We gamers sometimes forget how personal games are for their creators. Often they’re a reflection both the creator’s intent and the creator themselves, especially for games that are created by one person or small independent studios. I think this is partly due to the arms-length relationship most of us have with games due to the developer/publisher ecosystem, something which removes much of the potential for a personal connection. The Beginner’s Guide however is a game that attempts to connect with the player on a very personal level and, I feel, is the developer’s way of working through some of the issues he endured after the success of a previous title.
The Beginner’s Guide is a narrated collection of games from the developer’s friend who’s named Coda. They’re a loose set of quirky titles, many of which defy conventional gaming standards by having things like unsolvable puzzles, areas of grand detail that are completely inaccessible and mechanics that are actively hostile towards the player. The narrator wants to show you these titles because he wants to encourage Coda to start making games again and feels like the only way to do so is to show his craft to the wider world. Whether that will be effective or not is something we might never know, but that might not be the most interesting thing about The Beginner’s Guide.
Graphically The Beginner’s Guide certainly feels like a group of cobbled together games with varying art styles permeating throughout the course of the game. Knowing that it’s built on the Source engine gives you some insight into where the aesthetic is coming from as it does feel like an overgrown set of mods for Half Life. Apart from that there’s not much to speak of in terms of visual aesthetic as the game is much more about the levels themselves, rather than how they look.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Now this is usually the point in the review where I give you an overview of the mechanics and gameplay before I delve into each of them to give you a feel for what you can expect. However with The Beginner’s Guide, whilst there are mechanics which I could discuss, I don’t feel that’s the real point of the game at all. Instead The Beginner’s Guide is a well crafted narrative, told through the medium of games, about how the game’s developer (Davey Wreden of The Stanley Parable fame) struggled with the burden of success. Indeed it becomes very clear towards the end that Coda is a fictional character and these creations that we’re playing through are actually the product of the narrator who is dealing with his issues through the creation of this game.
I’ll admit that for the vast majority of the game I played along, figuring that this was just a quirky set of games that was cobbled together for the fun of it. Indeed there was a part of me that was annoyed at Wreden for doing so, charging me $10 for the privilege of playing games he himself did not create. However towards the end, where it’s revealed that Coda had abandoned Wreden because he simply couldn’t be around him any more, it becomes clear that this is a story of fiction. At that point though the game changed for me, instead of wondering who Coda was and why he left now I wanted to know why Wreden would create something like this. It didn’t take long to find out.
After rifling through numerous discussion threads I eventually landed on his blog, specifically the most recent post which is about The Stanley Parable’s widespread acclaim. In it he details what the success of that game has meant to him and the burden which he feels he carries for everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might not have reached the level of fame and acclaim that he has I can very much relate to the burden that success can bring to you; how success is supposed to negate all feelings of doubt or worry and erase all problems in your life. Indeed success can do quite the opposite, often dredging up issues or exacerbating current ones.
The Beginner’s Guide then serves as a catharsis for all these feelings, an expression of all the mixed feelings that a creator feels when their work is recognised and praised widely. The not-so-subtle hints towards Coda’s creative machine no longer working, the fear of being public, wanting to recluse himself away from society, all these take on new meaning when you realise they’re actually about the developer himself and not the fictional being of Coda. In that regard The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most personal games I’ve ever played and I’m very glad I did.
The Beginner’s Guide is a personal journey, both for the player and the developer. It’s Davey Wreden working through his trials and tribulations that the success of The Stanley Parable brought him and you’re along here for the ride. Indeed The Beginner’s Guide shows how games can be used as a medium to work through things like this, just like more traditional mediums have been in the past. It might not be a game for everyone, especially for those expecting something more along the lines of The Stanley Parable, but it’s a wonderful experience all the same. One that had me playing long after I closed the game down.
The Beginner’s Guide is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.5 hours.
