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Review: The Stanley Parable

Given the extremely recent news that it sold 1 million copies in the last year, I figured I’d go ahead and throw out my brief review of The Stanley Parable.

Game: The Stanley Parable
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score:
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Choose Your Own Adventure games, experimental indie titles

I see what you're doing here.

I see what you’re doing here.

The Stanley Parable is a visual Choose Your Own Adventure tech demo that extremely briefly examines the nature of narrative choice in video games. The “game” consists of moving around in the first-person and exploring an office building while a narrator details all the things you are doing, Bastion-style. The meat of the gameplay consists of getting to one of the endings (sometimes taking as little as 5-7 minutes) and then doing something different on the next play-through.

And… that’s about it. While the concept itself is novel, and some of the meta-humor actually relevant/damning, there isn’t really anything resembling a game here at all. The entirety of the “parable” could have just as well been summed up in a single blog post, but I suppose that would have meant forgoing the opportunity to charge $15 for the privilege of hearing it.

Nevertheless, I do recommend keeping an eye out for when The Stanley Parable appears in one of the many gaming bundles. I might not be willing to put a dollar price on this experience, but it does add value to whatever the overall bundle you might be looking at. So… take that for what you will.

Wrong Choices

Ghostcrawler tweeted the sort of thing I’m sure sends “real” MMO players into howling fits:

“No,actually,there is not a wrong choice.Wether we(players) buy new items OR upgrade old ones should be our decision,not DEV’s.”
Giving players the ability to make choices with wrong answers doesn’t make players happy overall. (Source)

Choices having bad consequences is the best (only?) way to make a decision matter, as the argument goes. However, this quote got me thinking: do such players actually enjoy being able to make the wrong choice, or is it simply that the bad choice existing (which they did not pick) validates their good decision? Or put another way, who really likes making bad decisions?

I understand that the demonstration of skill necessitates there being wrong choices. Demonstrating skill, or improvement thereof, is fun. At the same time, the Mass Effect series (for example) was fun to play even though there weren’t any “wrong choices” (provided you weren’t specifically looking for X result).

There is only ever one correct answer to the questions of “which does the most DPS” or “what is the most efficient use of resources.” Ergo, is there actually any real decision to be made when one is correct and the other(s) not? I suppose the fun is supposed to be the result of figuring out which one is which, but that sort of clashes with the mockery and disdain frequently attributed to those who don’t look up the correct decision from the Wiki/EJ. Compare that to the question of “which transmog set is the best?”

I do not believe that there has to be a wrong choice in order for choices to be meaningful generally. We make identity choices every day – what type of person do I want to be, what do I believe in? – and I do not think that anyone would suggest that those choices are either irrelevant or have wrong answers (well… no one with any sort of self-reflection). And while I am willing to concede gameplay being under the (broad) umbrella of choice, e.g. one makes a wrong choice by pressing 11342 instead of 11324, I consider there to be a distinction between executing a rotation under pressure versus avoiding falling into a designer trap. One has its place as a legitimate test of skill, and the other is simply you winning via a few mouse clicks several months ago.

Role Playing

One of the most meaningful quests I have ever completed in World of Warcraft actually occurred in Cataclysm. It was called “A Bird in Hand.” Ostensively, it was just another boring, linear quest in a string of half-hearted attempts to spice up the killing of X mobs. Then came this part:

Originally, I pummeled her repeatedly for the sheer novelty of it.

For those unfamiliar, the quest asks you to choose between roughing up the harpy or simply yelling at her. You can mix and match a bit, or you can continue to pummel the harpy until she eventually tells you everything she knows. At the end of this dialog “tree,” you have the option of either letting the harpy go, or having the NPC slit the harpy’s throat. Which options you pick is entirely irrelevant to the game. No future NPC references your actions in any way, the rewards are the same, each option takes an equal amount of effort.

And it was, in all seriousness, one of the best moments in WoW questing.

Because it was not until that moment that Azuriel the draenei paladin was anything other than a mere user interface element. The quest forced me, as a player, to step back and ask myself a question that was never hitherto asked: is your avatar you? What would Azuriel do? And what I found in answering that question was a hidden depth to the game, an unburied black monolith that was full of stars.

Of course, then the quest is over, the fever-dream passed.

So allow me to disagree with anyone who has suggested that the choices in SWTOR are dumb, meaningless, a waste of time. The fact that every Trooper has the same general story as any other Trooper is irrelevant. The biggest success of SWTOR – regardless of what happens in the future – is NOT necessarily voices and deeper narratives, it is that the game represents one of the biggest moves into mainstreaming the RP in the MMORPG that I have seen in years, perhaps ever.

When I played through Deus Ex, or Fallout, or any typical single-player game, the main character was a stand-in for me. What would I do, as a cybernetic super-solider? How did I feel about letting bandits go? What would I say in the ridiculous, impossible situation so far removed from my own life? I don’t know whether it is the first-person perspective of those games or their overall structure, but I do feel different when it comes to MMOs, and my time with the SWTOR beta specifically.

