The Stanley Parable is one of the greatest video games of all time. Some may think that’s a hefty title to claim, but at least it was good enough to spawn a sequel, The Beginner’s Guide, that is quickly gaining a reputation online.
The Stanley Parable, published in 2011, has been described as “an overnight sensation” and continues to receive praise to this day. It’s rated highly almost everywhere, which I completely agree with.
The Stanley Parable is right up there with Portal 2 for me as one of the most original, funny and well thought out games of all time. It does, however, succeed in being deeper and smarter than Portal 2 while maintaining the same caliber of humor. It’s also remarkable just how prepared the game is for you. Virtually every decision you make is met with a new and unique response you wouldn’t expect.
So maybe you don’t follow the Narrator’s advice and get on the service elevator across the warehouse. What if you decide, “screw it,” and just jump off the elevator? The game has a branching path for that, which will ultimately lead you to play Minecraft clone within The Stanley Parable itself. What if you take the elevator, but instead of answering the phone the Narrator gives you, you try to unplug it? They’re prepared for that too, though you may not be prepared for the chaos that follows.
Superficially, the game is just about a standard video game narrator telling you how to complete the game and you choosing if you listen to him or not. It’s this simplicity of form that allows the game’s dialogue and sheer multitude of options to be so complex, you can’t even believe what the game knows you’ll try to do. You’d never believe a game about listening, or not listening, to a narrator would delve into the topics of free will while still remaining clever, funny and replayable without becoming pretentious.
So when creator Davey Wreden surprise-announced his next game, The Beginner’s Guide, was coming out, I was insanely hyped. The Stanley Parable is practically a perfect game, so I figured they could only get better from there.
Upon its release, critics have been divided. It’s practically black and white; people seem to either think it’s just as good, if not better, than The Stanley Parable, or they think it’s pretentious garbage. It has, however, succeeded in creating an insane amount of hype on the Internet. So, is The Beginner’s Guide a work of genius worth its instantaneous Internet fame, or it is just devilishly good at convincing people it’s intelligent?
The basic answer? The Beginner’ Guide is not as good as The Stanley Parable. Almost not even comparable.
But that may not be The Beginner’s Guide’s fault. It had a massive legacy to live up to with its predecessor, and any game would be hard pressed to fill its shoes. However, even on its own, not comparing it to The Stanley Parable, I don’t find all that much to be incredibly impressed with.
Okay, so what even is The Beginner’s Guide? The game consists as Wreden guiding the player through a series of small games by a mysterious author named Coda. Coda, according to Wreden, made all these games within the span of about three years and has hence stopped.
All of Coda’s games are personal, a little scary and seem to carry deep meaning. At least to Wreden, anyway. In fact, Wreden reminds you constantly what amazingly deep work Coda has to offer, and what he believes this says about possible depression, anxiety and deeper issues at stake. And you really start to believe it.
The game does a good job of pulling you along Wreden’s train of thought. He makes such a convincing narrator, you’re inclined to believe Coda is a tragic soul trying to break free through his video games.
There’s a twist ending, which I won’t spoil for you, but it’s possible from reading my previous statements you may be able to guess it. It was pretty obvious to me, so you’re not missing anything if you can guess it. Some may consider this a downfall of the game, but it might just be since I played The Stanley Parable I knew Wreden’s style and already expected a meaning-within-the-meaning when I started the game.
However, the Beginner’s Guide only wishes it were that smart. The message isn’t subtle at all, and really won’t keep anyone thinking about it deeply for long after. Again, this may just be because I was expecting something as surprising and telling of human nature as The Stanley Parable, so my expectations were just too high.
I’m not the only one who has seen this, though. One of the criticisms, for example, is the “show, don’t tell” argument many video game critics advocate for. I touched on these principles in my article “Heros of Hyrule,” where I proposed that it’s better for a video game to let you experience emotion and adventure rather than telling you why you want to experience them. In my opinion, as well as critics like Sam Machkovech, writer for Ars Technica, a technology news website, this game does too much telling and not enough showing.
Though tongue-in-cheek at times, The Stanley Parable never outright told you that humans don’t really have free will. All our moves are predestined, or its opinions on the hand-holding nature of modern video games. You just played the game and formed these ideas yourself through gameplay. The Beginner’s Guide, however, bludgeons you in the face with its moral about the last 10 minutes of gameplay. The moral of you never really knowing what’s going on in someone’s personal life, and that we as humans tend to ‘wear a mask’ to seem happy and normal while hiding personal problems, is pretty evident within the first few minutes of gameplay. In fact, it’s the point Wreden as the narrator is trying to make. The moral plays into the plot twist at the end, but they really try to beat you over the head with it. It gets a little more in depth, which, again, I won’t talk about because it could spoil it for you, but it gets to the point where you’re just saying, “Okay, I get it.”
In my opinion, if the game had ended sooner I would have never reached that “Okay, I get it,” moment and the game would have been a lot more powerful. He reminds you over and over of his own flaws so that there’s no way you could miss the message it’s trying to convey, and after the subtlety of The Stanley Parable, I was expecting a lot more. Players are smart, we don’t need to be reminded what the lesson is.
Despite interesting gameplay and to great acting on Wreden’s part, The Beginner’s Guide falls flat due to it’s inability to be subtle. It almost comes off as pretentious, like Wreden is trying to say “It’s deep! It’s not what you expected! It’s so telling of human nature and played against what you thought! Ask me what it means, ask me what it means!” This doesn’t make The Beginner’s Guide a bad game by any means, it definitely rises above lots of other common games. But compared to the genius we know Wreden and his team can accomplish, The Beginner’s Guide seems elementary and bland.
Written by Shelby Watson