Stan, Stan, the Narrative Man

Finally got the opportunity to play around with The Stanley Parable last night, now that I’m glorying in the possibilities of having Windows installed on my MacBook (although, of course, Rage etc. here I don’t come!) I think “play around” is probably the wrong phrasing, though, it’s not at all a playful experience on the part of the “player”, perhaps more so for the creator(s) while they were creating it.

So the basic structure of Stanley is a very standard issue branching narrative. You can do X or Y and then things happen based on that. I think the deepest branching is perhaps a sequence of 3 binary choices and in the end there are 6 possible endings you could see based on your choices. In that way, it’s like every other “multiple endings” game – which is to say, pretty uninteresting from the perspective of choice.

The cute trick, though, is that Stanley is actually about precisely that. It’s all very post-modern, with a narrator telling the story as you go along and reacting to your choices as if they were correct or incorrect according to some “proper” narrative of the game. It’s really quite charming and you can tell that the people behind the game enjoyed coming up with the stories, particularly those that diverge from the “proper” line.

Ultimately I have to say I was disappointed in the experience, though. Stanley proudly takes on a risky proposition: make a game-like experience about something that we all know kind of sucks about games, the constrained and artificial choices we’re allowed to make relative to the narrative. The problem, of course, is that the constrained and artificial choices still suck, whether you’re being funny and knowing about them or not. As an interactive experience, then, Stanley doesn’t work out.

It reminds me of those “wouldn’t it be funny if” ideas we all have from time to time. Since I’m watching Bond films at the moment, a classic is the “wouldn’t it be funny if the laser actually did cut him in half now, and the movie just ended?” Well, yes and no. It’s funny to think about, but I’m sceptical that we’d actually find it as interesting in the experiencing of it. Quirks are often a nice idea, but don’t really hold up when you start resting the weight of experience on them.

I say all this with some sympathy, because I really do like the project of exploring “negative” experiences in games as a way to point something out about their nature. After all, I’m currently engaged in producing a game about enforced queuing, so it’s not like I’m pursuing exciting new options for engagement. The problem with these explorations isn’t so much that they’re not nice in theory, it’s just that they’re in grave danger of being deeply unsatisfactory in practice.

In the end, I turned off Stanley without feeling much beyond “cute”. That’s good, but we can do better, and the producers of Stanley definitely have the talent to push beyond cute.

29 August 2011
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