Narratives in Video Games: Why The Stanley Parable Stands OutGaming — By J.F. Arnold on May 3, 2013 at 7:00 am
Next week, I’ll be reviewing Of Games and God by Kevin Schut. It’s a good book, at least so far, and I’ll also be posting an interview with Mr. Schut himself. On that note, I’ve got video games on the brain. His work has got me thinking about a number of topics, most of which will surface in the review, I’m sure. Today, however, I wanted to address one of the more interesting games I’ve played.
The Stanley Parable is unique, as far as I know, in the way the narrator interacts with the player. The game opens with a narrator describing your character’s life. As you move about the game, the voice-over (which sounds remarkably like the narrator for Pushing Daisies, a television show cancelled far too early) tells you what you are doing. A minute or so in, there’s a distinct shift: it is now telling you what you are about to do. This isn’t presented as a command, or even as an objective to accomplish. Rather, the narrator describes your future actions as if they were pre-determined. In fact, that’s the aim of the self-labeled parable; the entire narrative arc is designed to encourage you to think about what games tell you every time you turn them on.
The story can get bizarre. If you follow certain paths, you can end up with any number of endings: in one you escape the game altogether, in another you escape the narrator and nearly die; one ending even leads to a constant forced circle, leading to your eventual madness and death. But this strangeness, this odd world and its odd story, feels familiar to most gamers. In fact, the strange part isn’t any of that, necessarily; what is bizarre is the fact that I can choose any of these endings, and the narrator seems to actually care which I choose.
I’ve argued before that video games have a place in education, which usually means a place to explore spatial reasoning skills, but The Stanley Parable explicitly attempts to interact with the way we tell and receive stories. The Portal series is well known for its witty writing, Mass Effect and its sequels are renowned for their grandiose science fiction stories (much more than their actual game-play mechanics, usually, though you do have to avoid talking about the ending itself), and Half-Life 2, the engine that The Stanley Parable is modded to run on, is known for its silent protagonist, which has its own place in the world of narratives.
What Choose Your Own Adventure did for me as a child, The Stanley Parable did for me as a gamer. That is, when I first read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, I ended up reading the story 15 or 20 times, attempting to find my favorite ending. The stories themselves were rather bland, as far as writing goes, but the desire to discover something new each time kept me coming back. While I think The Stanley Parable has better writing than most of those books did, the primary comparison is just that I kept wanting to play. I wanted to explore, but in a different way than I explored Skyrim or Fallout 3. Those games encouraged me to explore a landscape or a world; Stanley pushes me to explore a story, a relationship, and possibly myself. It is rare that games push us to do that, at least explicitly.
But this sort of narrative exploration is helpful in understanding not only the possibilities for writing, but also the inherent limitations of both text and video game material. Pre-programmed responses are all we’ve got, no matter how much they appear to react to what I’m doing. At one point, you ‘escape’ from the presented game, and enter a large, open world. The walls are covered with untextured substance, clearly unpainted. In one sense, of course, the narrative tells you this is entirely unplanned. But someone still designed this room, and someone wrote the script describing this room, and the actor who played the narrator still recorded the script.
At times, it reminds me of Sophie’s World, when the main character and her mentor break out of the novel, which the novel then proceeds to detail. There’s something of the Matrix in there, too, stepping outside of what was originally described as a real setting, entering into “the real world,” as it were.
At the end of all of this, however, is one simple truth: sometimes video games can teach us about the world around us, about the limits of our own creative abilities (with the technology currently available, be that print media or top-end gaming engines), and even about ourselves.