‘The Stanley Parable’ Incentivizes Player Dissent In Service Of The Bigger Picture

You will play a game you cannot win.

When I played the original Stanley Parable mod back in 2011, I was nothing short of enraptured. That may seem like a hyperbolic compliment at first, but it’s nothing less than the honest truth. I thought that The Stanley Parable was an intelligently crafted, concise and interesting experience that more resembled a thought experiment than a traditional game, and it turned out to be one of my favorite “games” of 2011.

To make an even bolder claim, I’m willing to throw the full brunt of my endorsement behind The Stanley Parable in stating that it may in fact be one of the most important video games to have been released in the past decade. And with the imminent release of the definitive HD remake later this year, I thought it was about time that I write about why I love this game so damn much.

The game is more than just a gleefully tongue-in-cheek take on the emphasis (and futility) of player choice in a deterministic system. it is more importantly a conversation, an interactive repartee between the player’s interactions and the condescending cajoling of a fatalistic Narrator that brings to light the unconscious baggage of assumptions that both players and designers alike bring into creating a game experience.

The Stanley Parable hinges on drawing the player’s attention to the unspoken assumptions of game design subtlety ingrained over the years into the collective gaming community’s unconscious arsenal of navigational/problem-solving strategies.

Stanley’s Cubicle

You play as the eponymous Stanley, a worker drone happily content to “push buttons” and “listen to voices” all day from the safety of his cubicle office. The game opens with Stanley realizing that he is no longer receiving any instruction from his handlers any more and ventures out into the eerily deserted office building in search of answers, all the while accompanied by a mysterious disembodied voice seemingly narrating all of his actions. At any time you can diverge from the beaten path of the narrator’s story, but not without incurring some consequence.

What follows is an experience that is both gratifying hilarious and vaguely terrifying if you think about it too long. The Stanley Parable not only  pushes but outright defies the conventional systems of gratification inherent in almost all commercial video games (see: “choices”, “endings”, “winning”), and instead substitutes it with the opportunity of allowing us, the player, to peer behind the proverbial “fourth wall” of game design and see the great and powerful “wizard” of choice for what it truly is.

A contrivance. A myth. Shadow puppets posing as reality on a wall.

You will follow a story that has no end.

At the same time, even though choice in The Stanley Parable is openly mocked and criticized ( even one of the game’s maxims is ‘You will make a choice that does not matter’), the choices that I made throughout my playthrough(s) of the Stanley Parable meant more to me than most of those I have made in any other commercial video game in recent memory.

When playing modern choice-driven narrative games (ex. Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Skyrim) it’s typical for players to try and consciously ‘game’ the system of a game in order to reap some long-anticipated endgame down the road. Players do mindlessly repetitious tasks ( “pushing buttons”, “listening to voices”) in order to farm currency in order to buy upgrades or weapons with diminishing returns, safely coasting along through starkly color-coded morality systems and unchallenging dialogue trees in order to get the “good” ending. “Good” in this sense meaning “not glaringly cobbled together at the last second by the developers in order to justify the word ‘choice’ featured prominently on the back of their game’s box.”

In contemporary game design, the merit of a choice is weighed by its outcome, with in most cases little to no recognition or actual “involvement” on part of the player’s agency.

The choices in Stanley Parable run counter to this.

The game offers six endings, each of them prompted by a diverging tree of choices that come down to either taking a certain corridor or pressing a certain button. None of these endings is definitive or “canon”; there’s only one ending where the words “The End” are featured, but in no way does it feel like a conclusion. Stanley Parable is a game whose enjoyment and “message(s)” rely on and thrive through replayability.

The difference between choices in Stanley Parable and other contemporary games is that the compensation isn’t some piece of gear or an arbitrary “achievement” pop-up, but the lucidity of watching these past choices and endings from previous “lifetimes” culminate with one another upon repeated breakthroughs, gradually building into a Jenga block tower of an epiphany that can fall apart at any given moment.

The Stanley Parable holds a mirror up to players and ask them to describe what they see. Why do we make the choices that we make? Why do we feel an almost innate desire to “break” a game? Why does playing point to point through a scripted story about rebellion and liberation feel so hollow and contrived?

Those and many more questions are up to the player to pose and perhaps, hopefully, come closer to answering while playing the game.

How I felt after playing the Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable follows in the iconoclastic tradition of Jacques Derrida; grappling with norms, demolishing presumptions, and leaving the audience to sift through the rubble to draw their own conclusions. It’s a lamentably rare experience and one of the most important video games of this generation. It is worthy of your notice.

