The Stanley Parable was one of those games that people wouldn’t shut up about for a while. And so it was with much excitement that Davey Wreden, one of the two developers of Stanley, announced The Beginner’s Guide – a mere two days before its release. In the days that followed, much was said about Beginner’s Guide in relation to Stanley; many referred to it as a spiritual sequel. I think that to do so is to do a severe discredit to what Guide is all about, and so that’s the last I’ll speak of The Stanley Parable (except of course to remind you that you can see my review of that game elsewhere on this site).
What is The Beginner’s Guide about? That’s tricky. It can mean different things to different people. Nothing is really wrong; it lives up to the ideal of “games as art” because it’s almost more engaging to consider the game after having played it than it is to play the game itself – which, rather than reflecting negatively on the game, in fact reflects on it quite positively indeed. What do you think it’s about? Davey gives you his email address in the opening narration so you can let him know.
The Beginner’s Guide is set up as a series of small, self-contained games. Davey, narrating as himself, tells us that the games were all created by a friend of his, Coda, who he’d fallen out of contact with. By bundling the games together and releasing them as a follow-up to his popular The Stanley Parable, he’s hoping to get Coda’s attention and try to resolve things with him. (For various reasons I consider this to be an element of in-game fiction; Coda represents something, perhaps a part of Davey himself or just something artistic in general, but I do not believe he is a real person. Davey has remained mute on the subject, and like the many themes in the game it’s an element that is open to a lot of interpretation and internet hand-wringing.)
The first level is a Counter-Strike Source map, simple and honestly too small to play the game in, but it has some odd architectural quirks and only feels half-finished, something we see a lot as Davey takes us through Coda’s oeuvre. Coda didn’t release his games online, instead sharing them just with friends; Davey says he had met him at a game jam and recounts how withdrawn Coda had always been. We’re taken through different games, each introduced with the time it was created (December 2009, for instance, ranging from 2008 to 2011). Davey talks about different things during different levels; the merits of gameplay versus story, the role of the player in a game, and as the game goes on he speculates about Coda himself. The games become more alarming as Davey guides us on a journey through what seems to be the depressed psyche of an artist, unable to find peace in his games.
I won’t go into each level in detail; actual gameplay is nearly nonexistent, except for a single repeating puzzle that is in itself open to interpretation. And this is used to great effect. Most of the self-contained games are very simple – an alpha build of a sci-fi space station, some stairs ascending the side of a blank white box building, or even simple polygons floating in the air. It’s during this last one that Davey outright paints the medium, talking about the Source game engine that the games were all created in and how it’s affected Coda’s work. (It also reveals a bit about how the structure of The Stanley Parable came to be.) But of course the Source engine can do much more than Coda was doing with it, so obviously the simplicity of the game goes a bit farther. It only presents what is needed to further the story – a large empty cavern with text bubbles from those who had come before, to talk about the theme of player interaction with a game. A floor with a short drop-off to trap you with the first instance of the door puzzle to make you figure it out. Actual player engagement within Coda’s games is minimal (and discussed), and without Davey’s narration they’d be an interesting diversion, but wouldn’t really mean anything. Once they’re taken as a whole, and after considering Davey’s own musings on them and drawing your own conclusions on how the two intertwine and separate, only then does The Beginner’s Guide become truly engaging.
To describe what happens in the various games – to break each apart and explore the themes in-depth and how they relate to The Beginner’s Guide as a whole – is far too big an undertaking for this review. If I ever find myself in an academic setting and need to write off a couple dozen pages for a literary analysis class, maybe (or perhaps if I’m just really, really bored one day). But aside from no longer being in, and having no plans to return to, college (knock on wood), to prattle on at length about the levels here is to rob you of playing them yourself; there’s no point to this game without having been there in the moment with it. But I’ll try to talk about some of the themes, and what it meant to me, without divulging how it all goes.
What I took away from The Beginner’s Guide more than anything is how well it makes use of Davey as a narrator – and, as we come to find out, a potentially flawed one. His narration meshes with the level design in a way that lets you get caught up in the moment and it became, for me at least, a very personal experience. The games are very personal for Coda, and require the player to walk a mile in Coda’s shoes as Davey has been dismally painting them. (I did not end up recording a Let’s Play series for The Beginner’s Guide like I did with The Stanley Parable, and I’m glad because it would have taken me out of the experience.) But eventually something that Davey had been saying turns out to be patently false, and it casts the whole game into uncertainty. I trusted Davey and the way he was telling the story, the way his narrative was crafted over the course of the games before us. What did it mean when I could no longer trust him? It will be a somewhat more somber playthrough of the game as I get screenshots to attach to this article, exploring that.
That was my takeaway; there are many more. VZed, a YouTuber I discovered through a mutual friend, spent a long time talking about how the game speaks to him as an artist. There’s a recurring theme of a black space between doors, first introduced in the ubiquitous door puzzle and expanded upon specifically in one of the games. Vzed went massively in-depth into exploring the idea of the black space as a calm between projects. (Note: spoilers in that video.) You can wait there, spend time there, and relax, but not for too long – you always need to continue forward, to move onto the next big thing. An artist’s mind is almost never not thinking about his art, and that resonated deeply with him as a YouTuber and a musician. (It was fitting that I watched his video about it on a day that I forced myself to take off from recording, editing, and writing – my own black space between doors, as it were.)
There are many more themes in the game – many of them brought up in just one of the games within it, like the “space between doors” theme or the idea of the role of the player – but to go through and list them all would feel too… clean, too clinical. The game means different things to different people, as I said, and I can only talk about what it meant to me. If I were to read five reviews of the game, I’d likely find five different interpretations.
I encourage you, the reader, to grab this game and play through it yourself. It only took me an hour and a half. Pretty short, I’ll admit, but as I said – it’s a game where the real engagement with it comes after the credits roll. So give it a shot. Play through Coda’s games, listen to Davey, and let me know what you took away from it. If not me, well, you can always email Davey.
The Beginner’s Guide
Platform: Windows / Mac OS X / SteamOS + Linux (Steam)
Developer: Everything Unlimited Ltd.
Publisher: Everything Unlimited Ltd.
Release Date: October 1, 2015