Tag Archives: agency

Unsettling Uncertainty in the Stanley Parable

A screenshot from The Stanley Parable with papers scattered on the floor of an officeYears ago I wrote a piece on the original mod version of The Stanley Parable.1 It’s since been remade and released as a for-sale title with very high production values, which I got just after release.

I’ve played a few remakes of old games or overhauls of mods, and it’s always an uncomfortable experience. Everything in the game is familiar but different, and I constantly find myself wondering, “Did this happen in the original and I’m just forgetting? Is it totally new? Is it similar to an old bit but different enough that I don’t recognize it? Did I just miss it the first time?” Stanley weaponizes this feeling, even for new players who didn’t experience the original.

With The Stanley Parable, you never know what to expect.

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  1. Looking back, that piece comes across as very critical, but I remember loving the game. A tonal error on my part, I think.

Theft, Murder, and Morals in Skyrim

Maven Black-BriarSkyrim made me want to murder.

I’m usually a kind video game player. I choose non-lethal options when available, act morally, and generally roleplay as a responsible (if sometimes abrupt) character when given the option. The character I played in Skyrim was an ambitious but magnanimous barbarian-mage, seeking the power to rule and protect. I didn’t seek to kill anyone unprovoked… until I met Maven Black-Briar.

Maven1 is the rich de-facto ruler of the city of Riften. She is rude, cruel, and entitled. In a world of racist Vikings and execution-happy Imperials, she stands out to me as the most loathsome humanoid character. Sure, there are strange avian hags that eat people and vampiric assassins, but she is just a brewery owner who’s happy to kill and torture and extort for personal wealth and power. She mirrors her city, a place that represents corruption and villainy, and in doing so says a lot about Skyrim‘s attitude toward morality.

She’s also immortal.

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  1. Despite sounding like a title, “Maven” is her first name.

Ludus Novus 023: Searching

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss the search for the perfect game and the creation of universes.

When I search through my Steam library and I look for that game, that perfect game, the perfect experience that matches the mood that I am in right that moment, I’m playing a game with the entirety of my library: the entirety of games as a medium.

The music for this episode is “Progress” by mystified from the album Fractal Diner 3. It’s available under a ccby2.5 license.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

I Just Uninstalled GTA IV

I started playing Grand Theft Auto IV a few days ago. I uninstalled it today. Steam says I spent 16 hours playing, out of its assuredly fifty-plus hours of content. Many of those hours were spent paused while I was doing something else.

Nico Bellic was drawn to America by his cousin’s stories of wealth and comfort. A life without killing or pain, where things were easy and nothing hurt.

The main characters and relationships in the game are endearing in a dark way. The graphics were quite nice, especially when compared to the previous game in the series, GTA: San Andreas, which my wife is playing right now. The amount of detail in the city and the number of things one can do are amazing.

In reality, life in Liberty City was a struggle. It was the same cycle of steal, kill, flee as before, except in an unfamiliar place where everything is harder and everyone is a stranger. No respect and no opportunities. And always the need for money.

But the game isn’t interesting. The gameplay is the same as previous games, with clumsier driving and walking and slightly better shooting. The missions are more restrictive than ever. In GTA III, you could cleverly solve missions by blocking an escape route with a car or planting a bomb in a target’s truck. In most of GTAIV‘s missions, you must use this car and go here, and then the guy will escape in a cutscene that removes any obstacles, and then you must chase him across the city and he’s impossible to catch and then he flees on foot and you confront him in another cutscene. And if you screw up at any point, you need to start the mission over because we don’t have any checkpoints.

Nico slowly learned something about America. America had a vision of itself: rich, easy, luxurious. And it forced you to pursue that vision. Everyone pursued that vision. Even if you wanted to do something else, be someone else, you couldn’t. You needed money. And you had certain talents that were valued, even when you weren’t valued as a person.

This is one of those games where the developers have crafted this world and this game that they’re incredibly (and rightfully!) proud of, and then realize with dismay that some grubby player is going to get her grubby fingerprints all over it. So they do their damnedest to make sure the player can’t interfere with their lovely work. Any place that the player could screw up the game with her insistence on cleverness, they stop that shit.

And when you got money, it corrupted you. It hurt you. Money made you crazy, bought you drugs that tear you apart, got you in debt, got everything you love set on fire. You needed the money, but the money ruined you.

In the end, once I moved on to the game’s second safehouse, I gradually lost interest. The mission structure sprawls out and the characters are less interesting, and I became less invested in Nico Bellic’s “I’m a man full of guilt who wants a different life yet I don’t even blink when you tell me to kill folks” routine. I simply realized that I didn’t want to play any more. So I stopped.

And so Nico walked away. Got on a boat, a bus, a plane, and went somewhere else where he didn’t need to kill for money. Nico just stopped.

The Non-Interactive Stanley Parable

A screenshot of two identical doors from The Stanley ParableThe author of The Stanley Parable says that “it’s actually best if you don’t know anything about it before you play it.” And that’s probably true. So if you like, you can play it before continuing.

