The parable of Stanley

<em>T</em><em>he Stanley Parable </em>is a game I highly recommend to those who are studying, or interested in game design and/or storytelling. It&rsquo;s best experienced without knowing anything prior.

If that isn&rsquo;t quite enough to make you play, or you&rsquo;ve played it already, keep reading.

The premise seems simple. You play as Stanley, an office worker who discovers that all of his fellow workers have disappeared without a trace. You are also accompanied by a charming English narrator. Soon you reach two doors, and the narrator tells you that Stanley entered the door on the left. Past that door is a conventional and linear series of events, resulting in an ending.

But you don&rsquo;t have to go through that door. And the narrator will insist on Stanley&rsquo;s incompetence or randomness in disobeying the narrator&rsquo;s suggestions.

From here, there are varying branches that go everywhere from Stanley and the narrator searching through the hallways trying in vain to find the story, to the narrator discovering that Stanley is being controlled by a real person, resulting in a video demonstration of how a real person ought to behave.

My personal favourite is when a second narrator takes over just as Stanley is about to be killed, transporting you to a museum detailing the development. She laments the nature of Stanley and the narrator&rsquo;s relationship.

&ldquo;When every path has been created ahead of time, death is meaningless, making life the same. Do you see now? Do you see? Stanley was already dead from the moment he pressed start.&rdquo;

This game keys into a huge struggle that grips the entire medium of video games, and the entire interactive medium: can choice really work hand in hand with a conventional, linear narrative? Do we have control in a place where our every action is planned? Can a traditional, linear story be told when a player has choice? If so, what role does the player have in this?

People often cite David Cage games such as <em>Heavy Rain </em>and <em>Beyond: Two Souls </em>as highly linear games where player choice has little to no impact on how the events of the narrative take place. Choice is valued, and the lack of choice is noticed and often derided as lacking the interactive aspect of gaming. Still, there is a notion that going through the motions, essentially being an actor conforming to the script that is the video game, isn&rsquo;t necessarily a flawed experience. It&rsquo;s like a play where <em>you </em>are the actor, instead of simply watching.

Though David Cage&rsquo;s writing talent doesn&rsquo;t exactly help the linearity, at least it&rsquo;s a good example.

Conversely, an open world game like <em>Grand Theft Auto V </em>or <em>Skyrim </em>provides endless choices and opportunities for players to forge their own stories. However, players lose out on the more directed structure that a more linear experience could have provided.

The answer to the proper balance isn&rsquo;t easy.&nbsp;

A reader creates a story from the words on the page. Viewers of a movie or a television show can see the images of the intended world of the creators, and project themselves into it. In video games, we are actively and intrinsically a <em>part </em>of the world,&nbsp; character, or avatar we play.

Our involvement needs to be recognized, but is it true that we can really participate in something when our every move was anticipated and programmed by the creator?

The key here is simply being aware of the player as a key aspect of the game, rather than just the end consumer. For example, <em>Bioshock </em>is linear in terms of plot, but utilizes the implicit trust of the player in the instructions given to us to create an interesting twist.

<em>The Stanley Parable </em>is gaming metafiction, hyper-aware of its game-ness, providing insight to the futility of railroading a player into a set story, and the destruction of player choice on the intended narrative a creator can make. And it&rsquo;s absolutely delicious to play through and contemplate the ideas held within.

Moreover, in our world requiring academic studies, particular specializations and career paths, it&rsquo;s a bit of a sobering thought that, if your path has been set out for you, did you really ever have a choice to begin with? Is any deviance from the norm simply another path set out, a part of the game that is life?

Or maybe I&rsquo;ve just been playing this game too long.

That&rsquo;s the cool thing about a good piece of fiction, video game, movie, book, or otherwise. It occupies the brain, makes you think, makes you question how you live, and in this case, how games are played and created.


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