My plan to whittle down my backlog before picking up anything new has been a rousing failure. 3 games in about six months is not what I was hoping for from my list of near 30. Instead I spent 100 hours getting progressively worse on Rocket League, faught bravely towards the mid-point of the seemingly endless Witcher 3 and most shamefully of all spent quite a while on an old Football Manager 2015 master league save and booted up Champ Manager 02/03. I haven’t been watching that much football this season – LVG’s Man Utd have been so insipid all season I can only stomach it in bursts. It seems that I need to get my fix of Football somewhere else.
I’ve now started my campaign on XCOM 2 (for which I’ll be posting War Diaries shortly), which will be taking up a lot of my time. But before I did I got one more quick game finished – The Stanley Parable.
For those unfamiliar with it, a quick summary: The Stanley Parable is a game in which you play as the titular Stanley, an officer worker whose day usually entails nothing but pressing buttons on a keyboard when instructed, but who on this day discovers that all his co-workers have mysteriously gone missing. A narrator talks you through the story, detailing Stanley’s reaction to this strange occurrence. However as he tells you Stanley’s story how much you choose to act out us up to you. Early on you come to the above room, the key moment The Stanley Parable. The narrator informs us that Stanley goes left. Which door do you go through?
And that’s it – your interaction with the game primarily comes through following or rejecting the stage directions of the narrator. You choices lead you down branching paths towards a number of endings. Each ending then becomes a beginning as you reappear in your office and the narration begins afresh. The game is defined by these multiple endings – there’d be nothing for me to say without talking about them. So everything beyond this point is a spoiler.
So sets the scene for an interesting dissection of player agency, the relationship between audience and creator and an amusing parody of various tropes employed in narrative gaming. It even describes itself in similar terms in one of it’s gags. TSP doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as it does knock it down and rebuild it a little further out. The conceit is that the game is you vs the narrator, who in most instances takes the credit for writing the story and altering the reality you inhabit. It’s like the famous Daffy Duck cartoon, Duck Amuck, in which daffy goes to war with his animator. A big pencil is drawn in to represent the animator, which torments poor Daffy by drawing and redrawing his backgrounds and his outfits. It’s one of the most famous examples of meta-narrative, but it stops short of the more recent post-modernist tendency to have the writer write themselves in the story. In Duck Amuck the animator and Daffy’s tormentor is revealed to be Buggs Bunny. In TSP the writer speaks through the narrator, making up his power and it’s limits on the fly to serve whatever point the individual paths and endings are making.
Before you even get to the two door choice you can find some of these endings – you don’t even have to leave your office for one of them. You can just close the door to your office and refuse to get out. If you do then in the office pool straight ahead there’s a window you can get out of and drop into purely white space. TSP‘s strength is in how it predicts the player’s actions and reactions – after years of being trained what to expect in games TSP delights in subverting these expectations wherever possible. When you drop out the window into this white space the narrator makes a comment about how Stanley thought he’d broken the map but once the narrator started talking he realised it was part of the game, wryly narrating your own realisation you’ve fallen into another of the games little traps. There’s nothing you can do in TSP that it’s creators haven’t seen coming.
But the real meat of the game comes at that two door crossroads and beyond. My first experience with TSP, being the contrarian git that I am, was what I dubbed the ‘complete bastard play through.’ I set out to defy every instruction the narrator gave. This is in many ways the most surprising and entertaining route through as the narrator throws everything possible at you to get you to obey some instruction, eventually giving up on you playing his game and putting you in games you might enjoy. First you play, “press the button to stop the baby going into the fire” game (which apparently sees you reach a different ending if you’re willing to play for four hours). When this fails to satisfy you you’re suddenly dropped into a game of Minecraft. Then Portal (which our cruel narrator unsurprisngly likes a great deal). Then after wandering through some sort of ‘behind the scenes’ area you descend into blackness as the narrator asserts his use as an agent of narrative, giving shape to this chaos.
Then on the other end of the scale I did the goody two-shoes ending, following the narrator’s instructions to the letter. The tale he wishes to tell is of a mind control facility discovered by our brave Stanley who eventually breaks free of it’s control and emerges into the world and a happy ending. The irony of this tale of asserting ones autonomy emerging through you doing exactly what you’re told is pretty blunt but neatly done.
These polar opposite endings assert the games central idea – that there is no free will in gaming. The free will ending is an act of complete subservience to the games demands of you, whereas doing nothing but exerting free will in defying every requested action is also expected and catered for. It asserts the notion that you’re never in the driving seat when in a gaming narrative; you’re only ever in the signal box, changing the tracks but always on rails. Which is how it has to be -every possibility has to be scripted after all. The tracks have to be laid down in front of you else you’ve nowhere to go. How could it be otherwise? Until procedural gaming gets to the stage where it can create an infinite number of scripts based on every possible player choice each part of a game has to be created. Technology may be able to make so many things easier but in narrative every branch of the story has to be written. There are no short cuts, so there can only ever be so much content due to the sheer man hours involved. And every choice has to be anticipated. And so there is no real choice.
The really interesting branches are the ones in between the extremes, where the relationship between the narrator and the player goes into more nuanced areas. In one you cause the narrator to forget how the game goes, causing him to introduce the ‘Stanley Parable Adventure Line’ which you follow whilst our increasingly confused narrator gradually becomes aware that he is a pawn of unseen forces. In another Stanley himself discovers he’s a pawn; he realises the absurdity of his situation and rationalises it as being in a dream. He takes take control, making himself float and removing the office background to replaces it with a starry sky. He attempts to ‘wake up’ and instead goes mad; the narrator emphasises Stanley’s insignificance by briefly moving onto The Mariella Parable, which begins with Mariella finding Stanley dead on the pavement.
