Narratives in Video Games: Why The Stanley Parable Stands Out

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.

Why We Riot: A New Game Seeks to Explore this Question

Leonard Menchiari has been experiencing this form of protest in person, and the game ‘Riot’  was born as a way to express it and to tell the stories of these fights. What is it that triggers such a strife? What does a cop feel during the conflict? In “Riot”, the player will experience both sides of a fight in which there is no such thing as ‘victory‘ or ‘defeat‘.

In what has become the purpose of all of our writing and film-making (that is, story telling, usually without taking a side, and often declaring that there really are no sides to take), a small game development studio from Italy has stepped forward to make a game about riots. The purpose, as far as I can tell from their ‘fund us’ page, is to provide us with a way to sympathize with both sides of riots. Regardless of your political persuasion, the game seems to scream, you will learn what it feels like to be a protester and a member of the police force.

I’ve argued before that we can learn a lot from video games, and that they provide broad canvasses with which to paint unique moral brushstrokes (ones that we can learn from), and Riot seems to take a stand somewhere in the same area, at least. It seeks, explicitly, to tell us a story that is worth knowing. The Verge described the game as a ‘playable documentary,’ which should peak the ears of many gamers. The subject itself–that is, riots–have interested psychologists, sociologists, and others for quite some time. But the importance of a game like this doesn’t stop there.

You see, this is a game that explicitly attempts to explore moral ground: it begs you to get to know each side of a riot, hoping you’ll stand in their shoes a little more strongly than you did before you played. While games have done this before, to some extent, I’m happy to see a game decide to bring this to the forefront of its purposes. Much like film can force us into a sympathetic position, so do documentaries seek explicitly to do so. Games following suit strikes me as a good move for the industry, as a whole.

As Christians, we should be offering grace wherever we can, broadly and with little (if any) reservations. It’s easy to stand in a place where you look at others and judge them for their actions, and a riot is a potent example of a situation about which we quickly make assumptions. Some may tend towards favoring the police (“Why would anybody rise up in such a violent manner?”), while others may be tempted to jump into the mob (“Stand against injustice!”), but the point is that we rarely take the time to understand the other side. What makes the offender unjust, and what makes the rioter violent? If people are made in the image of God, seeking to understand them may help us understand God.

That’s not to say that there isn’t ever a ‘right’ side in a riot. Perhaps there are right and wrong sides in some given instance of a riot. Sometimes the rioters may be justified in their stance, though perhaps violence is never the right answer. And sometimes the police are right to stop a riot. Discerning the difference is rather difficult, and the temptation might be to say we can never come to a conclusion. While I think that takes it too far, a game like Riot may provide us with the reminder we need: simply by playing as both sides, we can feel the stress of conflict from different perspectives.

And any time we are encouraged to understand another position, even if we end up disagreeing with some of the conclusions or end results, we take a step towards honoring the image of God not only in our theological convictions, but with our daily lives.

Is Play Endorsement? Gaming and Personal Responsibility (Part 2)

Part one of this series can be found here.

Most of us naturally think of our characters as an of extension of our selves, at least to some degree. This is more true in the age of first-person perspective games. Even if we don’t think of our characters as ‘us,’ we do become attached to them, much the way I’m told writers become attached to their fictional characters. There are some characters that I definitely associated with myself, particularly in role-playing games, and some that I simply see as an entirely external character (Master Chief of the Halo franchise comes to mind).

And so it gets more difficult to nail down whether or not our play functions as endorsement. In a comment on my article about linearity and choice, fellow writer Mackenzie had this to say:

I feel as though there is a distinct difference between violent video games of the type you describe (wherein you have a distinct choice, and the violence is, I believe, directed against fellow combatants), and a game like Grand Theft Auto, where you are not only allowed but (at times, I believe) encouraged and sometimes even required to kill the innocent in an excessively violent fashion.

We spoke about this comment later, and he argued that some games, like the Grand Theft Auto series, are simply evil to play. The games encourage the player to do all sorts of unscrupulous things (and have always been a source of controversy).

