In my last post (annoyingly, just over a month ago), I discussed the artistic role of choice in computer games. The wealth of experiences made possible by the actions of the player and the reactions of the game-maker, through the context of the game, is both broad and expansive. Even choices not directly created by the game-maker are made possible by the software used to make the game and the software used to play the game; All of it becoming part of the overall tapestry of the game. Naturally, the distinction between what is intentional and what is accidental is another element of gaming as art, which can be ignored, fixed or even deliberately played around with, as we’ll see in a while.
I hope to continue this line of thought by applying it to a specific example. While any example would do, I’m going to use possible the best, or at least the clearest, example of a game that plays around with choice and how these interactions can be foregrounded. The Stanley Parable.
The Stanley Parable has famously defied reviewing. Just about every reviewer has started by saying the game is fundamentally un-reviewable and I’m certainly not going to break the trend. The game is un-reviewable. I won’t dispute that. I will say that the game is wonderfully thoughtful, clever, insightful and generally worth playing, especially if you’re interested in the artistic functions of games.
The premise of The Stanley Parable is that, as the short intro will tell you: One day, Stanley (whose decidedly relevant job is to mindlessly push buttons on a computer when prompted, what better way, after all, is there to help the gamer/player associate with the protagonist?), upon being left in silence by his computer, stands up, and walks around his office, which has emptied of co-workers. He goes on a brief quest to determine the truth and on the way is guided, counselled and chided by the not-quite omniscient narrator.
The narrator is the key that reveals the mind working behind the scenes when you play a game like this. He openly discusses and judges your choices in the game, which lead to a variety of different endings. As I said before, games react to your choices and this would be true of The Stanley Parable whether there were a narrator or not. But, as it happens, there is a narrator who very successfully and skilfully exposes the thought processes behind the game. Of course, it is done in a narratively consistent way; unlike the game-maker, the narrator is subject to time and as such must present his thoughts in a linear fashion and is capable of learning as the game progresses. This isn’t true externally (or, you could say, meta-fictionally) because the narrator’s responses and narrations are all programmed in the game from the start but the character of the narrator appears to develop as you play.
The effect that this has is very clever. You and the narrator go through the story together, allowing you to feel both led to a determined conclusion and free to act how you will at the same time. In fact, the game is challenging you to find possibilities it hasn’t thought of. When told to answer a phone in a sealed room, you can run along behind it and unplug it. Obviously this capacity had to have been programmed into the game and you earn another response and ending by doing so. But initially, you’re treated with the feeling of having outsmarted the game.
Another, more evil version of this is one of map-breaking. At one point, the player can sneakily manoeuvre themselves onto a desk in a way so indicative of map-breaking and shimmy along and out the window into a black, white space. Sadly, upon doing this, the narrator merely points out your ineptitude and you’re treated with more narrative wonder, including an option for a very strange song. The game has foiled your desires again.
I notice that my observations are becoming more and more general. They’re lacking. It would appear that even writing about The Stanley Parable in a general sense is next to impossible. Every single play through the game contains more fascinating content and material for dissection and analysis than I could cover in a whole series of blogposts.
How about we try the modernist approach:
Office space, filled desks, button heaven, cups of coffee, piled files, flat carpet, coloured walls, locked windows, secret disco, doorbell, wooden door, screen, hidden camera, paths, maps, w, museums and paint, death by numbers, start again, impossible codes, opening walls, narrator’s jokes, narrator’s folly, huge desk, funny painting, empty buttons, failed hopes, no response, Minecraft, open sets, burning babies, big white buttons, who’s that?, jump the lift, start again, vault the fence, run away, blue door, blue door, red door, supernova, Left or right, left then right, day-job, salary, payday, fake wife, kitchen sink, w, filing cabinet, files and tapes, freedom, w, escape, run away, stuck above, wait what?, 3 hours?!, trapped again, start again, true ending, more Stanley, less Stanley, waiting room, endless beauty, endless corridor, round, stairs, round, barrier, handrail, vault, jump, run, open, close, car, round, death, start, end, control, window, song, laughing at me, dead panda, Portal, not yet finished, find the cube, shut the door, stop for now, start again, see your death, activate achievements, w, crusher, a, piranha, s, countryside, d for diving, play your part, fulfil your role, follow The Stanley Parable Adventure Line.
That should do it.