While we’re waiting, a bit of background: The Stanley Parable is a game by Davey Wreden made in the Source Engine. It requires some form of the Source 2007 engine to play, which you have if you own Half-Life 2.

The Stanley Parable, for all its exploration of interactivity and choice and video games, isn’t actually interactive at all when you get right down to it. Yes, it has six endings and branching and all that. But as with many games with multiple endings, as soon as you tell the player that they exist, she wants to view them all. And especially with Stanley‘s left-or-right, red-or-blue choice structure, trying out the choices exhaustively is trivial.
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I was recently linked to “Convergence,” the first game by a group called Streetlight Studios. It’s a Flash game about growing up and making choices; it could be described as a mix of “Passage,” “Pathways,” and “How to Raise a Dragon,” which is a pretty amazing combination.

The game asks you to follow a character from infancy to old age, making choices along the way. Infancy makes you crawl around your house as a baby getting toys before your sibling, in an odd exploration platformy way. Adulthood has you balancing love and work; I’m glad that they didn’t make this drag on too long. Shades of “Every Day the Same Dream” here. Old age, at least in the ending I got, was more of a little vignette to cap off the choices made in the rest of the game.

Looking up at my description, this game sounds like a mixing-together of various art games, and it’s definitely inspired by the work others have done before, but the polish and design in “Convergence” makes it feel fresh. Definitely something to check out for fans of blocky pixel games about life and choices.

The Fall of Stronghold

An image of an unfinished RPG terrain board with some miniatures, walls, and craft toolsIn tabletop roleplaying games, it’s often tough to provide backstory and broader setting information to the players. Reciting a summary or printing handouts is seldom effective; even if players pay attention, they’re less likely to remember events in which they did not participate. In the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign I’m currently running, I ran into this problem, and addressed it with the Cutscene technique.
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Saving Professor Booster: Choice and Agency in Cave Story

Cave Story is a classic of the indie games movement. It single-handedly showed many people that a single developer could make a game with dated graphics that was as good as AAA commercial games. This was already clear to some, but Cave Story‘s prominence means that it has heavily inspired much of the work done by the modern indie games culture. There are a lot of things that Cave Story does well; its handling of mood and narrative structure are great, as well as its balancing of humor and pathos. One thing it does badly at, however, is providing the player with effective choice and agency.
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Games As Simulation

Games are simulations.

Games take a set of rules describing how things work, and they apply those rules to a world state to determine how that world changes over time. Sometimes the rules are very simple; “Snakes and Ladders” has about four rules. Sometimes, they are extraordinarily complex; World of Warcraft has rules that govern the actions and interactions of thousands of actors at once, with each actor having maybe a hundred different ways to affect the progress of the simulation. All games, however, share these fundamental attributes: they simulate the changes in a system over time using a set of rules.

Inherent in their status as a simulation is the fact that games are abstractions. No simulation can be an exact model of real life. Therefore, games use only a subset of the rules present in the systems they simulate. Sometimes, games simulate the real world: Roller Coaster Tycoon simulates the everyday workings of a theme park. Sometimes, they simulate a fantastic world: Morrowind is a simulation of the fictional fantasy island of Vvardenfell. Sometimes, they simulate an abstract world: Conway’s “Game of Life” simulates a world composed of either a grid of unicellular organisms, or a world of multicellular organisms with a very strange way of living. In all these cases, however, the designers of the game have chosen which rules to include in the simulation and which to abstract away. Roller Coaster Tycoon does not require the player character to get sleep. Morrowind allows the PC to eat, but does not require it. The “Game of Life” uses a very limited set of rules.

What distinguishes a game from, say, the sort of airflow simulation used by aerospace engineers? Player interaction. In games, players can modify the progress of the simulation. They can change the starting parameters, or choose what an actor will do, or even modify the rules of the simulation as it progresses. It is this interactivity that is essential to the nature of games. Games simulate worlds, but their most important property is that they allow the player to affect the simulation. It is from this ability that goals emerge, that agency arises, that fun appears. Games are simulations with life.

A Chain of Fake People

Any creative work is a sort of conversation between two people: the author and the reader. Except it’s not.

Books, movies, music, video games, and so on are created by one or more people, and then are consumed by one or more people. The work in question (let’s call it a game) serves as a medium by which the player communicates with the authors or developers. One can imagine an experience analogous to digital gaming where two people sit in a room, one telling the other what’s happening and the other responding with their actions. This actually wouldn’t be too different than tabletop roleplaying.

But playing games doesn’t really work like that; there’s this big thing between the authors and the players called a game. The authors and the player can be in different states; they might not speak the same language; the original author might be literally dead in real life. But the work, the game, spans this void of time and distance to allow a sort of mediated communication. And in the middle there are a bunch of imaginary people existing in a series of nested universes that make the exchange possible. Let’s meet them, shall we?
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