AKA A Backlog Diary: Part 28
Davey Wreden You may have just ruined single player games for me.
Davey Wreden is the man behind The Stanley Parable
, a mod which, on its surface, is about a man named Stanley, who works in an office, entering what he is told to enter into a computer, day in, day out, never changing routine. One day, no commands show up on his screen, and he comes to realise he is the only one in the building.
But this is not what the game is about. This simple mod, with few unique textures from its Half-Life 2 starting point, is really about you, and the choices you make throughout the mod which takes no more than ten minutes to complete. If you follow the instructions of the narrator, you get a satisfactory ending where Stanley walks outside and is free, all because he took the correct path, thanks to the Narrator. See, on the “correct path”, you act as the narrator says Stanley is to act. You even reach a point in the deserted managers office where a safe is on the wall; a safe which you have no idea how to open until the narrator says something to the effect of “Of course, unbeknownst to Stanley, the code to the safe was 9-3-6-4, a code which Stanley had no hope of ever guessing”. But of course, because the narrator tells you this, you enter the code, leading to a secret wall opening and the Narrator in apparent surprise saying “But against all odds, Stanley guessed the code correctly!” This scene may not sound like to big a deal, but it does raise some questions about gaming, which I’ll get to shortly.
There is a “correct ending”, but there are also several others. Rather than shutting down the machine that monitors and controls the workers, you could take control, at which point the narrator decides to blow up Stanley, annoyed that Stanley has chosen to rebel against his fate and the narrative. You can disobey at the very first of the narrators “instructions”, going through a blue door instead of the destined red door, causing the Narrator to start talking directly to the player in annoyance, questioning why the player is so insistant on going against the narrative he has crafted for Stanley. This leads to Stanley discovering an untextured room; a simple cube, at which the Narrator tells Stanley/the player that it is their own fault they ended up here after trying to hard to disobey the rules of the game; even warping Stanley to the opening setting of Half-Life 2 (with all NPC’s removed), which after Stanley escapes from, leads to another ending, an ending in which the Narrator questions whether the rebellion was really worth it. He had, after all, served up a lovely little story about a man in an Orwellian nightmare (not you Zombie Orwell) escaping his bonds, but you, the player, decided you didn’t want to see that and sought to escape the confines of the narration.
The office of a man named Stanley? Or the prison we lock ourselves into every time we put a game on?
You see the irony? In one scenario, Stanley himself escapes a certain linear fate, but in the other, it is the player who escapes a certain linear fate; following the narration, pressing buttons and entering commands until the desired result is reached, much like Stanley originally did before escaping himself.
But further, isn’t the second ending also a linear path itself? Did not Davey Wreden himself anticipate the players rebellion, and thus give them the ending they sought? One which felt like a rebellion against traditional linear game design?
The Stanley Parable has more endings than this, and later, I plan on seeing them all, but these two encapsulate the main point of this “game”. It is supposed to make you question what the hell you are doing. Not just with this mod, but with all games. We are often given the illusion of choice, whether it be multiple paths through the Mass Effect series, or doing missions in whatever order you feel like in Grand Theft Auto. How you personally do this may vary ever so slightly; whether you’re good or evil in inFamous, or whether you favour the whip mutation over the blade in Prototype 2, but when push comes to shove, you are engaged in something futile for two major reasons.
1. Every action you take is anticipated by the developer. You are confined to a small world with a strict rule set which can not be broken despite illusions. You may choose to use these tools in different ways to other players but really…
2. …You will end up with the same fate as everyone else, or merely at one of several anticipated outcomes, each one as deliberately crafted as the others.
There is no escape from the Narrator, no matter what game it is or what form he takes. If you’re playing a traditional single player game right now that has both a beginning, and an ending, you’re doomed to your fate, whether it be positive or negative, whether it be one or many.
Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, where the Narrator is impotent and not the key player. Multiplayer focused games are an example. Does it matter to me that the AI Director and the writers at Valve are governing the world I inhabit in Left 4 Dead 2? No, because I feel that my fate lies in the hands of three other real life people whom I am playing the game with. Does it matter that the design of Forza Motorsport 4 or DiRT 3 provide circuit racing and not much more? No, because the timing/score is what matters, and I can make an impact via online leaderboards or multiplayer, my actions potentially influencing the motives of other players around the world to best me. It is in multiplayer games (or even just games that contain leaderboards) that we write our own destinies and make an impact. Even in Call of Duty multiplayer, you actions can affect fifteen other people and how they play the game.
