Monday, May 7, 2018

The Stanley Parable and the Illusion of Choice in Video Games

A dive into the overarching structures of serial video games - a little more than just wielding a sword and shield.  ♦ 
Video games now, more than ever, use tag lines like “player choice”, “player driven”, or “customizable narrative” as major selling points. Buyers are tired of playing games exclusively where there is one concrete path set in front of them that they cannot deviate from. Linear-path games still occupy a large part of the market, but open world and nonlinear games have carved out their own sections of gamers. These games purport to be loaded with choice and options for the player, and while they technically are, the different routes provided are frequently superficial changes that bear little long-term effect, usually just changing the scenery instead of the path.
   One example of this is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The Witcher is a third person action RPG game released in 2015. It is about Geralt of Rivia and his quest to find his adopted daughter Ciri, set in a magical land inspired by Poland in the 1200s. The fastest speedrun of the current patch of the game is listed at three hours, eighteen minutes and thirty-two seconds on I have personally put in over one hundred hours and still have not seen all the game has to offer. The game has hundreds, if not thousands, of dialogue prompts, but each time an option is chosen, it usually only effects the next line of dialogue, then it reverts back to the standard script. The majority of choices a player can make during a dialogue tree are usually whether or not the player will kill the character they are talking to at the end of the conversation. Furthermore, the killing or sparing of that person does not change anything for your benefit or detriment later in the story. Now, there are a few opportunities that do effect things later down the line, however these change the “world” outcomes, and, subsequently, do not actually make a difference in the main quest. The variables the character can enact their agency upon are which of two potential partners Geralt ends up with, or if he stays single, and which of three factions rules the area that the game takes place in. The interesting thing about these decisions is that their effects cannot be immediately felt, and there is not a 1:1 relationship between cause and effect. There are multiple opportunities that all are part of an algorithm which determines how the final “world” ends up, and they play out later in the game so that the player cannot change their mind without losing a lot of progress and go back to swap a decision by switching to an earlier save. Additionally, if you imported a save from The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, decisions made in that game can effect the “world” in the sequel. However, no matter what decisions you make, the enemy is vanquished in the end. There is no “fail state.”
   The underlying issue with choice or the illusion of it in The Witcher is that the path taken can essentially be boiled down to getting from point A to B. How the player gets there and the scenery or surroundings on the way may be slightly different, but the player always ends up in the same place. This usually isn’t a huge issue on the first playthrough, but on subsequent playthroughs, the experience can feel hollow and cheapened when the player comes to the realization that almost nothing they did actually mattered.
   Enter The Stanley Parable. The Stanley Parable is a first person interactive fiction game. Many games in the interactive fiction genre are evolutions of text based games, with little to no player skill required. The Stanley Parable mostly follows suit, but instead of clicking on or typing options, the player walks to them or presses buttons in the actual game world. The interactive fiction genre is one that focuses more heavily on narrative than any other. Stanley has a job pressing buttons on a keyboard when sent instructions through his computer. One day, no instructions come and he finds that all of his coworkers have vanished as well. Stanley resolves to get to the bottom of this by exploring his building more. Then the player takes control. This game has a myriad of game altering decisions. With a handful of exceptions, each choice locks the player out of half of the remaining endings.
All hidden easter eggs and paths within the Stanley Parable.
   Each binary choice leads to another choice until it leads to an ending. This makes each choice matter immensely, but only immediately. There is no opportunity for the compounding of prior choices to affect a change in the story path. Also, the game is quite short, so there is really no such thing as a long term effect. A full run of the game can be completed in under five minutes. One can experience all the content that the game has to offer in as little as two hours. This is partially because, since there are so many branches, and each branch requires scripting (of events and lines), voice acting, terrain creation, and, in this game, easter eggs, and all of these things take time, energy, and usually, money, that as the game gets more and more branches, and it becomes “wider” in terms of path, it often becomes shorter lengthwise. Because the game is so short, and the choices so black and white, it becomes obvious how to achieve each ending, and while that gives the player more agency to get the ending he or she wants, it makes getting each ending feel see through and worthless, as it is a simple matter of going through the choices like A,A,A; A,A,B; A,B,A; A,B,B; and so forth, until all endings are achieved.
   Another problem that the game runs into is that if the player has played the game before or is familiar with its format, the game loses almost all novelty and mystique. The game was designed as a criticism of narrative structure and player choice in games, and while it does succeed at this, it also falls victim to some of the tropes it is critiquing. The game has a narrator that dictates to the player, through Stanley, what Stanley is about to do, but frequently, the player may choose to do something other than what the narrator states. However, this ability is never directly communicated to the player, they must discover it for themselves. Once the players knows that they are free to disobey the narrator, the choice to continue to do so seems less significant every time.
   Ultimately, though both games took different routes to try to allow players to have an impact on the game world, they both have their successes and shortcomings. Both show great promise, however, in the outlook for the future of the video game entertainment industry.
  • About the Author
    August Lorei is a sophomore Creative Writing major and Digital Game Studies minor at Miami University from Wynnewood, PA. In addition to reading and writing fiction, he enjoys magnets, milk steak, funny little green ghouls and dislikes people's knees.

    Share this article :


    Post a Comment