Developer: Everything Unlimited Ltd.
Publisher: Everything Unlimited Ltd.
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), OS X, Steam OS, Linux
Available on: Steam
I probably won’t make a lot of friends with this critique, because it deviates quite a bit from the popular consensus. This isn’t really a problem, neither for my point of view, nor for what everybody else seemingly thinks about this game. Suffice it to say that I’m not in the camp that calls this the apotheosis of narrative games.
Before I qualify that statement, let’s back up a bit. Because The Beginner’s Guide heavily relies on the fact that you’ve played The Stanley Parable, and because of this, it’s nigh on impossible to talk about this game without spoiling both it and The Stanley Parable. If you do not wish to read how I discuss the flaws in these game, don’t continue beyond this paragraph. To you I merely say that The Stanley Parable makes a promise that The Beginner’s Guide does not keep. The Stanley Parable was an examination of what a game is and isn’t and how interactivity plays into that. The Beginner’s Guide attempts to superficially be about game development, but is in actuality a breakdown of a human being and how his outlook colors your own perception of what you experience. Everything after this will be spoilers.
So let’s recap The Stanley Parable: It’s a game that relies on the player being aware of what it wants to tell you. If you follow the instructions of the narrator to the end and think that’s all the game has to offer, you’re gonna have a bland 15 minute walk through some offices. If however you realize that the game is about the choices you make and how it’s difficult for developers to account for all the meaningful choices you should be able to make in a game versus the actual limited palette you get to choose from, you’re granted a lot of freedom to explore this concept, because Davey Wreden successfully mapped out all the choices you can make, no matter how trivial or insubstantial they may seem. This was the genius of The Stanley Parable, it made you think about why you play games and why you play them in the particular fashion you are playing them. Depending on how many endings you found on your own as opposed to reading guides, it says a lot about who you as a gamer are and possibly indirectly predicts what type of games you’re attracted to. It spoke directly to you as a gamer and made at least me more aware about the things I do in games, the methods I employ to discover all these new and unique worlds.
The Beginner’s Guide takes some of the cues from The Stanley Parable and implements them for completeness’ sake. Narration is the key to both of these games and since The Stanley Parable relied so heavily on you defying what you were told to do, The Beginner’s Guide has multiple cases where trying to do anything other than what’s expected of you will result in narration leading you right back on track. Ostensibly, there’s no way to “break” the narrative, and believe me, I tried my hardest to do exactly that.
So if the narrative is this important this time around, what exactly are we being told? We get to experience a bunch of little “games” as they’re called, though in all honesty, none of them are games to speak of, since they have no mechanics, no challenges and no failure states. They’re simply interactive pieces that serve to illustrate certain points or thoughts of the person who made them. We’re told that this person is not in fact Wreden himself, but some other person called Coda who created all these short little vignettes without the intent of ever releasing them to the public. We’re supposed to analyze the work Coda, to get to know this person from his/her work and in some way become familiar with their thoughts, since apparently this person believes that all his/her work is only part of a unified whole, there to express his/her inner workings.
What seems like an interesting idea is unfortunately undone by the actual point the game wants to drive home. See, throughout the game, none of the interpretations drawn from these “games” come from the player. They’re directly told to us from the narrator (Wreden himself). As such, we get to see a second-hand interpretation of the work of someone else and what that work might say about that person. In actuality, the game never was about Coda. It was always about Wreden himself and how his interpretation was dead wrong. This creates a hairline fracture in what the game is and what it tries to tell you. The game wants to be seen as an apology to Coda for Wreden’s wrong interpretations into Coda’s “games”. For this to be true however, it makes no sense for Wreden to introduce us to Coda’s games in the way he does. This whole idea of Wreden sharing Coda’s work and then coming to the realization that his interpretation was wrong and maybe the reason why Coda stopped making his/her “games” breaks my suspension of disbelief, because the narrative is already written in stone, so to speak. So my involvement with the title has no bearing on Wreden’s realization, hence why before he published this game, he must have already been aware of all of this.
You see, there are elements missing for this scenario to be believable. By making it personal, it opens up a plethora of questions that first need to be answered before I can believe what I’m being presented with. I don’t know if this Coda person is actually real or if everything I’m shown in this game is mere fabrication. Or if Coda is supposed to represent Wreden himself at a different stage, since there’s a good chance that might be true, if the telephone conversation with yourself has any meaning. The problem with this is that for it to resonate with me, I would’ve had to know Wreden and by proxy Coda personally. Because my interpretation of a person will always be different if I relay it to you than your own if you actually meet and interact with that person. Remember all those people who wronged you in some way, who you can’t stand for some reason or another? They have friends who love them for who and what they are and if you were to give your interpretation of that person to their friends, you would be met with confusion.
So why exactly doesn’t The Beginner’s Guide work? Because it’s interactive. The ultimate irony of this title is that the interactivity – no matter how limited it may be – undercuts the narrative it wants to present to us. Because the interactivity plays no role for the player. The interactivity is there for the developer’s sake, not the player’s. That is admittedly an interesting idea, but the idea already spells out why as I as a player am not engaged by the interactivity. I’m not part of the narrative, I’m being told something, in a very clear and explicit manner, directly through narration. And it doesn’t tell me anything through gameplay at all. Even the weirder “games” feature basically no gameplay at all, and what little gameplay we do see has no bearing on what that particular “game” is trying to tell us.
The Beginner’s Guide is basically the interactive version of an abstract expressionist painting, where the creator desperately wants to make you believe that the work in question has meaning when it really doesn’t, or when it only tangentially touches upon what it intends to say but never actually expands on the central premise. It’s like wanting to get to know Zdzisław Beksiński from his apocalyptic paintings and then finding out that he’s actually quite a nice guy to be with, with a sense of humor that clashes with what his paintings show you. Fittingly, he was also a person who despised other people interpreting things into his work. Or to put it more bluntly, The Beginner’s Guide is artsy for artsyness’ sake, without any redeeming qualities on the gameplay front.