If we were to adapt Brett’s claim about film to this, then all we would need to do to make GTA a series worth making and playing is to prove that the creators of the game intended to depict the world in some truthful way. We’d have to believe that the truth in GTA was worth receiving via interaction, rather than by some other method.

But there’s something different, here, and I think most would agree. While I’ve argued that thoughtfully gaming is absolutely important for the gamer, I don’t think I’d ever suggest that completely passive intake is the same as the active participation found in video games. There’s something different happening, of course, but even more so when a choice is presented.

In a sense, I am the one pulling the trigger in a virtual game. I’m functioning as a participant, a creator or at least actor, as opposed to simply an audience member. In linear games, ones where the creators have clearly scripted everything, I tend to play the role of an actor: I embody a character, run through a scene, and may or may not provide exactly what the director hoped for. In open games, however, I tend to act as a director: I choose what happens, more or less, and sometimes even how it happens. Maybe my character is wholly evil and kills everyone he or she comes across, or maybe my character is a pacifist, avoiding violence and death even if it means never advancing the plot.

The key difference, however, between a director of a film and a player-as-director of a video game is the audience: only the former tells a story for an external audience. Even when I function as ‘director’ of a video game, I only craft a story for myself. Within the confines of whatever game I’m playing, I can only tell the story to myself, sans someone watching me play, or perhaps online games. If my character is evil, I’ve experienced evil in a way that no one else sees. My art is personal, all of a sudden. Perhaps my evil character can teach me about what the creators of the game consider evil, or what they consider good. Perhaps I can even explore my own moral intuitions in the confines of this evil character I have created, but I’ve still only created them for me.

If a filmmaker creates art for the purpose of pointing to a true world, then there must be someone being pointed towards that world. Perhaps art can point the self–and it probably should–but is that enough? Is it enough to tell ourselves these stories, if we do not share them? If we do not share them with others?

This difficulty is one we already feel when we discuss games with each other. I remember talking about the main character of Mass Effect, named Shepard, as “my Shepard,” because his actions were entirely different from the Shepard my roommate had played. Mine had stayed on the straight-and-narrow, at least what the game believed was the ‘good’ path, while my roommate had taken a piecemeal approach to his decisions: sometimes he was the good guy, and sometimes he was the bad guy. Other people played Shepard as a female–commonly known as femShep–which also led to different options and choices.

We all had our own, unique audiences, and so we created our characters for ourselves. My Shepard acted as the hero, without a trace of rebellion. I found him far more interesting than the lone wolf we currently seem to love in film (Bourne is a prime example), since we so rarely see characters who depend deeply on those around him. But my friends saw rebellious Shepards, independent Shepards (to some extent), or some other Shepard I never even heard about. That’s the point, though: my Shepard was mine, and no one really saw him act, outside of myself.

So is play endorsement? Did I endorse the actions of my character, simply because I was the only audience member for his journey?

I think we need to apply the same careful consideration Brett employed for film: if we are seeking to tell a true story, even if it is a depiction of evil, I don’t think play is necessarily endorsement. Perhaps there are some games that should never be played, and perhaps there are some films that should never be seen, but the qualification should perhaps be ‘depiction of something truthful,’ rather than ‘depiction of violence.’ We should know our own limitations–do not partake in something that will cause temptation or sin, if you can help it–but we should also strive to play games that we can learn from, much like we should watch films we can learn from.

A quick caveat, here: I don’t think we can only play games when we seek to learn. You can read a book for enjoyment, and not for the grand ideas placed within it, much like you can watch a film without learning much. Sometimes movies are an exhilarating ride, and that’s enough. Enjoyment isn’t a sin, in itself, though excess is easily classified as a waste of time. So it is with video games. I may learn a lot from playing Mass Effect or Fallout 3, but there’s not much to learn from Plants vs. Zombies, without making some rather uncomfortable (or humorous) stretches. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying it, though, perhaps for the sheer mechanics of the game. We like to master things, and so the skill involved in mastering a game might be enough.

