Monday, January 6, 2014

The Stanley Parable

This weekend I played through ('through') a new computer game called The Stanley Parable.

It blew my mind.

Saying anything about it would risk spoiling it--so I'm going to say this: if you liked, say, Portal because it brought you "outside the box" of puzzle games and turned into a story that was surprisng and psychotic, play The Stanley Parable.

If you played Antichamber and enjoyed it for its, again, reality confounding architecture combined with attempting to, sort of, convey a deeper meaning, you should play The Stanley Parable.

If you liked the thousands of varied guns in Borderlands 2 you may not find much to like in The Stanley Parable--there are no guns and virtually no violence of any kind.

Here come the spoliers ...

The Stanley Parable and the Paper and Pencil RPGs
You really, really ought to go play it if you even think there's a chance you'll like it. It won all kinds of awards.

I'll wait.

The Stanley Parable and What You Should Know
Did you? No? Dude. I'm telling you.

The Stanley Parable and the Railroady Game Master
Okay. I tried. Chances are you just read straight down here and thought: if it's all that good, I'll pick it up after reading the commentary.

Your loss.

The Stanley Parable is the story of office drone Stanley who works day in and day out in room 427. One day he notices that all the people have vanished. He sets out into his office-complex to try to find out what has happened. This is all voiced-over by a British narrator who explains things--including some of Stanley's presumably inner dialog.

When the narrator says you go left, though, you can choose to go right. When he says you go up to your boss's office, you can choose to go to the basement. Taking these branching paths (and finding various Easter eggs) leads to a variety of different endings and takes you into more and more surreal territory.

It's hard to explain: here's a picture.
At some point you have gone so far off script that the narrator provides you with a yellow line to get you "to the adventure." You just need to follow it (note: it doesn't lead to the adventure).

In another sequence the narrator becomes fed up with your (apparent) greed and guile and wills into existence nuclear bombs and a 2 minute count-down clock. There are all kinds of buttons--but there is no escape (that I know of).

At one point the narrator provides you with an admittedly very pretty environment--but there's nothing to do so you commit suicide (it takes some doing) to get back to the game.

The narrator even provides other games (minecraft, portal) when you clearly don't want to play his game.

And so on.

If you have dug around the marsh of "RPG Theory" (or 'RPG theory' depending on how you capitalize it--it turns out that despite having discussions about the capitalization the resulting theory absolutely no better or worse for it--there's a lesson in there somewhere) you know about the outrage that exists around 'railroading.'

The practice of 'railroading' is, to some degree, taking agency away from a player in a circumstance where they ought to have it.

An example could be using a literal "plot force" to turn the characters around and take them back to "The story."

It could be secretly cheating at dice rolls to make sure your master villain escapes when they 'unexpectedly' attack and 'defeat him' in the first scene (in quotes because if you did not expect that you are an idiot).

It could be all kinds of things in between (having the character's superiors call them and hector them to "Get on the case" when they are doing something the GM feels in non-productive).

And so on.

Most people who think a lot about RPGs--and even RPG Theorists--think railroading sucks.

To be sure there's some gray area. Maybe having whichever witness your character questions provide the clue isn't railroading. Possibly having the GM get you "back to the story" in the event that you'd wandered off course is a good thing so long as everyone was having fun.

Maybe it's okay to have a game where before hand everyone kind of agrees on what's going to happen and then, if people deviate from that it's kinda on them and the GM can say "Hey, this was the go-back-in-time-and-kill-Hitler game ... not loot the Nazi-Art game ..." or what have you.

I'll explain The Truth (TM) about railroading in another post some time--but suffice it to say that while not everyone agrees on specifics all the time, most people agree that getting railroaded does, indeed, kinda suck.

The Stanley Parable and Railroading
The First Thing You Should Know
Here's the first thing you should know about The Stanley Parable--and I hope you played it--It was NOT (so far as I can find) based on pencil and paper RPGs. It was a meditation on computer RPGs which are, of course, different. In a computer RPG there is a limited space you can explore and the time and effort to make new spaces and decision trees is ... high.

This is not entirely untrue in pencil and paper RPGs (Quick: Make the premier Brazilian Super Hero Team--we're challenging them to a duel!)--but it's a lot less true than for computer games. If I have my character unexpectedly go to the drug store the GM should not be at a loss to describe what it is like.