It is one thing to get someone to put themselves into a game, and quite another to get them to bring a character to life and imagine what this entity separate from themselves would do. Mainstreaming the mechanics of empathy, making it fun? That is some Nobel Peace Prize shit going on. And I am only half-joking.

“Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”
-Jackson Browne

Having our game decisions result in discrete consequences makes for a better simulation, yes. Then again, in the real world the decisions we make when the consequences are irrelevant or unknowable is a definitive aspect of one’s character. If you helped an old lady cross the street, and she got hit by a car a block later, was your original decision truly meaningless? Are consequences the only arbiter of morality? Is intention irrelevant? You tell me.

All I know is on that soot-filled day in the burning mountains of Hyjal, skin caked with sweat and the still-warm blood of ten harpies, the paladin Azuriel beat Marion Wormring to within an inch of her life. To an inch… and no farther. For in that one, singular moment did Azuriel have a choice: the choice to walk away. And so… she did.

Massive Effect

Having completed Torchlight, I decided to move onward to Mass Effect. Why not Skyrim, which is literally burning a hole through my Steam library? As Liam O’Brian might say, the status of my preparations is in doubt. I prefer one meaty title with a helping of indie garnish along the side – with something like Skyrim, I’m getting the impression that I’ll still be eating turkey sandwiches for months later.

About 5 hours into Mass Effect, all I can say is holy shit.

One of the most groundbreaking things occurred in the city after the first “dungeon.” In talking with a receptionist to the Consort, she winked at me.

The Winking Lady of Mass Effect

She also said that, but nevermind.

My incredulity may sound facetious, but I am actually very, very impressed.

See, I have been thinking about the problems with storytelling in videogames for quite some time. How is one supposed to convey subtle nuance in a game? In purely written works, it is somewhat easy to evoke the emotion you want to get across, provided you massage the language a bit. For example, consider the following:

‘Look, I can explain,’ he said.

Lord Vetinari lifted an eyebrow with the care of one who, having found a piece of caterpillar in his salad, raises the rest of the lettuce.

How could someone ever translate that in game form? Nevermind Vetinari’s specific sentiment here, think generally: there is an entire genus of expression that the format is preventing designers from expressing.

Games have some pretty unique qualities that cannot be replicated by other mediums too – Far Cry 2’s plot wouldn’t work without player interaction – but many times it feels as though designers simply give up. Game narratives are written in the language of action because of these restrictions on expression. Why are we always killing 10 [%local_wildlife]? Or killing everything, period? Well, how else are you supposed to convey conflict when reduced to crude avatars with clubs? Even though all games have access to written dialog, at some level we do expect everything to be translated into the language of action. And until the last few years, it was functionally impossible to express more than a rudimentary emotional gesture anyway.

There are pitfalls too, of course. Blink during the wink, and you’ll have missed it. Or, hell, focus on the subtitles and miss it too. It is also arguable about whether games should try and be more like the other mediums, instead of focusing on its own unique strengths.

To that last charge, I say “Watch that scene in FF7 again.” Pay close attention at 1:19. More than the murder itself, it was Sephiroth’s smirk that drove home how irredeemably evil the man was. Without the CG movie we would never have saw it; calling attention to smirk in-game via text would have ruined its subtle gravity. While story can certainly be a crutch to prop up forgettable gameplay, story can also be a pole that vaults a game into the classics.

So, Mass Effect, you have my full attention. I just hope you do a little more winking a little less of this:

Decisions, decisions.

Choosing to Miss the Point

The unofficial blogging theme of the week is Choice, and while I was not going to comment on it, the sheer force of a thousand bloggers missing the point simultaneously slowed the rotation of the Earth enough to make it necessary. So allow me to clear up a few things.

1) You cannot have “meaningful” narrative choice in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

In case you need a reminder, we are talking about Massively Multiplayer Online games here. Assuming “meaningful” choices existed, who is going to be making them? You? Or the ten thousand other players on your server? You cannot all be making meaningful choices pretty much by definition. Remember the Siege of Undercity? No you don’t. The Siege was completed by Arthasdklol hours before you logged on. If you solve the Arthasdklol situation by instancing everything out, at what point does A) the choices cease to remain meaningful, and B) the game ceases to be an MMO?

The lack of “meaningful” (narrative) choices in MMOs is not a bug, it’s an essential feature.

