The Stanley Parable was one of my favourite games of 2013. It toyed with notions of players having any real control over the narrative of a video game but also managed to be a lot of fun to play. I enjoyed it so much that I wrote about it in more detail over here, if you’re interested. It also may have influenced me naming my dog Stanley, if we’re being completely honest.
The Beginner’s Guide is the follow-up project by the writer of The Stanley Parable. If Stanley subverted notions of agency in games, then Beginner’s is subverting notions of vision. You don’t so much play The Beginner’s Guide so much as experience it, like walking around an art gallery with a curator. Only it’s all fictional. Maybe a better analogy: imagine listening to a fictional commentary track to a movie that doesn’t actually exist, while also seeing snippets of that movie. That’s pretty close to what you’ll get from The Beginner’s Guide.
In the game, you’re guided by “Davey Wreden” (I use quotes because it’s the writer’s real name but this is clearly a fictional work… well, maybe not “clearly” because there are a number of knuckleheads who think it might all be real) as he takes you through some of the prototypes and proofs-of-concept of his acquaintance, a programmer named Coda. Coda’s games are simple in look and execution—a single room, a hallway leading into a prison, etc.—but typically have some more important concept embedded in them, like the inability to progress beyond a certain barrier as symbolic of life. Your guide through Coda’s piece, Davey, often peels back the surface of Coda’s games and shows you some more important underlying meaning to them. Your job as the player is simply to move through Coda’s prototypes and listen to Davey as he explains the narrative.
All throughout, the game is playing with higher-level ideas of artistic ownership, curation, and interpretation. I don’t want to say much more than that, because it would spoil the primary point of The Beginner’s Guide. Suffice it to say, your sense of unease as one programmer deconstructs another programmer’s work is warranted.
This higher-level goal could work really well in the right hands. Sadly, I don’t think these are the right hands. While The Stanley Parable was brilliant and inspired all sorts of feelings in me, it did so because it left the emotional landscape up to me; it used impressive cognitive tricks to stimulate my guts, and I was appreciative of that. The Beginner’s Guide, on the other hand, wants to really make you feel, man. But, like so many video games, the emotional landscape that it offers you feels stunted and limiting, like a fourteen-year-old’s concept of sadness or isolation or meaningfulness. There are moments of emotional impact, but they are undercut by a narrator constantly chirping in your ear about how you should feel in response to a prototype or, as the story progresses, to changes in the lives of Coda and the narrator. I suspect there are people who will identify with the themes in this game and think it’s brilliant, but for me it was ham-handed and obvious.
In sum, The Beginner’s Guide is a great reminder that you need to leave work for the viewer/reader/player/art-consumer to do; without any work, the art consumer can’t appreciate the content of the piece, be it emotional or cognitive or otherwise. There are neat ideas here, and I encourage the attempt, but ultimately this was like when somebody says “Here, give me that” and solves the puzzle that you were working on: unsatisfying, and a missed opportunity for insight.
It’s $10 over on Steam. If you need a palate cleanser, and have 90 minutes to spare, maybe give it a shot? But for what it’s worth, I’d suggest something like Her Story instead, which does more, emotionally speaking, with similarly minimal game mechanics. Or just go play The Stanley Parable if you haven’t yet.