The Games of Choice, Part I: The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide

While four games might seem like a lot, I could probably—given time and patience I (probably happily, for your sake) do not have—expand this two-part post to every game I’ve ever played. It’s the nature of the medium that every video game will, at some level, be about the mechanics of choice. However overt or covert that theme happens to be is up to two things: the developer’s vision, and your own experience. I doubt many people thought The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask had a strong element of choice, but for me that was the most important part of its plot. Conversely, BioShock Infinite’s entire storyline surrounded fatalism and the inability to actually make impactful choices, but it’s too much of an outlier for today’s crowd—today’s crowd being: The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden, Spec Ops: The Line by Yager Development, and Undertale by Toby Fox.

That said, all four of these games are extremely different—one is an 8-bit JRPG, one is a third-person shooter, and the other two, despite both being Source engine mods designed by the same exact person, resemble each other in appearance only. Their uniting thread is their desire to tell a story about choice and player agency in video games, and the fact that they do so in a very overt, intentional way.

These are, more or less, my reactions to four different games with similar goals, and my judgment on what makes them as effective, or as ineffective, as they are. Fair warning: one of them I absolutely adore, two I didn’t especially like playing but ended up appreciating quite a lot once distanced from their actual mechanics, and one… well… let’s just get to it. Drawing it out won’t make it easier to say that I pretty heavily dislike a game that, for better or worse, 95% of the Internet seems to adore.

The Stanley Parable. What does that name tell you? Ninety percent of the time the word “parable” is thrown around, it’s in a biblical context, meaning, essentially, a fictional story meant to impart a lesson or moral.

And that, all wrapped up nice and tight in a single word, is my core issue with The Stanley Parable.

That’s not to say I never (or don’t still, in some small ways) liked The Stanley Parable—right after I’d finished playing through most of its twenty-some endings, I remember liking it quite a lot. Yet it somehow managed to do the reverse of most games I play—instead of leaving me with a general feeling of ambivalence that grew into appreciation over time, every time I thought about it, the more I actively disliked it. And it had everything to do with its approach to choice.

You see, the way The Stanley Parable approaches choice is, every few minutes or so, to give you what boils down to two (or maybe three) different doors. You choose one, assisted by the input of a megalomaniacal and mildly narcissistic narrator who exists only to carry out the progression of the “game.” In other words, it perfectly encapsulates the way a lot of video games approach choice, but it does absolutely nothing to make itself relevant outside that type of branching-path, choose-your-own-adventure narrative. While it seems to style itself as sage and insightful and almost smarmily smart, it ultimately does nothing that hasn’t been done before. It just points out the fact that it’s doing it while it does.

Moreover, The Stanley Parable is about as covert a parable as James Cameron’s Avatar. Every step of the way, it effectively (and sometimes literally) screams the point it’s trying to make in your ears. There’s little subtlety, and what subtlety there is is destroyed by the overwhelming sense that you—the player—are supposed to be learning something from this experience. Or, more correctly, that the developer is trying to teach you a structured lesson about video games—a predetermined lesson that is completely closed off to any other interpretations.

In other words, The Stanley Parable seemed to be reading that old adage of “show, don’t tell” from a mirror. It’s all telling; all morals thrown in a player’s face, all questions with no answers followed by answers to different questions. It’s all very profound when you’re in the experience itself, but—for me, at least—it collapsed almost as soon as I’d left.

Still, in fact, I did enjoy playing it. I would willingly play it again, because it actually is fun to play in the moment (if only for the dark, dryly sarcastic humor). My problems with it stem almost entirely from my perspective as a writer, and not from that of the player who just enjoys good games. Which brings me to—

The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden’s second game that, for better or worse, inspired most of this post. This one followed more of the traditional arc I described earlier, in which my appreciation grows for a game the more distanced I am from it. (It helps that I’ve managed to decouple my dislike for Stanley as well, after realizing how different they really are). I finished it about twenty-four hours ago with indifference bordering on mild dislike, and now, my attitude toward it is essentially that little proud-but-not-too-proud nod every father in every sports movie ever makes when his kid finally achieves something.

