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.
The game’s insistence on a “good ending,” so to speak, brings to mind any number of games with multiple endings, which when those games get sequels the player generally decides to go with. It is very rare (Bioware’s games notwithstanding) for a sequel to allow the player to decide just what happened in the previous game. This is also true of novelizations of games — for example, Bioware’s decision to wrap up the original Knights of the Old Republic storylines in the novel Revan means that all the decisions that players made in their personal playthroughs are now moot. The Old Republic is based on whatever canonical version of the character Revan that Bioware’s writers had in mind, so that it matters little that I played Revan as a female follower of the Dark Side and spared some party members while killing others. There is an “official” way to play the game, which the author of the game’s narrative — not the player — decided. You can, of course, still play Revan as a woman, just don’t expect your exploits to mean anything to the world of The Old Republic. Get used to the redeemed male Revan with the tragic romance with Bastila, everyone, because the author isn’t dead at all.
The Stanley Parable embraces this idea, and in many ways, it serves a mocking reminder to the player (quite openly mocking at some points) that any interactive entertainment is not the player’s; it is the developer’s. It is the Author’s with a capital A. If you, as Stanley, attempt to take real control of the game’s machine, the narrator sets off a self-destruct from which there is no escape and provides no real ending to the game. A timer appears and slowly counts down while the narrator mocks you for being unable to escape. There’s nothing to do but to quit the game — the only way to assert your control over the narrative is to refuse to participate in it.
It is a game specifically tailored as a response to those who stubbornly resist setpieces in games, and it is there specifically to say that even though you may take pride in ignoring the story, you’re still in the developer’s world and they’ve still got the upper hand. There is a particular ending where the player is rescued (briefly) by a competing narrator, who begs you to quit the game before Stanley is killed. I did not quit, because like everyone else who plays video games with narrative aspirations, I assumed there was a way out that would allow me to”‘win” the game and “defeat” the narrator. But there is no such way, and even by winning the game (by “defeating” the narrator), I would still be playing someone else’s story. There is no freedom in narrative games, The Stanley Parable says, and anyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves. The only way to break free of the narrator’s control is to pull the plug.
Ironically, if you do follow the narrator’s desired plan, if you follow the story as the narrator wishes to tell it, you are rewarded with a tale of a man who realizes one day he has been controlled by a machine. He shuts the machine down and escapes into a life where he is no longer under that control, and at this point, the player can no longer control Stanley. You are treated to a cutscene of Stanley’s view as he walks out to presumably start a new life free of control, except that the narrator is still controlling him. This fact would not be so nettlesome (after all, it is the case with all stories that no character is ever free of the author) if not for the fact that it were so blatantly broadcasted to you all throughout the game.
The Stanley Parable raises the question of whether or not freedom is really all that important in a game narrative. If the story is good, does it matter that you played no real role in getting to the end beyond pushing the buttons that you were told to push at the proper times and in the proper order? It raises the question of why players are attracted to games with narratives and seems to explain as well why games such as the Call of Duty series have such strictly scripted single-player campaigns. The story is so important, these games are saying, that you shouldn’t even really worry about shooting anyone — just watch all the pretty stuff happen around you. Let your squad make the kills. Let the narrator tell you where to go and what to think about the things that are happening around you. Enjoy the experience, but don’t think for a moment that you played an important role in it.
It’s an uncomfortable train of thought because we want to believe that there is a freedom in games that is not in other stories, but in reality, it is only the freedom to fail to tell the story, either by dying and having to start over or by quitting and not playing anymore. The question is whether or not you are okay with that, and in all honesty, you should be. It’s how almost every other kind of storytelling has worked since the beginning. If you want freedom, The Stanley Parable indicates, you need to turn off your machine and walk outside.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.