I’m not a big gamer.
I own a (broken) Playstation, a (broken) DS and a laptop, that’s about all. So, I don’t really get the chance to play too many games. To a degree that’s fine – there really aren’t too many games that I want to play. The last major game I played through was Assassin’s Creed 4, where I played a pirate and had no clue what was going on half the time. It was, maybe fun? I have no idea.
The last big, big game that I played through and loved was The Last of Us, which to me, was probably the finest game the Playstation 3 had to offer, and certainly the best game of the last generation.
However, with the arrival of the new laptop, I’ve been able to take advantage of the wonderful Steam app, and buy a ton (four, I’m not made of money) of indie games. The games I bought, in particular, The Stanley Parable and Gone Home, have got me thinking about how videogames can be a narrative device all of their own, in a way that choose-your-own adventure stories began to be in the 80’s/90’s, and how, if we look to independant games makers, we can see a whole group of storytellers who are using the format of videogames to explore just what we can do with fiction and stories.
I’ll look at Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, but for the simple reason that I haven’t yet completely finished Gone Home, I’ll probably talk about that less.
The Stanley Parable stars you, Stanley, an office drone in full on Kafka mode, who wakes up one day to find all his co-workers gone and decides to head to the meeting room to find them. Only, does he really decide? There’s a narrator explaining all of this to you, including your inner thoughts. When you come to a set of two doors, the narrator says that, “Stanley went through the door on his left.” Only, you haven’t gone through them yet. And you could, if you wanted to, go through the door on your right. Or you could go lock yourself back in your office. Or jump out of the window. Or the narrator could just get bored and change the rules, or the game, or anything really. It’s a game with branches upon branches of story, with each corridor leading somewhere, and each glitch exploited to an end.
The Stanley Parable is a game all about narrative convention, and how, even when there is the appearance of free will in a narrative structure such as this, there really isn’t one, especially in games, which have invisible walls and where maps have edges. The narrator says go left, and you go right, but he knows you might do this, and there are other endings. Actually following the narrator word for word gives you the ‘good’ ending, but even then, the narrator comments on how boring and predictable the whole thing has been.
Yes, it’s a game about games and my goodness, how pretentious does that sound? But it isn’t. The Stanley Parable, reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller which opens with ‘you’ buying the book from a bookstore, and taking it home to read. Calvino comments on the nature of fiction much the same way that The Stanley Parable comments on the limits of games in telling a story. It’s a fascinating game.
Gone Home meanwhile is clever in a whole different way. You play Kaitlin, the eldest daughter of a family, coming home from college. You arrive back at the house and, it’s empty. The lights are off and no-ones home. You have no weapons, there are more or less no characters, and you are not even given a task. There are no objectives.
It is the most compelling mystery game I have ever played.
See, you can explore the whole house, in whatever order you want to, uncovering details about your family, and in particular, about your younger sister Sam, who has the best taste in music ever (her mixtapes lie all around the house, and you can play them in the tape player in her room). Gone Home is about the player providing themselves with the impetus to explore and uncover secrets. It never once guides you. Even when you discover maps with secret passages, it never implores you to go to them, it just adds them to your map. I remember playing LA Noire a while back, a game which tried to have a detective’s eye on things. When you entered a crime scene, you would just wander around until you heard a kind of bell ringing, and that’s when you knew you were near something important. In Gone Home, you have no idea what’s important and what isn’t. Hell, I haven’t finished the game yet, so maybe none of it is. Maybe the diary entries won’t help me find my family. Maybe there won’t be a conclusion.
I love that these games challenge gamers perceptions of what a game can be and how it can operate with (and to an extent, without) a narrative. Games so often are seen through the lens of things like GTA and COD which don’t exactly have writing and structure at the top of their to do lists. It makes me excited for the future of indie games, and you only have to look at something like the new PS4 title No Man’s Land to see that gaming is really entering a brand new phase of storytelling.