09 October 2015

Recently I went around to play and subsequently finish, since it’s very short, The Beginner’s Guide. For those who are unaware, it’s the latest title from Davey Wreden, the guy who made The Stanley Parable. I’m mostly writing this to offload my thoughts, as this made me think quite a bit, although it can probably be a review. Keep in mind, t’s incredibly difficult to explain what’s going on without spoiling it. That said, I have a bit of meta discussion beforehand, so I’ll warn you off before the spoilers begin.

I tried TBG because of my author support rule: support the people whose work you like, and I quite liked The Stanley Parable, so I decided to give it a shot. Took me an hour and a half, and at the end I think I just stared at the menu for a while, not really knowing what to do with myself.

This game left me feeling a bit depressed. I won’t say why yet (see the end of the article), but I have to say that TBG isn’t fun. It’s bleak and it leaves behind more questions than answers. It’s also, unquestionably, art, so being enjoyable is not part of its purpose.

Negative breakdown

I’ve read quite a bit of user and popular reviews about the game, and what I found especially interesting was all most negative reviews fell in the rough same categories. I’m not saying you can’t dislike The Beginner’s Guide, even I’m still having some problems with it. I do not regret the money and time I spent on it, and I would probably do it again. But I understand why someone wouldn’t.

So, those negative reviews, they fall in three broad categories. First, there are those who just despise narrative exploration games, derisively calling them “walking simulators” and refusing to categorize them as a game. I was almost part of that group some time ago, when I denied the title of GOTY contender to The Stanley Parable because I considered it be an interactive story rather than an actual game. I don’t want to wander in the messy debate of what is a game and what isn’t, but I’ll just ask this: if SimCity is a game despite not having a clearly defined win condition, why wouldn’t TSP be too?

Another group finds the similarities between The Beginner’s Guide and The Stanley Parable. After all, they’re both narrative exploration games, viewed from a first person perspective, developed with the Source engine, with a narrator guiding you the whole way, a WASD and mouse control scheme and even the same developer behind the two! And as such, they claim that TBG is a spiritual successor to TSP and therefore should be compared to it. And, indeed, if you do that, you’ll find that TBG is inferior to its predecessor: its linear, there’s only one ending, the narrator isn’t as good, and it’s overall about a tenth of the length. But then again it’s not fair do compare the two like that, as they obviously weren’t meant for the same purpose.

And finally, and that’s the category I want to address, there’s the group that takes the game at face value, as a linear sequence of story events, which the narrator is simply describing. This is an interesting school of thought, the idea that subtext does not exist and that stories are simply chronologies. This also implies that the narrator is reliable and only exists to offer a different view on the same events.

So, before we continue, here’s my verdict: try it. It might not be great, but it’s worth experiencing, and it’ll be over quickly anyway. And if you think it’s expensive, well, it’s the price of a ticket to a museum or a film. When was the last time you went to the museum, hm? Well, do your part for the arts.

Now, past this point, I’m going to assume you’ve finished the game in order to understand what I’m trying to say, which also means I might have to spoil some things.

Spoilers below

The issue I have with the above third category is that, to me, the game is a metaphor. A metaphor about validation, creativity, and dealing with success. The game has subtext, things that are not explicitely said but can be seen in between the lines. The Beginner’s Guide ends with a bang and that ending and makes the whole narrator unreliable. But the people in the third group simply take TBG’s content as is, and understand its story as a guy whining for an hour about shitty games.

But really, the whole thing leaves a lot of questions lying around. Were Davey and Coda really friends? How many lampposts were actually added by Davey? In fact, considering how easy it is for Davey to modify the games themselves, how much of them is transformed? And how thrustworthy is Davey, really? His descriptions of what the games mean, they’re his interpretations. He thinks Coda is depressed and lonely, but maybe he’s just a guy who likes prisons.

I think the point of the game isn’t to answer those questions. I think the point of it is to be some starting ground for a discussion. You know, like any art piece.

As for what I think, I don’t know, really. I’ve been reading quite a bit of things on the subject, and I like all the different analyses. Maybe Davey is an abusive fan of Coda. Maybe he’s a critic who wants to force his interpretation into the games themselves. Maybe they were friends once but Davey is a selfish jerk so they’re not anymore. Hell, there’s a very convincing theory that Davey and Coda are two sides of the same person, that Davey is the social side and Coda is the creative side.

So, again, I don’t know. Could be anything. Maybe you were expecting my own analysis, but I’m not sure I’m up for that. I like reading those kinds of things much more than I like writing them, and although sometimes I’ll pitch something, in this case it’s leaving me mostly dry. But who knows, some inspiration might come to me while I’m sitting on the toilet.

So there you have it. The Beginner’s Guide is, for lack of a better word, art, and I’ll happily read about it as people wrap their heads around it and come up with interesting answers to all those questions. And playing it means you get to be a part of that conversation.