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Stanley Parable co-creator Davey Wreden released his new game The Beginner's Guide this week. If you buy it expecting a spiritual successor to Parable, you're going to be disappointed.
The Beginner's Guide is another first-person adventure but it's actually several games in one. Wreden, playing himself in voiceover, explains to players that they're going to experience a series of short experimental titles developed by his friend Coda. While you play through these games, you begin to learn a lot about Coda's inner life and his relationship with Wreden.
There are some flashes of the humor that endeared so many gamers to Parable. One of the experimental games in Beginner's Guide forces players to only walk backwards. What's really missing, though, is the player's input. What made Parable so special is that it encouraged the player to break it. You took wrong turns, jumped through windows and otherwise disobeyed the narrator to see what would happen. The game would reward you for these transgressions with new events and jokes.
Most of the games in Beginner's Guide, however, merely involve you walking from one corridor to the next. It would've been interesting to bounce between genres but, save for a brief shooter with no enemies, the way you affect the environment changes very little across the various games. The player's job is to stroll from point A to point B and push the "interact" button when they're asked to. It's a guided tour.
While Coda's games supposed to be incomplete prototypes, they do a remarkably good job of keeping you from straying or breaking anything. Wreden is the only one with real power here, as he steps in to occasionally edit the game for you so you can, for example, get past an impassable door.
The reason the player doesn't have much power at all is because, well, Beginner's Guide isn't about them. The game is about Coda's struggles with creativity, depression and isolation. It's an ode to the tortured artist. While playing through these games, it feels like we're crawling through the troubled mind of its creator. Beginner's Guide is worth playing just to see the different ways that this mental anguish is expressed through in-game mechanics. This journey is bound to strike a chord with anyone who's ever tried to do something artistic.
Still, it feels a bit like we're on the outside looking in. Wreden has his story to tell - Coda seems to be a stand-in for himself - and we're being asked to simply follow along. The result is a game that's a lot less fun to me than Stanley Parable, and not just because it's a sad tale rather than a comedy. It's because the game is so guided and narrow. The player doesn't have a place in it.
The phrase "walking simulator" is often tossed around as an insult, a way to put down games that value story-telling above interactivity. I think that these types of experiences have a deserved place in the industry, though. Stanley Parable is one of many games that show you don't need puzzles, combat, or death to engage a player. Beginner's Guide does so as well, taking players on a moving ride through an artist's psyche. I think the ride would've been more memorable, though, if we could've pushed a few buttons while we sat in the cockpit.
Platforms: PC, Mac, SteamOS
Developer: Everything Unlimited Inc.
Publisher: Everything Unlimited Inc.