As I was getting ready to write my next So that just happened, Black Friday just so happened to hit the Steam Store. Since I was in between infinity+ hour games – just finished Persona Q and began DS2: Record Breaker – I decided to check if something in my wish list got a nifty discount. Among those that did were The Beginner’s Guide and Her Story.
Being story-driven, 1.30 – 2 hour games that left quite an impression on me, I decided to go ahead and share my thoughts on them first. Only thing is, it’ll be difficult to write about them without spoiling the shit out of the experience; given that, let me preface the rest of this by saying that if you’re into well-written narratives, interesting experiments on ways of conveying said narratives and addressing topics that may be quite heavy in tone, I highly recommend you try them out.
That being said, two things before getting to The Beginner’s Guide: (1) if you just want to read about Her Story, just scroll down until you see the picture with the respective title and (2) I’ll be addressing The Stanley Parable as well, so please take that into account.
While The Stanley Parable makes use of the narrator to play around with the role of the narration and the players’ expectations and player agency, The Beginner’s Guide is relatively more straightforward about what you, as a player can do; it’s main intention is of sharing emotions and experiences , and giving us food for thought. Yes, one may very well argue that’s exactly the drive behind the creation of most games and other art forms, but here Davey Wreden, the creator of both games, is directly walking you through a deeply personal story.
Davey narrates, as himself, a journey through various prototypes and games devised by a person he met in 2009 named Coda, who stopped making games around 2011, as well as their relationship over the time they spent together.
After reaching the end, among the maelstrom of emotions and thoughts was one question: is all of this an actual attempt to recreate events? Was it a “real” story”?
I searched online for this Coda person, and many theories floating in the air seem to point towards him being a metaphor for Davey’s own struggles as he was creating these games, and that what Davey spoke of in the first person was a mesh of both his own experience and of people around him.
This seems to be a rather plausible interpretation of the game’s narrative, but I’ll just say that, be it more fictional or more auto-biographical, truth is it got me hooked. I'm not a fan of "Based on real events" movies, mainly because some key differences need to be made (others not so much) that end up deterring from my enjoyment of that story. In this case it is extremely well-written and narrated, and if Davey ever decides to give us his take on it, I’ll believe it either way. That’s one of the markings of a great writer.
This is such a personal, such heart-wrenching experience that that’s what matters most; the issues people have when creating, when they hit some roadblocks, when they feel down, how they deal with them and how those around them deal with them. How sometimes we, consciously or not, try to make others success our own, to live through their accomplishments and failures.
Which actually is something that is actually pretty common: when that sports team we like wins it’s like we won ourselves, or when someone from our country wins a prize, we feel pride in that. And yes, these feelings may really be just about we feeling good for someone else’s achievement that we think is long due and well-deserved. But in the spectrum that goes from that to parents living vicariously through their kids is an extensive range of possibilities, and maybe sometimes we live too much through these game developers, these visual artists and musicians we idolize and admire.
Sometimes we forget they’re common people, with their own idiosyncrasies; which, in my opinion, is actually why them being able to create something that moves us, that makes us think even more awe-inspiring.
The Beginner’s Guide is either really self-indulgent, and/or absurdly sincere, but it’s mainly both of those things. You may have noticed I didn’t talk about the gameplay aspects of this game, because there are practically none besides walking and quick, small interactions. Which is all it needs to make me appreciate the effort of speaking directly from one heart to many.
When this came out, people seemed to either talk about how great the story or how “it’s just an FMV game from the Sega-CD days!”. Now I can say it’s both of those things, and needn’t be more than that.
When you first boot up Her Story, you’re thrown into a computer screen with an OS from the 90’s with a police database to search around in. You can also check the ReadMe files on the desktop – nice touch, btw – and play some game that is in the Trash, but that’s it. “Right, what do I do now and what am I doing this for” were my initial thoughts.
Do I have to select specific scenes from all these clips, or just watch them until something pops up? Actually, something does pop up as sometimes you see a vague silhouette of a person who’s searching the archives. The story being about a man that got murder and his wife that got taken in to be interrogated, that seemed like a good guess, but that’s not it.
What is it about then, and why are we checking all these clips with no index and just random keywords that give access to other clips to go on?
Thing is, this game shows us a really interesting way of how we use information to build reality around us. But I’ll get to that later.
After a certain point you can end the game whenever, as someone else ask you if you’re done with your investigation and you can say right there that you are. Maybe the information was enough for you to construct some kind of theory on the events that transpired. But I was not, so I kept searching.
What I found were like 2 or 3 very interesting twists, and then a fourth one came from that someone else who asked me if I knew why that person did what she did. So much became clear after that. I know, even after saying I would spoil stuff I’m still trying to not do that. I want to keep them to a minimum, but I’ll have to do it eventually *coughnextparagraphcough*.
Like with The Beginner’s Guide, Her Story is not only the story, but the experience of that story. And in both cases that experience relies heavily on writing and performance – and let me tell you, Viva Seifert carries that aspect stupendously. Here’s a spoiler for you: she plays two characters, by which I mean twin sisters. And managing to get so much personality and individuality across from these small clips is no easy feat, so kudos to her.
What I mentioned before,about understanding reality by the information we choose to unveil, meant that sometimes we don’t have every piece of the puzzle but form an opinion or a theory anyway. Sometimes we have to do that in order to move on, but others we choose to believe that limited information is everything we need. And so we limit our view of the world to those specific cases and situations. If I finished Her Story when it initially asked me if I wanted to, I could have an idea of what it was about but I’d be missing on simple details that make a world of difference.
There are times when we fail to look at ourselves and how we are living our lives, which includes how we relate to others. Sometimes people need proximity, sometimes they need their space, and it’ also up to us to understand that and not make snap judgments when they’re not really needed. Some of those times we just want to feel useful, to feel like we did something good, so that we feel proud of ourselves. We can be rather egocentric.
As a translator and an aspiring writer, playing games that are their narrative is really inspiring. Obviously I don’t mean I want every game to be like this – come on – but I’m so glad that this is a viable option for people to do what they love and build and share the experiences they want to create. Especially when the team I’m working with still has that perspective of “Games are their gameplay with some story on the side to make it nice”, so I tend to feel that what I’m doing is not really appreciated. I’m not saying I’m amazing at it or anything, but I also don’t get that much of a chance to improve, and that’s what saddens me most.
Another aspect I'd like to tackle is how I'll probably not play either of these games again. Taking a page from OverlordZetta's blog on Attack of the Friday Monsters, along with The Starship Damrey these are some experiences that are perfectly encapsulated in those 1 to 2 hours I spent with them, and that is their own kind of value. I obviously know how much length matters more in video games than in other mediums - and I love me some 70 hour RPGs, which I seem to be swimming in at the moment - but sometimes we limit the kinds of expectations and enjoyment we're able to have in such a way that it ends up damaging those experiences.
Journey took me hour and a half to complete, cost me 15 bucks and I bought it again in the thatgamecompany's collector's pack. Didn't touch it again, every moment spent in that game was indescribable beauty.
In any case, I still have this space to ramble on and on about stuff that I’m glad some of you have been enjoying these last few months. And I’ll keep on keeping on.