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Free will and video games: The Stanley Parable

This post contains SPOILERS.

The Stanley Parable is a Half-Life 2 mod written and created by Davey Wreden. It is an experimental game about the role of free will in video games and stories in general. The creator strongly suggests that players go into the game with as little knowledge about it as possible; I agree that following this proviso will enhance your experience of the game, but you don’t really need to actually play it in order to appreciate what it does. Regardless, you can download it at ModDb. All you need to play it is Valve’s “Steam” content delivery system, but if you don’t have Steam, and if I understand correctly, ModDb also has its own system called Desura that you can download and run the mod on. If you’re at all interested in experimental games and stories, then go check it out. You’ll want to play through the game six times and get all six endings, but that won’t take long since you can finish one playthrough in about ten minutes. When you’re done, come back here and read what I have to say about it, would you kindly?

This mod is brand-spankin-new—released less than a month ago. A friend came across it (which is no surprise since it’s currently ranked #1 on ModDb) and strongly suggested that I check it out. I figured this would be the perfect game to discuss for this week’s post since it just came out and was created by the sort of person I need to start affiliating with. Also, it just so happens that The Stanley Parable’s consideration of free will is a great contrast to last week’s discussion of “would you kindly” in BioShock.

Much could be said about this short but thought-provoking game. As I noted, there are six endings to the game, and each one has something different to say. Not all endings are as “good” or satisfying as others (both intentionally and, perhaps, unintentionally), but each one makes some sort of commentary about video games and life itself. The whole story is deliberately vague, so we can’t be entirely sure how much we can read the game as a metaphor for life and how much it is just about video games; some endings lean more toward one direction than the other, creating a rich but disjointed complexity when all six endings are considered together. The themes vary widely: one ending attempts to contemplate the nature of reality as a function of perspective, another slaps us in the face with the fact that we are playing a video game and nothing more, and a third seems to present a rather grim illustration of the self-imposed slavery of working for a living and doing what you are told. However, rather than trying to analyze the game as a whole (a truly daunting task), I’m going to focus on my favorite ending: the full disobedience ending.

In case you haven’t played the game and don’t plan to but have decided to read this post anyway, here’s a video of the disobedient playthrough in its entirety:

It’s possible that I like this ending best because it’s the first one I got. However, I think it also offers the most interesting consideration of what players actually do when they play a video game. We’ll begin by making the observation that all games constrict player choice. By their very nature, they allow the player only a certain predetermined number of options or behaviors; the player may only do what has been programmed in the game, and they may only behave in ways that advance the story. The Stanley Parable focuses on story and how it constricts the player.

We should make the distinction that story functions a little bit differently in a video game than in a novel, movie, or other type of non-interactive media because video games require a player. The player must advance the plot; the plot will not advance without player input. When a game is telling a story that can only advance in one direction (i.e. a non-branching story), the player is forced to behave in a very particular way. Therefore, the player has no free will in the matter; they cannot do whatever they want, but what they must do.

The full disobedience ending of The Stanley Parable offers a unique perspective on what happens when the player does not do what must be done in order to advance the story. Disobeying the narrator’s instructions is, in the first place, very exciting. I was very curious what would happen when I did not do what he told me to, and I was consistently delighted by the narrator’s reactions to my disobedience. In fact, the interaction between the narrator and the player were the most interesting aspect of the game. The narrator repeatedly points out that there is no story aside from the one he has laid out, so disobeying his prompts leads to—well, nothing. At one point, disobedience leads quite literally to nothing—an unfinished portion of the game world. I thought this was an excellent illustration of the ways that video games restrict the player: outside of the pre-planned route, there is no game world in which to play. I was particularly intrigued by the narrator’s query to Stanley as he stands in the unbuilt section of the map: “Is this what you wanted? I spent all this time building a nice world for you, and you’d rather see the unbuilt portion. I might as well have not even bothered to make this world for you!” The question was particularly poignant in this scenario because it was what I wanted to see. I wanted to see what would happen when I didn’t obey the narrator, and this was it.

When the narrator abandons Stanley, he thinks he is dooming him to a meaningless existence, believing that Stanley can have no life—or story—unless it is planned out. When Stanley returns to his place of work, there is no narration to assist him and the player is free to wander the map for a limited period of time. This is a very interesting way to explore the possibility of removing the narrative framework from the world. Stanley has no story to guide him; the world around him may now seem dull and meaningless. However, the point is that Stanley can now create his own story and his own life. Even though it may not be as lavish as the story the narrator had planned for him, it is his story, and he gets to decide what happens in it. The ending narrative may be considered as a brief commentary on life: being able to make our own decisions is critical for a fulfilling existence, and these choices are perhaps more important than the way our lives end. The journey is more important than the destination.

I loudly applaud The Stanley Parable for experimenting with complex themes and nontraditional methods of storytelling. It is good to see game creators thinking outside the box. While this game couldn’t really be a full title, since its mechanics would get very old after awhile, its ideas could serve as jumping-off points for future games. The key is to consider new and exciting ways for players to interact with the game and the narrative and go from there.

...but not here.

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4 responses to “Free will and video games: The Stanley Parable

  1. Holy shit. Mind = blown. I was intrigued, so I started the video… and ended up watching the whole thing… and reading the post. That is just fascinating. I love it. I love the idea of free will and disobeying the “narrator” (God?) and the ways that it plays with that. Definitely not my idea of a traditional game. I really like what this sets out to do.

  2. Pingback: The Stanley Parable: Can’t stop thinking about it! | Blushing About You…

  3. Mariakapis ⋅

    I didn’t play it myself because I got carried away by curiosity and watched a playthrough of these with all six endings, but I must say, I love the kind of though provoking thing about it. I love how it makes you think about the meaning of life, determinism amd free will. Very nice for someone who is into phylosophy in my opinion! Genious game!

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