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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Would you kindly read this post about BioShock?

This post contains SPOILERS.

BioShock, Irrational Games’ 2007 FPS/ RPG/survival horror title, features one of the better plot twists to appear in a video game for some time; it makes me think back to Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which featured what may perhaps be the greatest twist in video game history. That’s a topic that may very well be for a later date, but today’s post is all about BioShock’s plot twist. If you haven’t played the game and don’t want to ruin the surprise for yourself, then this is your cue to stop reading.

The game is all about fighting your way through Rapture, an underwater city built by businessman and zealous capitalist Andrew Ryan, who vehemently opposes left-wing politics and government control of any kind. Ryan intended for Rapture to be a sort of new, prototypical city that operated according to his personal ideals; it was designed to be “a city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.”

"Without petty morality holding me back, I can finally get the cosmetic surgery I've always wanted!"

When the silent protagonist and player character, Jack, unexpectedly arrives in Rapture, Ryan suspects that he is an agent of the CIA or KGB who has come to infiltrate and sabotage his city—you know, since things are going so well, what with the raging civil war and all. Due to his suspicions, Ryan tries to kill you a few times, sending at you both Splicers (genetically-altered, homicidal drug addicts of sorts) and the city’s automated security systems. He also supposedly detonates a submarine holding the family of a character named Atlas, who takes you under his wing and attempts to guide you through the insane city. So, by the time we finally confront Ryan, we have a few reasons to want the guy dead. After all, he is kind of an asshole.

Here’s a clip of the confrontation with Ryan. Even if you’ve played through the game, I advise you to watch it again because it’s so damn brilliant.

Turns out things are not at all as they seem. Not only is Jack the three-year-old illegitimate son of Andrew Ryan, genetically engineered to reach maturity very rapidly, but he is also subject to the commands of Frank Fontaine, a mobster and opportunist who is vying against Ryan for control of Rapture (although it’s anyone’s guess why he’d want to run the place; but then again, few people in Rapture seem to be playing with a full deck). While this is a mind-blowing plot twist in and of itself, it also makes the player’s role in the game a lot more interesting.

I’m thinking mostly of the “would you kindly” trigger phrase that Fontaine and Ryan use to control Jack. In the confrontation scene, when Ryan reveals that Fontaine has been controlling us, we realize that we’ve been asked to perform task after task throughout the game. Atlas has sometimes asked us and sometimes told us to go to certain places, do certain things, and kill certain individuals, and we have followed his suggestions without much second thought. It becomes clear that we’ve done certain things not because we necessarily wanted to, but because we had to.

You see, one thing I’m interested in when it comes to video games is what I might call player desire, or strongly wanting to behave in a certain way. I’m very fascinated by the idea of a game that makes the player really want to do everything that is required of them. Instead of going after a bad guy simply because we’re told to, we should feel compelled to go after him because we really want to get the guy. Of course, this is what good writing should do in the first place: it should motivate the player to perform their designated task. But what if a game made us want to get the bad guy so much that we felt as if it were our own decision in the first place? What if a game put us in an open world, where we could do whatever we wanted, and we said, “What I want to do is get that son of a bitch?” The idea of a game that lets us feel like we’re following our own desires, rather than adhering to a set of desires that has been laid out for us—that’s one thing that really gets me excited.

So, what does all this have to do with BioShock? When we learn about the “would you kindly” trigger phrase, we realize that we have been guided by the hand through events of the game. This works on two levels: Jack has been guided through Rapture by Atlas, but we have also been guided through Rapture by the game itself. Think about it: when we as the player begin the game, what is our objective? What would we want to do in this environment? Of course we want to survive and successfully complete the tasks presented to us. But aside from these things, we are likely to have no strong desire to do much of anything in the city, except perhaps to explore and fight enemies. The game’s plot tells us what we should desire and guides us along the proper course to fulfill these desires. We may understand why we should do these things, and we may even be eager to advance the plot toward its conclusion. However, the necessities of the plot force us to perform in certain ways if we wish to complete the game. We must admit that we have no choice in the matter: we either do as we are told, or we simply don’t play the game. In this way, the “would you kindly” revelation creates an interesting parallel between Jack and the player—who both have little control over their actions and are being guided along by an outside force—and it also serves as an omission of sorts that the game is not really letting us do whatever we might please. Though we are in control of our actions in one sense, in another sense we are not.

And how do things change after the confrontation with Ryan? Dr. Tenenbaum, a relatively benevolent NPC, helps Jack break the mental conditioning that Fontaine has been using to control him. For the first time, Jack is not subject to the suggestion of others. So, what does he do? More importantly, what does the player want to do at this point in the game? Chances are good that the player will want revenge on Fontaine, since he has used, manipulated, lied to, and ultimately betrayed them. This is exactly what the game now directs the player to do: killing Fontaine becomes the overarching objective for the remainder of the game. BioShock undergoes a bit of a paradigm shift at this point: where it once persuaded us to do things we may not have had any strong motivation to do, it now encourages us to do exactly what it knows we’ll want to do. We can imagine the game asking us, “Alright, considering everything that’s happened up till now, what do you want to do?” And I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that every player would respond, “What I want to do is get that son of a bitch.”

And get him you do...even if it looks pretty damn silly while you're doing it.