“What about MMOs like EVE?” I hear you cry. Obviously Sandbox content is a bit different than designer-created narrative content. But it is important to not get too pedantic with pitting player-generated stories against a coherent narrative, the latter of which is what everyone is talking about when they speak about choices anyway. If the headlined EVE scams and interstellar drama is put on a pedestal, why is WoW intra-guild drama not similarly enshrined? Heard that Dragonwrath legendary story yet? If EVE has “meaningful” choices due to nullsec shenanigans, then so does every social game. Which begs the question of whether these “meaningful” choices only exist in the context of social interaction. In other words, the game proper has nothing to do with it. Maybe Game A creates better incentives than Game B for social interaction, but just because you build it, does not mean the horses will drink. Or something.

2) You cannot have “true” failure in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

Raise your hand if you have ever failed an escort quest in an MMO. Now keep your hand raised if you think escort quests get any more interesting or fun if the person you are escorting permanently dies and you can never retake the quest again. If you still have your hand raised, lower it if the reason is because you hate escort quests with a passion and wish you could kill the dumbass you are escorting yourself, for running headlong into unnecessary mobs or how they move with the speed of a narcoleptic 3-toed Sloth that missed it’s insulin injection.

The people with their hands still raised should use it to slap themselves in the face for being a liar. Didn’t your mother raise you better?

The type of “failure” frequently enshrined by these bloggers is the sort of failure that results in a Game Over screen in single-player games. And the difference between reloading your last save after a Game Over and abandoning a failed quest and retaking it is… what? That’s right, there is not a damn single difference. Too Damn Epic asserts:

What happens, though, when your games are rigged so that you can’t lose?  That’s the underlying problem in most MMOs.  You can’t lose.  They’re jury-rigged for success, and as Gandhi said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Tweak that a bit for our purposes, and you get:

“Choices are not worth having if they do not include the option to make mistakes.”

[…] After all, in WOW, you can’t really make mistakes.  You can undo talent trees.  You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you “win”.  You don’t lose anything in PvP.  In an effort to make games more accessible and retain subscribers, we’ve lost the capacity to fail – and in the process – lost the capacity to produce meaningful choices.

“You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you ‘win.'” Err… so you are saying that you can fail until you succeed? Just like in any game ever made? Maybe there is a serious psychological difference between re-taking a quest and hitting F9 that I am not picking up on. Or perhaps the failure scale these individuals use have only two pegs: Faceroll and Battletoads. And as someone who actually played Battletoads on the NES back in the day, the game did not get more fun when you spent four hours memorizing all the walls in the racing level and the pitfalls in the tube level only to die in the snake level and have to redo everything all over again. That sort of designer bullshit has exactly one function: to turn a five-hour game into a 40 hour nightmare.

The bottom line here is that MMOs having a permanent failure state is actually a worse penalty than any single-player game, with the exception of Russian Roulette. Once you accept that a permanent failure is off the table, we are really quibbling over the length of player time to hold hostage. And honestly, I want to meet the Carebears who look at PvP and say nothing is lost when you get thoroughly owned by a Frost mage that is now teabagging your corpse. Somehow -1 Dignity and +1 Blood Pressure never evened out, in my experience.

3) What is “meaningful” choice anyway?

I have put “meaningful” in scare quotes every since I read SynCaine’s post on choices, and based on the example he used, I think everyone should as well:

A game like Dragon Age is full of ‘fake choice’, where every quest seems to have multiple solutions, but the end result is just different loot or some placeholder NPC switching up one line with another. Not that it really mattered in DA, the game was still fun and its story was good-enough to see it to the end. I’d just never put it anywhere near The Witcher in terms of moral choices and tough decisions.

Err… did we play the same Dragon Age? Assuming you beat DA and/or don’t mind 100% spoilers, just casually glance at the Epilogue Wiki page. Perhaps his point was that epilogue slides are just “switching up one line with another?”  I have not played The Witcher myself although I own both 1 & 2 on Steam (SynCaine must have just missed the deal a few months ago), so I cannot compare the two. What I will do is make a wild assumption that what choices The Witcher does offer the player does not come in the form of mutually exclusive content, which appears to be the gold standard of “choice.” If the Witcher does have mutually exclusive content, it will be in the radical minority of games.

I am making a point of this not just because what is “meaningful” is subjective, but also because I think this usage of choice is dumb. Flavor choices are inexplicably dismissed as shallow or meaningless by bloggers, when they are absolutely critical in developing an identity, or affinity to your character or the narrative as a whole. Planescape: Torment is brought up a lot as the pinnacle of storytelling, for example, but how much “real choice” does Planescape actually have in comparison to, say, Dragon Age? Very little. The brilliance of Planescape came from the depth of the “meaningless flavor choices” (all 800,000 words of them) which otherwise pulls you into the narrative in the wholly unique way that only video games can.

Besides, if you believe flavor choices are meaningless or have no consequences and therefore are not choices, how do you explain the apparent success of the F2P cash shop model? Or the likely fact you have things hanging up on your wall right now that you paid for and yet have nothing to do with the structural integrity of your domicile?

Individual expression is, indeed, the most interesting choice you can make despite – or perhaps in spite of – the likely fact that no one else cares.