Not all video games are the same. That is fairly obvious, but I believe it’s worth stating more than ever in the wake of a new sort of video game that has been cropping up in independent circles. These types of games are ones that some describe as “walking simulators”, because they lack combat and most of them do not possess the same sort of puzzle mechanics present in others. Most of these games are about walking through a world, exploring it and experiencing the story that unfolds as a result. This style of game has been met with some derision, which is understandable. If the game simply has a few points where you interact and allow the story to unfold, it can feel a bit dull to the player due to the lack of interactivity. After all, video games can have an impact as a storytelling medium due to the interactivity between game and player. There are some “walking simulators” that do find interesting methods of engaging with their audience. One such game is The Stanley Parable, which plays around with the clash between creator intent and audience play style to create a fun experience
Stanley is a man who has spent is days working in an office, day in and day out, blindly following the instructions that are sent down to him from his boss. One day, as he sits in front of his computer, it begins to feel like hours pass when he realizes that he hasn’t received any orders on what buttons to press on his keyboard. Curious, he steps out of his tiny office to find that all of his coworkers have seemingly disappeared. Perplexed by this development, he journeys on through the office, looking for any signs of life. Eventually, he finds himself in front of two doors. Now, the narrator of this game (and the man who seemingly crafted its narrative) says that Stanley heads through the left door, thinking his coworkers might have gone to the meeting room. However, what would happen if Stanley were to go through the door on his right? Thus begins a game that explores a creator’s intentions versus a player’s reactions.
Now, the initial sound of this would probably seem pretentious to some. A debate and examination of the interplay between a video game’s creator and its player, with the central gameplay element being walking around with the occasional pressing of a button. It seems like the fodder of an independent game developer who might value his ideas and the process more than the result. However, the game averts its pretensions thanks to its sharp humor and clever realization of its premise. As you play, the narrator is constantly telling the story of Stanley and his investigation. However, he tells more than that. If you dare to veer from his specifically-planned story, he will react to it. He’ll try to be gentle at first, nudging you back to the main path with suggested avenues to get there. As you continue to go follow your own choices, he grows increasingly frustrated with your refusal to obey. He even grows petulant and snarky, insulting your gameplay and intelligence as he touts his own game as a work of genius. Though he may occasionally try to offer more familiar game ideas or pontificate on the nature of video games and storytelling, he ultimately sees himself as above the player thanks to his having made the game and planned out a great narrative for it with the expectation that you’ll follow it. However, he doesn’t seem to realize something: this game is great because of how the player can play with it, regardless of his intentions.
Though video games are a storytelling medium like any other, they differ from the others thanks to their inherently active interaction with their audience. What this also means is that a player will come into a game with their own play style and their own way of interacting with the video game. Take, for example, a sandbox action game like Grand Theft Auto or an adventure game like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Some players may want to just focus on the core story, keeping their eye on the narrative and the central characters. Other players may want to instead explore the world, taking part in side missions or quests as they learn more about the world and its inhabitants. It doesn’t matter how they play, what matters is how they are reacting to it. They can find themselves falling in love with the world and appreciating all the little details that go into it, or they may grow attached to the main story and be engaged by its beats and ideas. Either way, they are engaging with the game and its ultimate impact arises from that mixture of what the game offers and what the player puts into it. This is what The Stanley Parable illustrates so well: no matter the choices you pick, no matter how much you choose to deviate from the narrator’s planned story, the path you take is one that stems from what you pour into it just as much as you take from it.
If you want to play the game yourself and see what turns your story will take (despite any frustrations from the narrator), The Stanley Parable is available for PC and Linux.