Stanley’s Parable

So, I took a bit of a stumble into the world today and realized that I’ve been absent from it for like… a week. So, I thought that the best thing for me to do with that realization is put together some new content for my blog. Rather, I should up-date it. I was sorting through the PA TV Extra Credits videos on “Game You May Not Have Tried” (and if you haven’t given Extra Credits a look, then I recommend that you do ) and they recommended that I give Stanley’s Parable a play-through for an interesting look at Narrative in game-play. It was free, so it had the right price-tag, and, hey, I own Half-Life 2! and I haven’t done anything with it recently, so why not give it a look.

I was expecting something interesting and I got something awesome. The game is a simple mod starring a character that the narrator calls Stanley. I’m using that awkward phrasing because the game is pretty much all about drawing attention to the relationship the narrator has to the player. Well, I say all about… It does this by providing binary choices, in loose succession, that the player may or may not be aware of. In reaction to these choices, the game will alter the story and the ending you are given. It’s not much of a game, if you want to be picky, but more of an interactive story-telling device. Then again, part of the game’s point is that games ARE interactive story-telling devices. In the same way that movies and books have been picked to pieces over the years with a harsh awareness of the mediums, games are starting to do the same thing. I think Stanley’s Parable is another step in that direction. Published in 2011, relying solely on the Source engine, SP highlights by paring down.

The problem with criticising and reviewing, or even studying, games is that they’re usually so tied together that it’s impossible to separate out specific elements. Even nailing down the differences in medium, between books and movies, will leave someone’s head spinning. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched someone review a game, but treat it like a movie, or a book. I don’t want to mention how many games play LIKE books or movies, filled with cut-scenes but bereft of game-play. Stanley’s Parable solves this problem by cutting out most of the filler, leaving the basic, necessary elements for high-lighting. You can’t run, jump, shoot, or crouch. This is to ensure that the “narrator” (let’s call it that, just so we get some universality in the mix. It would be game-designer, otherwise) knows, roughly, how long it’s going to take you to get from one part of the game to another. This is important. Otherwise, the game wouldn’t be able to tell a cogent narrative. One of the endings portrays this nicely, but also makes sure to mention that, in the absence of narration, the player is creating a story. Even if it’s just a simple one… “Richard Cumberdick the Third, formerly Prince, formerly Stanley, walked down a hall-way.” That’s a story, even if it doesn’t have all the obvious bits we normally associate with a story.

How does one design a game that provides a range or freedom, while still retaining the elements of timing and control necessary to provide a story, the game seems to scream. Rather than simply posing the question, it, through game-play, looks at some of the answers. I’m not going to spoil the game, but, in general terms, designers must play a careful game of balance between restriction and creation. More than that, they must play that game on many levels and with someone they can’t possibly imagine: you, the nameless, faceless player that could be anyone. Of course, there are conventions and gamer-knowledge, but that too is a part of crafting a game. It’s all very meta. Very. To get back to micro, without spoiling what makes Stanley’s Parable so worth playing, I’ll look at a few other titles that answer this question in different ways.

Portal, same engine, different designers, is a great example of the power of linear game-play. The player has very little identity, or input, besides what the player makes up for his or her character. Almost the entire game follows a straight path, with standard solutions, using a narrating computer and some environments to provide direct exposition and back-story. Even the points of the game where the player is violating the narrator’s expectation, or exploring, have all been programmed into the game. They’re all a part of the overall narrative, to be found or not at the behest of the player. There’s very little the player can do to escape or go beyond the plans of the designer, because it’s a simple, brief, tight game… one that is executed amazingly. By the same token, if you were reading carefully, you’ll notice that I said “…at the behest of the player.” A well-told story is virtually useless if the player spends his or her whole game in one of the first rooms dropping cubes through infinite portal-loops. The inter-play between narrator and gamer is important and it under-lines something I’ve been saying for years: the player is part of the experience. There’s an Extra Credits episode about this, but I’ll give you the short-er version. How you play a game will effect the experience you get out of it. The attitude you approach it with. How you plan to play and under what circumstances. Everything. You are a part of it, as much as you are experiencing it. Think about it like this… would Angry Birds be the same gaming experience it is if you planned to sit down and play it for the same length of time you’d have to devote to a Large-Map game of Sins of the Solar Empire (last play-time for me: 7 hours)? That leads us right into…

Minecraft! It’s the ultimate in do-it-yourself entertainment. Ostensibly, this game is all about letting the player loose in a world to wreak whatever havoc he or she may. However, if you watched my video on the narrative of horror in Minecraft (and you should, then you’ll know that there are specific design choices that Minecraft uses to propel a player through a few hoops first. These design choices are still considered narrative devices. A player can do whatever he or she wants, BUT it is dependant on what the narrator will let him or her do. it’s a very tenuous relationship. If Little Big Planet and Minecraft have shown us anything, it’s that players can be both very creative and very… cocky. Here, the narrator has tried to carve out as much space as possible for the players to play in, but, in comparison to Portal, does it deliver the same sort of story-experience? It can, but it’s not nearly as directed. It’s not so much a story as a set of flash cards with pictures on it that you can arrange in any order to tell a story. And, like the one nude-photo accidentally stuffed into the wrong pile, the wrong elements can turn an experience from being enlightening to disturbing… and then back again. The point is, as my analogy tears itself apart, that the more control you give the player, the less control you have as a designer to direct the player subtly. GladOS can direct the player round the Aperture Science building willy-nilly without breaking narrative flow, but you need a giant, shiny arrow to tell the protagonist of a WoW game, the saviour of the Cataclysm, to go over here and collect some apples, instead of confronting the ancient evil first.

Going into game creation with these things in mind allows for the creation of games like Stanley’s Parable. How much choice, and when, and IF, is game-breaking. Or, should I say, story-breaking. The creation of the illusion of choice is important, because it lies behind every choice and decision a game hands you. It’s a game, so it’s got to be winnable, right? Rather, it’s a game, so there’s a point, so there are solutions, right? Rather, it’s a game, so there’s a solution, right? Solution… so point. You get it. Game designers (narrators) create choices, but they must, necessarily be limited. To tell a story. To give you an experience. To ship a game that’s not on 8 discs with only a single small town on a flat, unconnected plane of existence. However, it’s still a game, and we know this. That, in itself, effects our experience. Stanley’s Parable posits that perhaps the only source of choice is to stop playing, because otherwise all the subsequent choices have been programmed in, and aren’t true choices. Then again, Minecraft does continuous, unstructured game-play well by having rules that it adheres to. Then again, it doesn’t usually tell a story. We’ve got to interact with, jump on, and create those stories.

There’s no answer, really. There’s just a sliding scale between limitation and creation. Or rather, creation through limitation. The grand scale of structure. Etc. Stanley’s Parable is a trip and I haven’t even gotten to covering everything I wanted to say, without ruining it, because I get a bit tangential at times, but I’d recommend picking it up, if only so you can be in control, being controlled, in control, being controlled, in control…  Besides, it’s free!


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