‘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.

Four Questions to Ask When Considering GTA V

For those not in the know, the next big controversial video game has been released. Years ago we heard all of the complaints about Grand Theft Auto III, then IV, and now we’ve got Rockstar’s biggest game yet: GTA V. Christians have fallen on all sides of this issue, ranging from liberty in all things, even killing digital prostitutes, all the way to suggesting we ought to avoid all video games at all times, even something as apparently harmless as Pac-Man or Mario.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself if you’re considering purchasing and playing Grand Theft Auto V.

 

1. Is play endorsement?

I’ve talked a little about my answer to this question, but the question is one we should all consider. Many Christians (parents especially) draw arbitrary lines in video games: it’s okay to kill in a game like Call of Duty (war simulator) and Splinter Cell (think Jason Bourne if he were mostly stealthy), but when it comes to something like GTA V, it’s time to stop. Maybe that’s because of the setting: Call of Duty at least happens mostly in the context of war; Splinter Cell you’re playing as the “good guy” taking out the “bad guys.” But in GTA V, you’re clearly just playing the bad guy. You’re fighting against cops, often, and killing innocent people on the street at will.

But violence itself, even violence enacted in clearly questionable ways, might be the right starting point for a number of discussions and personal revelations. You can learn a lot about yourself from the way you play your games. Some games deal with that by choices, as in the Mass Effect series, while others do so in a sandbox environment, like GTA V.

 

2. What do you get from playing?

If you play GTA V because you find murder, theft, assault, and other crime intrinsically fascinating, you should probably consider skipping this one. We shouldn’t just fascinate ourselves with evil. There may be a time when an experience is worthwhile for what it can teach us, or even how it can entertain us, but if you are filling the felony-shaped hole in your chest with GTA V, maybe you should spend less time in front of a television and more time in front of people who care about you.

 

3. Who else in your life is playing?

There are two routes you can take with this question. The first is fellowship. Maybe you’re a young guy, and every single kid in your youth group is playing GTA V. This might not answer the question, but it could definitely influence you if you’re on the fence. The multiplayer can be an excellent shared experience (I say this having played other video games cooperatively). In addition, teens especially seem to be sucked into certain video games so deeply that they won’t want to talk about anything else. Perhaps you should steer the conversation elsewhere, but having some common ground might make it worthwhile.

Additionally, if you’re a parent (or a youth pastor, or anyone who interacts with teens) and your teen wants to play this game, it might be worth a rental beforehand. Judge the content for yourself. Talk with your teens about what makes you uncomfortable about the game, what makes it worth playing, or what makes you forbid it outright. Teens may be rather rebellious (and they may play this game elsewhere, even if you ban it), but explaining your reason for a decision goes a long way.

 

4. Do you know when to quit?

Let’s assume you’ve decided to purchase this game. If a scene in the game becomes too much, will you know that you should stop? What if you look at the time and realize that you’ve been playing for 18 hours straight? What about 6 hours? Did you skip dinner with your best friend? Take time off from work?

Before deciding to invest in video games as a hobby, it is important to make sure you can manage your time well. People are more important than digital entertainment, period. I don’t think it is wrong to play video games (which is probably quite clear), but if you prioritize them consistently over people, you’ve made a pretty big error.

GTA V will likely have more hours clocked on it during this month than any other video game. That means it is worth thinking about, if only so we know how to engage it.

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.