This mod was discovered through word of mouth by William Pugh, an independent game designer who had experience creating environments using the Source engine. Noticing that Mr. Wreden was seeking suggestions for improvement, the two of them began collaborating, eventually turning The Stanley Parable into a standalone game. The project found its way onto the game distribution platform Steam in 2013 via their Greenlight service. The game was met with nearly universal critical praise, with many reviewers calling it a masterful deconstruction of the nature of choice in video games.
Having found an audience, Mr. Wreden began developing a follow-up to his acclaimed work, which he would complete in 2015. Unlike The Stanley Parable, this new game, The Beginner’s Guide, was released with little fanfare; its existence was only made known to the world a mere two days prior. The gaming press gave Mr. Wreden’s sophomore effort many accolades; Gamasutra highlighted him as one of the top ten game developers of the year, and he was nominated for two Independent Games Festival awards. In both instances, critics cited his scenarios as thought-provoking and able to change the way people look at games. It’s impressive he managed to catch their attention twice in a row amid worries that The Stanley Parable would be a tough act to follow. Does it truly escape its predecessor’s shadow and shine as an example of good video game storytelling?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: The following review will contain unmarked spoilers. Feel free to skip it if you wish to experience it for yourself.
The gameplay of The Beginner’s Guide is as simplistic as its predecessor. It’s played on a PC, and it uses a standard first-person shooter keyboard layout of “W,” “A,” “S,” and “D” to move your character. Then again, that’s a bit misleading because the person you’re controlling is yourself. The Stanley Parable pretended to have a protagonist in the form of its title character, but he was obviously a stand-in for the player, so one could say The Beginner’s Guide takes that notion to its logical extreme.
The first thing you hear upon starting a new game is the voice of the game’s creator: Davey Wreden himself. He acknowledges his previous effort, and even gives you a real email address you can use to contact him. The framing device of The Beginner’s Guide is that you’re exploring various prototypes by a fellow game creator named Coda, whom he met at a game jam in 2009. Exploring these game worlds is accompanied with commentary courtesy of Davey as he describes the significance of his friend’s works. He also gives the player insight about the relationship between the two of them, describing the many ups and downs they had over the years.
Coda learned the art of game creation through modifying the popular first-person shooter, Counter-Strike. It initially looks like a typical player-generated map, but there are myriad crates floating in midair, lending a surreal tone to what would otherwise be a fairly mundane environment. Coda then created a game that takes place in a futuristic space station where the player is given a gun, yet it can’t be reloaded and there aren’t even any enemies to shoot. You eventually reach a labyrinth, but before you can navigate it, Davey skips you to the exit, assuming you got the idea. From this point on, Coda’s games become even more abstract in terms of content. One is a game that only permits you to walk backwards while another has you ascending a staircase until your walking speed is reduced to a crawl. As with the labyrinth, Davey attempts to alleviate the perceived boredom one would feel when performing these tasks; he opens the cell door of a prison in which you were supposed to wait an hour and by pressing “Enter” on the stairs, your speed returns to normal.
The premise this game is predicated on can give someone the wrong impression, for the Davey Wreden who acts as your guide through the experience isn’t the genuine article despite sharing his name, voice, and email address. The most obvious hint is how doubtful it is that the real Davey Wreden would take a bunch of prototypes from a friend and publish it as his own original creation. In the context of the game, not only is Davey Wreden a fictional character, he’s arguably the villain of the scenario, albeit of a non-malicious variety. Coda made these games purely for his own enjoyment, but Davey gave copies to his friends in a misguided attempt to help him. When Coda learns of what Davey has done, he makes a game specifically for him that is impossible to win without cheating. This game openly despises its players, as it features an invisible maze that sends you back if you touch the boundaries, a five-digit locker combination you must brute force your way through, and doors which won’t open until Davey hacks the code. Once these obstacles are cleared, there are messages on the walls that, among other things, tell Davey to never contact him again and to stop modifying his games. The last revelation is a bombshell because it makes the player question how much of what they just played is actually Coda’s work and how much of it is the result of Davey’s meddling. After this, Coda quits making games altogether and is never heard from again. To make amends, Davey compiled Coda’s work, releasing it to the public under the name of “The Beginner’s Guide.”
The most prominent running theme of the game is deconstructing the idea that you can understand an artist through their work. There is a ring of truth to this assertion, as a creator’s work can’t help but reveal something about them, but many fail to grasp that you can’t make accurate assumptions unless you know them personally. In the case of Davey, he interprets the prevalence of prisons in Coda’s games as either a sign of creative stagnation or being mentally drained. Never once does Davey consider that the prisons could be completely meaningless and Coda just likes putting them in his game for its own sake. Early on, Davey draws the player’s attention to a missing texture, something that would otherwise be easy to miss, yet the reoccurring three-dot pattern passes without comment simply because it in no way fits the portrait of a tortured artist he has painted inside his head.