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‘Radio the Universe’ plumbs the depths of SNES nostalgia

Capture

Radio the Universe is the first ( and so far, only) game I have personally funded on Kickstarter. A crowd-funded, top-down dark science-fiction game that combines elements of Cave Story, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Zelda, and Tsutomu Nihei’s BLAME!

I know very little about this game other than that it’s being developed by “6e6e6e”, a mysterious twenty-something resident of Washington D.C.  and from a purely aesthetic opinion it looks absolutely GORGEOUS.

According to the game’s kick-starter page, Radio the Universe is set to be released next year, March 2014. The reason why I’m writing about this now is because I simply can’t wait to talk about it until then. Hurry up 6e6e6e!

‘The Gone-Away World’ is Awesome and Damn near Impossible to Describe

[Yes I know, this is not the long awaited (pffft) installment of my Oryx and Crake read-through series. Ho Hum. However, take comfort knowing in the fact that I have indeed finished the book and that it is all manner of poignant, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking.

If you’re a fan of any those descriptions wrapped up in a tasty sci-fi tortilla shell, I highly recommend that you read it (though not in a time of great personal tumult, for it will sufficiently wreck your shit).

To retread now on so many past month’s worth of  postings would come at the supreme disservice of the abundance of things to talk about in the NOW, and right NOW I just finished reading a bitchin’ awesome book that I just have to talk about with YOU, anonymous online reader!]

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The Gone-Away World is the debut novel from Nick Harkaway, son of author John le Carré and self-titled “The World’s Worst Ninja”. the book is what happens when you pour a post-apocalyptic setting, existential paranoia, mimes, ninjas and a childhood friendship into a blender and press “pastiche purée”.

The story drops the reader in a nameless bar (no literally, that’s its name) in an indeterminate future. The narrator, a fairly nice guy aside from failing to introduce himself, is playing pool with a couple of his close friends/workmates when the power goes out.  This spells disaster. Something has happened to the backbone of the world. The bar is quickly descended upon by a small army of corporate funded thugs and pencil-necked bureaucrats who enlist the aid of the narrator and his band of problem-solvers on a dangerous mission to make the world right again.

Words like ‘Jorgmund’, ‘Livable Zone’, ‘Reification’ and ‘The Go-Away War’ float up in between the conversation, peppering confusion and intrigue that slowly become familiar and revelatory later on.  Right as the group depart for the debriefing of their newest job, the narrative jumps some 30 years back to the narrator’s first meeting with his best friend Gonzo Lubitsch, and a good portion of the book is spent detailing the misadventures and trials that lead these two men to that fateful day in the Nameless bar.

The book is a long-gamble that ultimately pays off. It had equal parts of some of the things I look for most in my leisure reading ( a compelling premise, intriguing questions, big science-fiction ideas spelled out across the backdrop of large world filled with eccentric, likable and memorable characters) and succeeds in pulling together all its assorted thematic threads and tying them up in a neat and satisfying bow of resolution.

Harkaway is a writer who I am reluctant to compare to the likes of Vonnegut and Adams (not for lack of his ability, oh hell no). It’s because his characteristic wit and  easy going charm speaks so much more about him than it does of the influence of his genre forbearers. He creates a world that is both comical and vaguely terrifying,  characters that are equal parts ridiculous and relatable, embarrassing and admirable. The novel moves seamlessly between being a coming-of-age story, a war story,  to an adventure novel with comedy and romance sprinkled throughout without breaking the overall tone. I loved it.

One criticism that I do have of the book is its reliance on tangent stories, which can be considered both a fault and a strength of novel’s execution.  Enjoying and ultimately finishing the novel hinges on the reader’s trust that these seemingly incidental and inconsequential diversions ultimately rope back into whatever the hell the character’s were talking about beforehand. And for the most part, they do. In their best cases, these vignettes define a character or circumstance that speaks volumes more about them than what their appearance would lead you to believe, but at worse they’re annoying, boring, and the punchline is outpaced by the novel’s momentary self-indulgence.

Take it for what you will. I can state from personal experience that some early (and even one later) portions of the book are a chore to slog through, but the payoff for the whole of the book is well worth those bumps in an otherwise smooth road of narrative bliss.

The Gone-Away World is a triumph for having created a world that teeters on the edge of absurdity and being uncannily close to home, though you’ll undoubtedly notice the moments when it’s lost it’s footing.