I recently had the chance to play The Beginner’s Guide, the second game by Davey Wreden, who is most famous for his first game, the Stanley Parable. Unfashionably late to the party, as the game came out in 2015, but when have I ever been fashionable? If you ever have a spare few hours (that’s all it takes to play them in their entirety) and you care at all about storytelling, I highly recommend you check them out, even if (especially if?) you are not much of a gamer. They are both less money/time investment than going to the cinema, and way more interesting.
What is a game? In its simplest form, I think it’s a set of rules that you use to navigate a set of obstacles, in order to achieve a desired outcome. The Beginner’s Guide as well as the Stanley Parable aren’t quite games then, because there isn’t a clear objective. Others might call them interactive fiction or a “walking simulator”. There’s a whole genre of these walking simulators, which are generally more slow and relaxing than other games, with less well-defined objectives.
Whatever label you choose to give them, they are both acts of storytelling, and what is particularly fascinating is that the type of story that they are is only possible within the medium of a video game.
Think about books versus movies for a moment. Have you ever read a book that used narrative in a really interesting way, then seen a movie of that book and found it changed or spoiled in some way? Famous example: Fight Club (spoilers in this paragraph!). The story was originally a book, then made into a movie, both versions of which feature an unreliable narrator. The twist is that major character Tyler Durden and the narrator are the same person. That’s a cool reveal in the book, because you end up thinking back on all you’ve read and all the little clues, wondering if you could have guessed it in the foreshadowing. It’s harder to do in the movie, because the twist is ruined if you use the same actor to play both parts. So you end up having to hire two different actors, and it kinda works, but not as seamlessly as it did in the book because that kind of switcheroo is native to written storytelling.
So, back to the Beginner’s Guide. While pretty much every game has a story (even if the story is only that the bad guy kidnapped the princess and you have to get her back again… yawn), it’s rare to find a video game that tells a uniquely interesting story, simply because it’s using techniques that are native to video game storytelling. Because it’s a video game, you have to DO the story. You have to move around and look at things and make your own choices, and because of that, these games can tell stories about interactive themes in a way that no other medium can.
The Stanley Parable is about a man who works in a dreary office and is thematically about choice. The Beginner’s Guide is about a games developer studying the work of another games developer (Davey Wreden, the maker of the game, is the narrator character in his own game), and thematically, it’s about how audiences interpret and interact with the work of creators that they admire. Seriously, that’s all I want to say about what’s actually IN the games, because the more said, the more spoiled and less to discover.
This form of storytelling is so uniquely fresh and interactive that it has spilled over into the real world in weird ways. When the Beginner’s Guide first came out, a games journalist stirred controversy by suggesting that based on what happened in the game, it might be morally just to demand a refund for the game after playing it. If that sounds confusing I hope it won’t be, after you actually try it. And once again, these games are fine for people who aren’t big into games – they aren’t fast-paced or stressful in any way, and the controls aren’t complicated. They require a Mac or PC with keyboard and mouse, and you must have the sound on. They don’t have super duper realistic graphics, so they should run fine on most computers.
Links below. Please buy and try these games, and please please tell me what you think. Steam is probably the easiest and most recognised games platform to try them on. You also need an account and to download the client program, but it’s free and quick and easy.
I’m being deliberately vague by not linking to this article by name. Issues raised in the article are kind of spoilers/plot developments in the game. (P.S. it’s fine to play the game)