An important note: If you have not yet played The Stanley Parable, I strongly suggest that you download it and do so before going any farther.
One of the big things that we were told back in those early days of interactive storytelling was that now the Author was truly dead. It was the Reader who had control of the story now, which even lead to some academics using the absolutely awful portmanteau of wreader in order to illustrate the new relationship. It was no longer Author and Reader, it was some shambling combination of the two that is able to create truly unique experiences. Since then, there have been an awful lot of games claiming to give the player control over the story, but there’s always the nagging sense that you’re not really being given real control over the story beyond a few arbitrary points—and this is the case even for games that I have and will continue to praise for their storytelling (see: almost any Bioware release, especially Planescape: Torment.).
Then last weekend I sat down and played The Stanley Parable, the Half Life 2 mod that was released a few weeks ago to almost universal delight. Like every other game promising a narrative, there’s an illusion of player agency—you can go wherever you want to, and the game will allow it, and that decision becomes part of the story. The difference is that >The Stanley Parable has an ending in mind for the player from the beginning, and the narrator (who sounds somewhat like the union of Stephen Fry and the narrator from A Series of Unfortunate Events) has absolutely no problem with letting you know when you’ve deviated from his plan. There is an ending that the narrator wants you to play to, and his narration is a way of insisting upon the player’s cooperation.