Single player exceptions are limited, but I’ll name a few. Mostly games that allow creativity, like Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet, which while I don’t care too much for the latter does give players the opportunity to provide playgrounds for other players around the world, thus escaping the confines of any kind of narrative. Heck, you can even write your own. I remember Far Cry: Instincts on the original Xbox, with which I had fun not only playing online, but also making my own maps for people to play on. So no, not all games are mere rulebooks or linear narratives to trap a player in for a few hours in exchange for money. Some are competitions, some are canvases, some are exercises in communication and group thinking and co-operation. Anything else, where you do not have the ability to reach out, change the game world to your liking and allow the world to see the results, is nothing more than a multi-linear trek to an inevitable conclusion.
Now this may sound bad, perhaps, but I’ll explain why it isn’t always. Some of the best and most well loved games are linear treks through a world with a plot. Half-Life, Portal, Zelda, Mario, Uncharted, Killzone, Halo. These are about the journey, not the destination. They’re about how many stars you can find, or about the challenge of making your way through a room with a portal gun, or even just the spectacle of a vast temple or a destroyed City 17. Your path goes only so far to the left and the right, sure, but you’re still glad to be moving forward within.
So why has The Stanley Parable put me on edge?
The only thing I can think is it’s just something I haven’t thought of before. No matter which single player experience I dive into, I’m merely playing the same game in the same way as most people out there. Is this really any different to seeing the same movie as everyone else on DVD at home? My experience with a movie may differ from everyone else’s, and I may have different opinions or levels of enjoyment. I might even watch the film for entirely different reasons than everyone else, but I’ll still have seen the same film, just like I’ll still have played the same game, without interference or alteration by other players. So why should finishing Batman: Arkham City
give me any more satisfaction than watching Batman Begins or The Dark Knight? Before The Stanley Parable, I may well have been more satisfied, but now, I’m not sure.
Now I don’t want to sell the game short. It’s beautifully dark, well written, and with sixty years of Detective Comics behind it, contains a cast of brilliant villains and a great idea for a setting to put them in. The combat is satisfactory when done right, and there is no greater feeling than clearing a room of twelve armed goons armed with nothing but a belt full of mischief. The plot is not too bad, though seemed like it was trying to do too much, and thus not quite doing enough with any one key part. The main antagonist of the game seemed to change multiple times from Joker, to Penguin, to R’as Al Ghul, to Hugo Strange, quickly back to R’as, before deciding once again on the good old clown of crime. The main problems Batman faced seemed to just disappear; what happened to all those poisoned with the Titan/Joker virus? Were they cured in time? And whilst the setting of Arkham City is good on the surface, I felt like I was revisiting areas quite a lot. A whole city, and I end up in the same sewers twice? It got a lot higher rated than Batman: Arkham Asylum, and I’m not too sure I agree with such sentiments. The Asylum itself was a much better setting, and seemed, despite its open world nature, to have a more varied locale than a whole freaking city of inmates and goons. Major characters were squandered on very little. Two-Face was in for two minutes, Cat Woman simply at the beginning and the very end, and why was Harley Quinn tied up in the Sugar Mill upon your second visit? The game left me a little confused, and whilst I don’t need everything handed to me on a silver platter, the option to understand what the hell is going on would have been nice.
I’m still not sure how the Joker came to be the primary villain of the piece, or even if he ever was…
But despite a fair few criticisms, I’m giving Batman an (arbitrary) 8
. Why? After realising that this game meets the criteria of the pointless exercise in linear progress through a narrative that is slightly more inferior to movie and even comic counterparts? Why still so high a score? Because the experience was pretty fun. I enjoyed beating up some fools, the battle with Mr Freeze, and the Blood of the Demon section in particular. Not quite up to par with Arkham Asylum, but still fun. I guess this is still the point of these linear narrative single-player video games, just as it was thirty years ago; it isn’t about where you end up, but the journey there. (Here I come Mass Effect 3, to test that theory!). So in answer to my original question; has a mod ruined single-player games for me? No, but they're going to have to work a lot harder now that I've come to some rather simple realisations.
In backlog news, I am now tackling Forza 4 head-on, whilst also playing Battlefield: Bad Company on Xbox 360. Until next time!