He tries so hard to understand Coda through his work, yet he can’t honestly say he knows anything about him. Technically, even his gender isn’t known. The only reason I’ve been referring to Coda with masculine pronouns is because Davey does, yet the prototypes, which were originally only meant to be viewed by its creator, feature female voice acting. This reinforces the point that Davey is an unreliable narrator, and by the end, we don’t know how much of it really happened. In an instance of dramatic irony, these wild interpretations fail to tell us who Coda is, and the only person we can truly analyze based on what we know when all is said and done is Davey himself. Through his actions, he is shown to be selfish, uncaring, and oblivious to the harm he has inflicted until the relationship is utterly unsalvageable.
The analysis of fiction this game provides is certainly thought-provoking, so one could logically assume The Beginner’s Guide is a triumph of video game storytelling. What Mr. Wreden likely set out to prove was the inherit fallacy of, “The Death of the Author,” an essay written by a French literary theorist named Roland Bathes in 1967 which proposes that the creator’s interpretation of their own work is no more valid than the readers’. Unfortunately, with the method of presentation Mr. Wreden chose, what he accidently proved was that some storytelling techniques don’t translate well to a medium defined by its interactivity.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest failure of The Beginner’s Guide is that it doesn’t benefit from being played. The Stanley Parable may have set out to demonstrate the illusion of choice in interactive narratives, but you still had decisions to make – even if they were meaningless in the end. I have enjoyed games with minimalistic gameplay in the past, but even when the story is the work’s primary selling point, it’s essential to have some sort of entertainment value, for it encourages the audience to take a proactive role and engage with the material. As it stands, you don’t really play The Beginner’s Guide as much as you passively obverse it – you walk forward, wait around until something happens, and hit the occasional special key when neither of those strategies apply.
I will admit that it’s a little bit more insightful than The Stanley Parable because it touches upon themes that could be applied to fiction rather than limiting itself to being a blasé commentary on a single medium, but it’s still not enjoyable. Fans have argued that The Beginner’s Guide isn’t meant to be fun, but this very fact is the one from which I personally take the most umbrage. This is because, to be frank, this game is downright depressing. To put this in context, shortly after the Steam release of The Stanley Parable, Mr. Wreden wrote a blog post. It’s evident from reading his post that he was not prepared for the sheer amount of attention he would receive after the press nominated his work for several “Game of the Year” awards. His inbox was flooded with innumerable emails; some expressed that his work changed the way they look at games while others made him out to be a spineless coward. The volume of questions, comments, complaints, praise, and criticism became overwhelming, and it all faded into background noise. As a direct result of this, Mr. Wreden found himself battling bouts of depression, even going as far as drawing a short comic to illustrate his point.
The juxtaposition of Mr. Wreden’s highly personal blog post and the somber tone this game takes fit together too well for it to be a coincidence. The increasingly depressive prototypes, one of which includes destroying Coda’s previous work while another involves the protagonist lying to themselves that video game development is easy, could easily be seen as an allegory for Mr. Wreden’s mental state when he made that blog post. Although The Beginner’s Guide states that you can’t paint an accurate picture of an artist through their work, I feel the circumstantial evidence surrounding its development pushes this theory beyond any reasonable doubt. By playing this game, I felt as though I inadvertently signed up to be Mr. Wreden’s armchair psychologist to whom he could air his grievances for two arduous hours. Intrapersonal drama can make for compelling stories when written well, but participating in it is a tiresome process – especially when you can’t give any feedback in real time.
Drawing a Conclusion
What little value The Beginner’s Guide has as an art piece lies solely in its ability to get people talking about it. In this regard, it’s doubtlessly successful, but I’m left questioning if that alone creates a worthwhile experience, and I can’t say the answer is yes. It’s true that countless people have written essays dissecting the tropes and themes covered by The Beginner’s Guide, which may sound impressive when taken at face value until you realize the same could be said about Metroid: Other M and other titles with equally abysmal storytelling. I’ve learned over the years that a work’s ability to stir up conversations is not an indication of how good it actually is.
Like The Stanley Parable before it, the biggest problem with The Beginner’s Guide is that it relies too heavily on the author’s one good idea. It’s certainly an interesting conversation piece while it lasts, but its impact lacks staying power; I would describe it as a “flavor of the month” feeling. The best stories in video games wholeheartedly embrace the medium’s oddities, and one of the biggest reasons I’m not a fan of interactive environmental narrative games, or walking simulators as detractors call them, is because they only seem to dance around the point rather than fully comprehending it. They invariably offer experiences with too little substance to justify their price points – however low they may be. Although I can’t say I enjoyed The Stanley Parable, I at least see merit in what it tried to accomplish. Its commentary may not have been insightful, but the narrative remembered to have a sense of humor about itself, and it’s a marginally better artistic statement because its whimsical nature lends a degree of self-awareness that makes playing through it tolerable. The same can’t be said of The Beginner’s Guide; it’s so wrapped up in itself that whatever points it tries to make are subverted by its overwrought angst. The Stanley Parable demonstrated Mr. Wreden’s potential as a storyteller, and the most disappointing aspect about The Beginner’s Guide is that he failed to live up to it, deciding not to venture too far from what he knew and creating something which is about as far away from fun as possible. Considering the name of the medium, one could say that’s a bit of a problem.
Final Score: 2.5/10