In another branch you assert the player’s role as an agent of chaos. One path sees you in a room with a telephone. If you unplug the telephone, an action the narrator claims you shouldn’t able to do, you come closest to the games win state as the game collapses in on itself and you eventually find yourself looking down from the ceiling into the two door crossroads. Outside of your control Stanley stands there motionless while the narrator pleads with him to move. The credits roll as you have apparently broken free of the game. Despite it’s mockery of you a game needs a player, and without one it just becomes an increasingly sad and broken narrator pleading with you to take control again.
Then there’s the ending in which the narrator tries to create a utopia for you and he to live in, away from the confusing trails of the central narrative. In the end you end up repeatedly throwing yourself off a ledge to kill yourself while the despondent narrator pleads with you to stay with him. In what they call the ‘zending’ the starry room is, ultimately, pretty boring – in removing the tension there is no game. What else is there to do but die?
Which may sound bleak, but it has nothing on the more cruel ending. Despite being at it’s heart a comedy TSP has a nasty streak. If you answer the phone you come to in the game breaking you find yourself outside your apartment where your wife waits for you. But it’s a trick; the narrator mocks you for believing you could ever have a life outside of your button pushing room. It tells us that the whole game is Stanley’s imaginary world he creates while stuck at his desk. It brings up button commands to press a key to tell your wife you love her or play with your kids and each time you do so part of the apartment turns back into your office. The narrator gets increasingly despondent. “There is no answer. How could there be. He was just pushing buttons, the same as he always was. He is only an observer here. He’s killing himself.”
It ends with him pleading with Stanley not to push a button. But as a player it’s all you can do. “And I tried again, as Stanley Pushed a Button. And I tried again, as Stanley pushed a button.” On the screen the command reads: Please die.
The only way out is to quit the game, something it urges you to do again in the ‘escape’ ending. You find yourself heading towards some massive death machine the narrator is pushing you towards when suddenly you find yourself in a museum of game assets. Once you’ve had a look around at an exhibition of the game within the game (they’re really keen on this meta thing) you’re pushed back onto the moving walkway towards your doom as a second narrator takes over. She directly addresses the issue of fatalism and the illusion of choice within the game and in gaming in general. She states you need and the narrator need each other and that the only way to win is to quit.
It’s at this point where I wondered if creator Davey Wreden even likes games.
You can reduce gaming to mindless button pushing, if you’re so inclined, and mock people with mindless office jobs spending their days in front of a screen completing meaningless tasks for coming home and choosing to unwind by sitting in front of a screen by completing meaningless tasks. It’s a pretty open goal. But I was reading If Upon a Winters Night a Traveller… by Italo Calvino the other day and I was struck by the contrast between that book about reading and this game about playing. Both mock their audience at times; both seem to speak of the futility and even uselessness of constructed narrative. But at it’s heart If Upon.. is a love letter to the joy of reading, whereas TPS doesn’t feel like it holds the art form it’s chosen to satirise in quite the same esteem. When it descends to such cruelty to me it feels like an act of self-loathing. I wonder if literature and gaming’s positions at the top and bottom of the pile in terms of cultural significance in mainstream culture has something to do with this. Is there a part of every gamer that sneers at him or herself for indulging in what is widely seen, despite demographic evidence, as a child’s pastime? And does the fact that the majority of games pander to mainstream tastes and are over-simplified and often adolescent in their attitudes at best contribute to this self-flagellating instinct?
TPS doesn’t address these questions. Instead it lashes out at itself and it’s own audience. It portrays the relationship between game creator and player – the artist and their audience – as co-dependent and resentful. And for me it’s here that it’s at it’s weakest. The co-dependency is non-negotiable but the resentfulness is. When it’s played for laughs it’s majestic – the narrator, Kevan Brighting, sells the comedy brilliantly, in a manner reminiscent of Peter Jones, the narrator of original The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series. The writing is also, at it’s best, is comparable to Douglas Adams. It’s endlessly surprising in the clever ways it surprises you by second guessing your actions and responses and it utilises the medium expertly, pulling all manner of tricks out from up it’s sleeve, like blasts of adventuring music while you follow the yellow line or instructional video on decision making, to amuse and entertain. But when it stretches out for profundity it falters a little. But in a medium that so seldom stretches for it at all that is ultimately forgiveable. Italo Calvino gently prodded and occasionally romanced the reader. I didn’t need to be romanced by TPS – but I could have done without being brutalised.
It has received criticism in the way it addresses gaming problems but poses no solutions, which I find bizarre. When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen to dissect the superhero myths he did so and created something magnificent in and of itself as well, without having to grab the reader by the hand and say, “look – here’s how it could be better.” It was just smart enough and self-aware enough to be brilliant and show that being smart and self-aware and brilliant is all that’s required to make something unique and wonderful. The Stanley Parable isn’t gaming’s Watchmen – nor is it gaming’s If Upon a Winters Night a Traveller.. or Adaptation. But in a medium where it’s only glimpses of self-awareness are in joke achievements and in fan-service Easter eggs it’s a bold and entertaining look at the conceits and the logical gaps gamers have been conditioned to accept. And when it plays to it’s strengths it manages to be, a few dark moments aside, one of the very funniest games ever made.