In today’s games market there seems to be something of an arms race going on, one whereby every developer attempts to distinguish themselves from the crowd through unique game mechanics or structure. Original ideas are then quickly copied, modified or parodied and many eventually find their way into mainstream titles due to the amount of success they find. However for a game like The Stanley Parable I get the feeling we won’t be seeing much of it’s ideas flow onto other games, not because they’re bad, more because they just wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. This nonsensical nature is the driving force behind The Stanley Parable and it’s probably one of the most odd experiences I’ve ever had.
Stanley was an ordinary man working for an ordinary company. He loved his job, spending day after day in front of his computer, watching the screen and pressing the buttons when he was instructed to. However one day the screen goes blank and after staring at the screen for what seemed like forever Stanley decided he’d better find out what was going on. All of his co-workers were gone though leaving Stanley alone to roam the office, searching for what had happened to them all. Curiously though all the while a voice played inside his head, seemingly giving him a running commentary or what was going on. Should he do as the voice says or is this just the beginnings of his descent into madness?
The Stanley Parable started originally started out as a mod for the Source engine and thus the graphics and art style have that distinct Half Life-y feel about them. They’re decidedly simple and the vast majority of the world is non-interactive which is done primarily to shift your focus onto the storytelling and decision making aspects of The Stanley Parable. It’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect from indie first person explorers so I don’t necessarily count it as a negative but I am something of an eye candy otaku so graphics are always a big thing to me. To be fair the setting of an office is pretty hard to make visually appealing though.
From a gameplay perspective The Stanley Parable is best described as a first person exploration game although applying that label to it feels like its not doing the title enough justice. Really it’s more of an experimental title that uses exploration as a mechanic to explore various ideals from some of the current gaming trends to larger questions of free will. The entirety of it is narrated by a charming British voice (courtesy of Kevan Brighting) which tells you which path to take. You can do this of course and the story that evolves is quite an interesting one, but it’s far more likely that curiosity will get the better of you and that’s where things start to get interesting.
You see The Stanley Parable is a game that relies on you attempting to break it in any way possible, from disobeying the narrator to attempting to do things that would appear to be not intended by the developer. The results of these adventures can range from the mundane, where you just see another part of the world on your way to another, to the weird or down right inexplicable. The most priceless thing about it though is how the narrator reacts to your decision to disobey him as sometimes he will just respond with mild annoyance and other times with outright maliciousness.
The story then starts to revolve around a weird cacophony of interactions, sometimes between Stanley and the narrator and at other times between you and the narrator with Stanley just acting as a vessel between you. If you’re not a fan of the fourth wall being broken down then The Stanley Parable will likely irritate you as there are many moments when the narrator will address you directly and a lot of commentary comes from the idea that you, an unknown entity, is in control of the character in the game. It can seem a little trite at times but the ideas and criticisms that the narrator goes through are quite through provoking, especially upon reflection.
I’d love to dive into more detail about how the various bits and pieces of the game plays out but to do so would ultimately ruin it for you. The way in which various endings are unlocked, how some of the mechanics work and how the narrator reacts to you are all part of the larger narrative to explore themes that are much larger than the game itself. It’s not a particularly long game and most of the endings are easily uncovered by simply being slightly curious about the environment so this is one of those titles that you just have to experience for yourself, rather than have a reviewer explain it to you.
The Stanley Parable is a curiosity, one that is so far away from any other game experience that it begs to be played by those who are seeking novelty in an increasingly homogeneous medium. It’s somewhat unfortunate that my review can best be summed up as “You need to play this and I can’t explain why” as I’d love to dive into a critique about its many aspects but to do so would take away the reasons as to why it is so enjoyable. It may be a short experience but it’s refined to its core, enabling the player to focus on the points that really matters and to get immersed in the strange and wonderful ways The Stanley Parable plays on your expectations.
The Stanley Parable is available on PC right now for $15. Total game time was approximately 2.5 hours with 60% of the achievements unlocked.