Storytelling and Expectations: How I Met Your Mother, The Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite

When we hear a story for the first time, I think we all try to predict the ending. Sometimes we’re spot on, and sometimes we are way off. The “twist” reveals as much about what we thought would happen as it does about the story we are hearing: sometimes a “twist” is so unexpected and out of the blue that it ruins what felt like a coherent story. Other times, like in Fight Club, the story is appreciated far more the second time through, with the twist revealed. The upending of our expectations is something we all sort of want, but some storytellers go too far.

One film that managed to avoid this problem was Pacific Rim, which is probably the most straight-forward film of the past few years. The trailers promised you giant robots fighting against giant monsters, and the film delivered exactly that. The story may have felt somehow less “interesting”, simply because there wasn’t really a twist. There was danger and a progression of that danger, but there wasn’t a sudden reveal that maybe we were actually the problems all along, or something of that nature (maybe the kaiju were actually our deep-seated fears, and the whole thing happened in our minds, or some other inane twist). But twists for the sake of twists are hardly worth examining.

Last year there were quite a few games that were (rightly) praised highly: The Stanley ParableThe Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite come to mind. The first I’ve already written about, but the game functions as an exploration of our expectations, as a way to take what we think a game is and, well, upend it. The latter two, however, don’t really step outside of the way a game is put together. They’re both linear, and you follow the story regardless of the decisions you make (Bioshock: Infinite has a few choices, but are not nearly as significant as the choices in Mass Effect, for instance). In fact, in a time where choice is becoming a near requirement for games, I appreciated both of these games for just letting me play the story that the games had to tell.

Spoiler warning for both The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite.

The ending for The Last of Us is one that I hated. I know many thought this was the best game of the last year, and in many ways they are right. The game is mechanically impressive, providing a depth and terror to the combat that many games lack. I felt real emotions for the characters, akin to some of my favorite books. There were, in fact, quite a few moments where I was emotionally flustered but had to act; a character just died, for instance, but I needed to shoot my way out of whatever situation I was in.

At the end of the game, the protagonist (who you have spent the majority of the game playing) lies to save the girl he now thinks of as his daughter. The daughter might be the only way to save the world from the terrible disease that has infected so many, but she would need to be killed to do so (she wouldn’t survive the operation required). In a terrifying last scene, you break into the room and save her from the surgery, only to whisk her away unconscious. When she awakens, she asks where you are, and you explain (falsely) that there are others just like her, that she isn’t unique, and that the world will eventually be saved anyway.

At this point I was upset with the protagonist, but could live with it. This girl had seen through lies before; it takes someone fairly smart and quick to survive as long as she has. But the finale of the game is a bit more harrowing: she forces the protagonist to look her in the eye and promise that he’s telling the truth. He does it, and she is satisfied. The end.

The frustration that I’d embodied this man who was not only unwilling to make the sacrifice to save the world (which is understandable, considering the cost), but he couldn’t even tell the truth to this young girl who thinks of him as father was almost unbearable. I had to rethink the entire game, and every development that the protagonist made felt empty in light of this moral failure. It felt as though the conversations I’d sought to have with the young girl were all to build trust, only to have that ripped away.

And maybe the story wanted to teach me that people are evil. But I already knew that, and didn’t feel better for the new “realization.”

Bioshock: Infinite was far more philosophical in nature, in regards to the twist. With jumps between various parallel universes throughout, the twist in that game ended up faring far better. The reveal that Booker (the protagonist) is also Comstock (the villain) works well, primarily because the protagonist reacts the same way that we do: Booker is angry and distraught, and immediately seeks to make sure that this isn’t going to be the case for him. The game even ends with Booker drowning his alternate selves (who chose baptism into a new name, Comstock), simply to remove the universes of his own evil. That’s a far cry from someone consciously lying to their child about perhaps the most important truth in their world.

Both of these games were heralded partially for their gameplay, but also for their unique stories. The twists made them, in a sense, memorable. I’ll likely not forget either of them, and would be interested in replaying both in a couple of years when the intricacies of the stories aren’t so fresh.

The breaking of expectations can go either way: sometimes we herald the story as ground-breaking and beautiful, while other times we decry the absurdity of the change to the story we’ve been told all along.

Even earlier this week with How I Met Your Mother‘s finale we saw the way people reacted to broken expectations. Some were frustrated, and some felt the show had a great conclusion.

Spoiler alert for How I Met Your Mother.

My friend Sarah Parro nailed many aspects of the conclusion, but one bit in particular is worth repeating:

 […] the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

The end of the show was somewhat predictable (I knew that the titular Mother would die, for instance), and somewhat painfully consistent. The show was always about Ted and Robin, even when it wasn’t. The show always had Marshall and Lily together, even when they broke up for awhile. The show never had Barney settling down (which makes his new-found love for his daughter a little hard to swallow, considering what else he goes through in the show). The one question that is left unanswered is whether or not Ted and Robin will work this time; they’ve both tried this before, after all, more than once. But maybe now that Ted had his children and Robin had her career they can finally settle down with each other. The show really was about meeting the Step-Mother, not the Mother.

So did HIMYM break expectations? Sure, in some ways. I didn’t expect the show to end at all (I kid, I kid). For the most part, the show landed precisely where it always fell: the Universe wants you to be with the One, and you will be with the One, unless you screw it up somehow (but even then, you’ll probably end up with the One).