Thoughtfully Gaming

I’ve written about the usefulness of gaming at least once before, and I was primarily arguing that happiness should not be our final determiner for our actions, particularly in choosing which games we play. I mentioned that games can provide us with a unique world to discuss a variety of issues, especially questions of morality. This holds true, but it presumes that gamers are gaming thoughtfully. This isn’t always the case, unfortunately, but it is something Christians should hold themselves to, if they decide to game. Continue reading Thoughtfully Gaming

Microsoft vs. Apple: Things Just Got Interesting

Okay, I admit the title is a bit misleading: the ‘war’ between these two tech giants has been interesting for years. The developments over the last week, however, warrant some commentary.

I’ve already argued that our mobile and desktop experiences would be converging, and it seems that Microsoft and Apple have both made big moves towards this just in the last week. Microsoft has unveiled what they are calling “SmartGlass,” which functions as an answer to both AppleTV and Nintendo’s Wii U tablet controller. Microsoft is fighting a battle on two fronts, in this case, but it gives them a unique chance to combine different services in an unprecedented way; if Microsoft can turn the Xbox 360 (or its follow up) into a competitor for Apple TV (such that it is used by non-gamers, as well), and then integrate both its Windows Phone 7 (and by this fall, WP8) and its Windows 8 Desktop platforms in a simple and useful way, then I can only see success.

But there is a trick to this, of course. You don’t want to force people to purchase an entire new ‘library’ of tech just to get some benefits. Including iOS connectivity with the SmartGlass is smart, and probably necessary at this point. Microsoft needs to leverage the fact that tons of people are using Windows on their desktops: if they can convince people that an Xbox will enhance the experience they are already having, in addition to giving them something new (gaming, streaming onto a TV, that sort of thing), then expect a different future.

Here’s the thing I find most fascinating: as someone gets more entrenched in a particular ecosystem, it seems less and less likely that they will make the switch. Once I’ve got a Windows 8 computer, perhaps a tablet, an Xbox, and a Windows Phone, anytime I go to upgrade, I’ll likely want to stay with what works well with the rest of my system. Of course, iOS integration for SmartGlass makes a difference here, since an iPhone could interact with this whole system, at least somewhat. We’ll see how comparable the experiences are, however, once the service comes out this fall.

My biggest takeaway from E3, however, is that I was underwhelmed with Sony. I’m hesitant about Nintendo’s Wii U, for a variety of reasons, but at least it is something I haven’t really seen before. Microsoft is pulling in their power from other markets, but Sony just seems to be coasting right now. Maybe that’s enough, since they can always fall back on television and other electronics sales; Nintendo is banking on gaming, and Microsoft is banking on a fully integrated digital system. I’m not really sure what Sony’s solution should be here, either. They’ve stepped it up in the mobile gaming world, yes, but I’m less convinced that they will have long term success. I hate to say it, but I actually am starting to think that world will be dominated by the likes of iOS, WP7/8, and Android. Lack of physical input aside, people are already carrying these devices. For everyone who has a smartphone (and kids are getting them younger and younger), this solution makes a lot of sense.

Apple held their WWDC conference yesterday, and we are seeing the combination of various iOS devices. If you own an iPad and an iPhone, they will connect seamlessly, which is a smart move. Further, OSX is beginning to look more like iOS, to the point where my previous sentence may apply to it, at least partially. Apple, too, is investing in their own cross-platform ecosystem. The price of entry is high (have you priced Apple’s computers?), but the integration has already proven powerful; we’ll see if Microsoft can match it this fall.

Image via Flickr.

Numerology, Critical Thinking, and Hope

It has been almost a year since the rapture should have occurred, at least according to Harold Camping. Lots of people were convinced by his arguments, and there was at least one couple that sold their property and took a vacation with their life savings, since the rapture was coming and they wouldn’t need their earthly possessions after that. This was convincing, to some, I suspect because their hope blinded them to the realities of the arguments. That isn’t to say that hope is always blinding, of course, simply that there are times when our hopes can lead us to believe things that are plainly antithetical to rational belief. Continue reading Numerology, Critical Thinking, and Hope