That appreciation for The Beginner’s Guide, which unlike the virtually impossible-to-spoil Stanley, I will try to avoid revealing too much about, stems mainly from the fact that (in objective at least) it’s the polar opposite of its older brother. It pretends to be a parable—in fact, it pretends to be a parable so well that it actually made me hate it for a while—but once the circumstances of its development are known, it suddenly morphs into an intensely personal (and, in retrospect, well-crafted and constructed) narrative about the creative process.

And from my perspective, for games like The Beginner’s Guide or The Stanley Parable, personal narrative will always be more effective than parable. The nature of playing such overt and pushy and “tell, don’t show” games doesn’t lend itself to particularly immersive experiences, but it does just fine at telling intimate stories. For me (a preface I keep using because most of the Internet seems to feel the opposite), I felt nowhere near as emotionally invested in The Beginner’s Guide as, say, the two games I’ll discuss in the second half of this post, but that investment matters less in an expressive, depressive, almost angry narrative than in a game that actually wants me to learn something.

That’s not to say I don’t still have issues with The Beginner’s Guide; quite a lot of it made me ask that perennial question of, “why? why is this here?”  In the gestalt, it’s a collection of the pieces of the creative process that, ninety-nine percent of the time, never see the light of day. My problem wasn’t a lack of identification—I actually identified hugely with Wreden in the end. My problem was the fact that this creative detritus—all the drafts and revisions and one-off scraps of games that make up The Beginner’s Guide—could never be as profound to any potential player as they would be to Wreden itself.

So, once again, it was an intensely personal narrative that lays out Wreden’s roadmap of creation, and the issues he’d had with it after the runaway success of The Stanley Parable. And from that perspective—the perspective of a writer—going through that type of narrative is both touching and actually quite interesting.

But, in a complete split from its sibling, The Beginner’s Guide fell apart for me as a player. Unlike in Stanley, where the game couldn’t exist without the presence of a player to make its choices, The Beginner’s Guide places the player at the start of one linear corridor and spends an hour and a half pushing that player though a narrative that essentially states, “hey, I exist for my creator to vent and express himself and just to organically create. You don’t have a place here.”

Quite a lot of people seem to appreciate that narrative, but as someone who has plenty of firsthand experience with the creative detritus that makes up The Beginner’s Guide‘s DNA, I just don’t understand the point of sharing it. (This is, again, vastly informed by my own perspective on writing and games.) The rationale behind making it seems to be Wreden’s desire to express an experience, a desire mirrored at several points in the game while accompanied by the complete lack of desire to share any of that expression. It’s the purest expression of a creator’s desire to create, but to create something solitary—something that’s not really meant to be shared.

In other words, the narrative desire of The Beginner’s Guide seems to actively contradict its own existence. Or, more simply, the game really seems to hate the fact that you’re playing it.

I say “seems” because I don’t think it actually does—I’m fairly certain that Wreden constructed everything in this game just as carefully as he did with The Stanley Parable, and that he really just wanted to share his story. But that still begs the question, if a game acts like it doesn’t want to be played, then, as a player, why should I play it?

People like to talk about art and experience in absolute terms, but there’s an economic reality underlying the consumption of fiction. If I choose to read or watch or play one thing, then I’m using up time I could spend playing something else. There’s a term for that—it’s called “opportunity cost,” and rather than addressing the direct cost of an action, it boils down to the loss of other potential actions that, in lieu of the one you’ve chose, could be performed.

So, in essence, was the ninety minutes I spent playing The Beginner’s Guide worth it to me as a player of video games? No, not in the slightest, because it did none of the things that I enjoy or appreciate about games. My eventual investment in the story came from outside the game itself. It did nothing with its own narrative space—space that was actually devoid of any player agency or choice. And as a game, it left no emotional impact.

Was it worth it to me as a writer, as someone who understands the creative process that it describes? Yeah, it was. At least enough to make me glad that I played it. Enough to make it feel more like a success than The Stanley Parable, which shared most of its flaws without any of the nuance or personal importance that they eventually took on. Enough to make me identify with Wreden and, after reading his thought process behind it, to sympathize with his fictional counterparts.

But that doesn’t change the fact that after finishing, I felt like I’d just played a game that hadn’t wanted to be played. And if that’s what the game wants, who am I to argue?

(To be continued in Part II, where I’ll try to compare a shooter based on Heart of Darkness and a JRPG deconstruction based on Internet culture. It’ll definitely be interesting.)

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