Twists are valuable, of course, but only insofar as they are twists that we can swallow. If I were to re-watch HIMYM, I should see, from the start, that Robin and Ted were meant for each other (for the record, Barney and Robin were a far more endearing couple; they both started at a similar place and grew together, which has quite a bit of merit in its own right). But I suspect I’d see the same convoluted story of on-and-off again romances that we felt the first time: only now we’d chime in with Ted’s kids that no, someone other than Robin isn’t right for you anymore.

I don’t mind twists. I think some twists are fundamental to good stories. But some stories can be told well without them, and HIMYM might have been more honest if it hadn’t attempted to include lots of twists at the end, no matter how expected.

Perhaps if the ending to HIMYM was something like this, we’d all feel that it was too generic and familiar (or, dare I say it, happy). Perhaps if The Last of Us had ended in sacrifice, we’d all have been bored to tears by the now-played-out sacrificial father role. And perhaps if Bioshock: Infinite had just forced us to kill Comstock, instead of realizing that we were him, it would have been forgotten as a game with above-average gameplay and writing that neglected to do anything new in the genre. I might have preferred that ending to the first two, even if I would likely have forgotten the last soon after finishing it. But sometimes I’d like a happy ending that doesn’t skirt my expectations, except the expectation that the ending will be happy.

‘The Stanley Parable': Choice Finally Done Right

Sometimes, game developers surprise us. I’ve got a vested interest in gaming as a medium. Not only is it one of my hobbies, but I suspect it is a place where Christians can go to engage a large number of young men (and, increasingly, women) who are unwilling to engage with us directly. Most of the industry, unfortunately, is filled with problems that film critics regularly lament: the same, boring action game comes out year after year. Whether that’s Call of DutyBattlefieldHalo, or whatever Michael Bay is currently working on, both industries are filled with appeal-to-the-masses, easy to digest franchises. While some productions become worthwhile, even from the standard formulas (InceptionThe Matrix), mostly the top films and games of any given year are telling the same stories, only pushing forward graphics or special effects.

Enter The Stanley Parable. While some games have attempted to push the boundaries of what we can accomplish with game mechanics (BraidPortal), a few franchises have stepped up and attempted to provide solid narratives (Mass EffectDishonoredBioshock: Infinite, Braid, and, again, Portal). But this is something different. Here’s the description, straight from the game’s Steam page:

The Stanley Parable is a first person exploration game. You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end.

If that sounds contradictory, welcome to the game. The game begins with a narrator explaining Stanley’s thoughts, who you are (allegedly) controlling. Very quickly, however, the narrator starts to predict your action. “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.”

Of course, you can step through either door. The narrator reacts accordingly, sometimes addressing you directly, sometimes getting angry at you and forcing a game reset, and sometimes he just lets you do what you want. It’s an interesting illusion of control. Each of these reactions had to be programmed based on all of your options, and the game is clearly quite complex. It has kept me coming back to it over the last week, and I’m still finding “endings” to the game that I never knew were there.

That’s a lot of lead in, and I’m not shy about my endorsement. If you’re a gamer, you ought to give The Stanley Parable a shot. You’ll laugh, you’ll be surprised, and if you’re reflective you might just face some new thoughts about the limitations of interactive narratives.

More on that last point. Many gamers claim they want the stories of their games to offer them choice. Remember the outcry from the Mass Effect finale? “You promised us choice, but you only let us choose the color of the ending!” This was in spite of the numerous actual choices presented throughout the series. You could lose characters, damn entire races to extinction, make friends and enemies, and these all changed the story you told. But the ending fell flat, because of the final “decision.”

Mass Effect‘s problem was that it was simply too large to offer actual choice. It isn’t financially feasible to produce what amounts to three or four games. There is already a ton of content that I never saw in all three of those games, and their narratives were all more-or-less concluded the same way. What Mass Effect has in scope, The Stanley Parable has in choice. I’ve found branching paths, complex sequences that must be completed to arrive at different endings, and even unique dialogue if I’d acted a certain way in a previous play-through. Much like the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, The Stanley Parable invites repeated engagement, though holding your finger in the book to save your spot is considerably more difficult.

The choices are deterministic, sure, but that is one of those inherent limitations of produced media. No game, movie, or book can answer your questions in real time, or offer you unique and personalized content as you request it. Until someone manages to devote staff to answer questions online and program new sections of a game in real time (or, more likely, figuring out a way to make procedural generation more intelligent), or until we develop AI, we won’t really be able to incorporate the sort of choice The Stanley Parable offers at the length and breadth that Mass Effect promises.

For a generation that loves to conceptually play with reality (if you thought “wow, so postmodern” as you read the description, you weren’t far off; if you were just intrigued, you’re likely more postmodern than you realize), The Stanley Parable hits all the right notes. This is a clear subversion of the form, a step away from the normal narrative that games possess. It even takes jabs at the promise of choice, throughout. There are times when the narrator removes your options, forcing you along some path or another. In a game centered around choice, that can be jarring.

In fact, jarring is probably the right word to describe the game. In a time when we’re flooded with games that don’t really challenge expectations, The Stanley Parable stands out as a unique exploration of gaming itself. While the game lacks the moral punch that something like Mass Effect can explore (there really aren’t characters to care for or make moral decisions about in The Stanley Parable), it demonstrates one method to offering something approximating actual choice.

And gamers everywhere ought to rejoice.

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.