Top Ten: Questions from The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is one of the most terrifying games to come out this year. There: I said it. This game gives me the oogies, and it does it without so much as a monster, or many of the other things that could define a video game. The Stanley Parable sits in its own genre as a game that forces players to ask what exactly “video game” means. It is a work of criticism that turns a mirror on the industry in many the same ways that famous books have criticized the state of writing or the ideas in fiction.
I have a college degree and I’m pretty stuck-up, so I consider myself to be an intellectual. This makes me probably extremely qualified to discuss the questions The Stanley Parable poses and how it goes about posing them.
Below are the top ten questions derived from a game that claims to have no meaning.
What’s the deal with moral choice systems?
Game critics the world over can tell you why moral choice systems are essentially pointless, or at best uncreative content multipliers. Despite how often these have shown up in games, choosing between good and evil is actually pretty simple, unless the options are presented vaguely, in which case you’re just guessing.
Besides being a way to make players beat a game twice, moral choice systems contain several fundamental flaws. By changing the game’s content, the player is actually choosing an option based on something other than morality. If the player wants a specific ending, or item, or power-up, then the player is making choices based on a “build” for a character. Morality in this case is no different from a WoW skill tree.
So maybe these forced choice systems between obvious good and obvious evil hold no weight. What about the other choices you can make in games?
Can you even make choices in games?
In The Stanley Parable the only gameplay is walking with no stated objective. Above is the first “choice,” when the player gets to make a decision. This is the entire game in a nut shell. So what do you do? The doors are identical expect for one very important piece of information: The Narrator said you go through the door on your left. Suddenly, the doors have value. So do you follow directions or rebel? Can you trust the Narrator or is he trying to trick you?
What if suddenly there’s three doors? Or they’re different colors? Or instead of doors it’s buttons?
No matter what you pick, are you really making any kind of meaningful decision? Video games, by design, are scripted universes. Left or right, our choices are limited to the options we’re allowed to consider. This is why there are so many locked doors in the Stanley universe, but you can only go through two. Choice is different from freedom or control.
Silent protagonists? Really?
That last section was pretty heavy, so let’s take a moment to consider that Gordon Freeman would have been completely unable to navigate the world of Half-life had he encountered one of these:
The silent protagonist is used to fulfill two key functions. First, it means studios can save on a voice actor. Last, and most importantly, the silent protagonist enables the player to impose themselves into the story as the personality-void character. This concept is called “tabula rasa,” literally blank slate, and it’s been used to sell adventure to the adventureless for decades.
The simple gag with the voice receiver up there emphasizes that silent protagonists are impractical at this point in gaming history. So, stop it, I suppose.
Why do you play games?
I have no idea how many endings the Stanley Parable has in total, but I can tell you that the first one I found was from following all of the directions just for the hell of it. What I got was a ten-minute story that left me feeling unfulfilled. Sure, I “beat the game,” or at least I was told I had, but so what? I hadn’t done anything. I hadn’t made my own decisions. I was just following directions.
Obviously, the point of a game is to have fun, so the Stanley Parable asks us what exactly that means. Are you having fun if you’re just following directions, moving from objective marker to objective marker, pressing buttons at the right time? GTAV comes to mind when addressing this idea, because for all its open-world freedom, those missions sure do force you to follow directions to the letter, you hardened outlaws.
What if you don’t follow those objectives?
Yeah, fight the powah!
Well then you don’t beat the game, do you? If we put skill aside for a moment (and most games seem to do that now anyways, right Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs?) then the player’s only real choice is to follow orders or put the game down. Without the objectives there’s nothing. Even in scenarios that give the player options, such as moral choices again, or perhaps whether you decide to be stealthy or Rambo when clearing a room, the effects are just superficial.
On a deconstructed level, the purpose of a videogame is, apparently, to follow directions to receive a reward. Straight Pavlov.
Is that really all there is to a video game?
No, of course not. Not anymore. Here, take a look at The Stanley Parable’s opening:
Stanley sits in a room pressing buttons. He presses the buttons he is told to press, in the order he is told, for the duration of time he is told. If the player and Stanley are interchangeable, then wouldn’t that mean that playing a video game is no different from Stanley’s job? When playing the game, or any game, are you not simply pressing the correct buttons for the correct duration when prompted? Maybe this is all there is to a video game:
Why do you deal with boring repetition?
So are you having fun, playing your button presses? Video games really can be more work than play when you think about it. How often is a game less of a challenge and more of a grind? Just consider all of the games incorporating RPG elements. Boy, that late game content sure looks fun, but first you need to play for 20 hours.
You clear the maps, or you beat the bosses, or you collect items for the quests, over and over, but are you being challenged? How do you know? Is it because you can kill the monsters you couldn’t kill before?
That’s not fun! That’s work! You’re not being challenged, you’re just earning the right to do this work that you had been restricted from before!
Why am I doing this?
I will forever stand by the notion that The Stanley Parable is the closest approximation to video game Hell. As I played, I often asked myself why I was playing. After all, it was obvious that I was openly frustrated and I was vocally repeating “why?” to an uncaring computer monitor.
As I sat there, I realized that all I was doing was pressing buttons when prompted, all for the sake of a narrator who was openly mocking me. In a way, it’s like I was being bullied, and yet I pressed on, looking for a way to defeat or out-think a disembodied voice in its own universe. I searched for reason. I searched for a way out. I prayed that once I found the answer, I would remember why I ever started playing video games.
Why hasn’t everyone quit video games forever?
Desperately searching for meaning in a meaningless universe, I attempted and re-attempted as many endings as I could find, hoping that one of them would lead me to salvation. I wanted to beat the narrator at his own game, literally. I would slay God by walking.
And I realized something important in that hopeless endeavor. Believe it or not, frustration or not, I was having fun. The thought of finding something impossible drove me, and until I was sure my goal was impossible I was excitedly starting over time and again. And when I was satisfied, I turned the game off.
So what had I forgotten? Thinking about it now, I know exactly what, and it’s probably the most crucial part of gaming: players make their own goals. Maybe we’ve forgotten that recently, what with all the gimmicks and distractions in games today. I mean, here’s a whole article about the social features of Destiny: http://www.6aming.com/destiny-vehicle-customization-weapons-social-features/
So maybe games look bad when taken out of context, but so does literally everything. Eating is shoving organic material into your body so you live. Sleeping is choosing to become unconscious for several hours. Yes, gaming is just prompted button pushing, but the function isn’t as important as the meaning. As sentient life forms, we get to decide why we push buttons. We decide what’s worth our time. We create meaning, not the game, and we decide when that meaning is enough for us. Even in the shadow of an omnipotent, disembodied jerk we can still stop playing however and whenever we so choose. Just as we need structure in our games in order to play them, the game needs us in order to hold any meaning at all.
Also, where are all the realistic clock physics?
Seriously, game devs. Every clock in The Stanley Parable keeps perfect time. Whenever I see a clock in a game that’s not moving realistically it bugs me so much. I mean look, this one’s even going backwards:
That’s just showing off. From now on, every game needs to have realistic clocks. If you take one message from The Stanley Parable, let it be that.