That said, the way the Narrator interacts as the GM is a lot like railroading.

He gets miffed.

He tries to integrate the character's choices into "his" story line ("But first he decided to go to the employee lounge ... for some reason ...").

He gets pissed off and kills you.

He walls up directions he doesn't want you to go.

He provides a handy pointer to "the action."

He asks you to trust him.

And so on. These are very human actions. There's even a few sequences where you wind up in "unfinished" areas with basic wall textures that haven't been properly rendered yet. This is very analogous to a GM saying "Well, okay: you ran off my map ... but there's nothing there as I haven't prepped for it yet."

The Second Thing You Should Know
The second thing you should know is that if you do everything he says--follow his story--you get to the good ending and the "completed the game" accomplishment. He doesn't railroad you into some abysmal dark place--he wants you to be happy--to have a good time ...

He's telling a story that pretends it's a mystery (never gets solved--what did happen to your co-workers?) but ends with you escaping the corporation's evil clutches. So what? So that's exactly what the rail-roady GM (mostly) wants: you to be happy (and, maybe, you to praise their awesome story--but hey).

Now, the plot is, you know, a bit boring. It could've used some combat or even problem solving (the code for the door he just gives you when you get there, and so on). That's, maybe, important too--but we'll leave that alone for just now.

The key here is that the ending is pleasant. The GM isn't trying to screw you.

The Third Thing You Should Know
You power struggled with the Game Master ... and you enjoyed it. That's where the game is--the game is in going off the "beaten track" and seeing what happened. I diverged on the very first choice and wondered about whether I'd have a very unpleasant experience (such as having to restart).

After that, I played along for a bit--but mostly I just went my own way ... and then determined that every time I was given a choice I could "diverge." For the most part the narrator was fun to argue with (the one where he's happy but you're bored and kill yourself was a little painful)--and I didn't take personal glee in pissing him off--but the fact of the matter is that the fun of the game hinges on you doing the "wrong thing."

And the underlying truth is that doing the wrong thing--and getting 'wrong thing feedback' is fun.

If there was no narrator and you could just go left to the meeting room or right to the employee lounge--and going either way brought no voice over--you just had to explore (maybe there'd be a map on the wall you could study?) the choice wouldn't be any fun at all.

If you made the game as a straight through puzzler (the boss's key-code is written in the executive bathroom? The spilled coffee cup early on provides a clue to something or other ...) it'd be a pretty tame pretty meaningless game.

Even if it had a bunch of the weird endings--and you just keyed on the actions? It'd be surreal--but it would not be as interesting or engaging.

The fact is: fighting with the GM provides a lot of the fun.

I think that fighting with the GM when you are complaining about being railroaded is half the fun too.

Now, I'll grant--I don't think most people like fighting with a GM as much as they like "good gaming"--but I think most people who have a bad experience with a GM don't go back over and over to re live it as RPG Theory (capital 'T') predicts they (often) will.

The Stanley Parable proves that breaking the game is fun.

There's a breaking the map ending too--jumping out a window--that doesn't go anywhere cool but does lead to an encounter with the narrator which lets you know you didn't "win." I don't know if the The Stanley Parable's map is unbreakable--but it's pretty tight.

The Fourth Point: Winning and Losing
There are several points where you 'win.' You get an achievement for completing the game. In another event the "credits roll." The museum ending is one of my favorites where you wander in a white room looking at game collateral and little notes from the designers until you turn the thing off.

There's even a point where a frustrated narrator shouts out "YOU WIN!"

All of these take you back to the start condition.

None of them are 'really' winning, you think--or are they?

If I were trying to be deep I'd say "That's up for you to decide." But I'm not--I'm trying to be brilliant, so I'll tell you the Truth (TM).

The Truth: Getting Out Of Power Struggle Feels Like Losing.

That's why you don't do it--why it's so hard to do--because it feels like losing and you hate to lose.

Don't you?

The way you 'win' The Stanley Parable is when you start cheating.

There will (probably--maybe you're hard core) be a point where you go online and see if there's a way to shut down the nukes. There will be a time where you log off and don't log back on--when you're done. There will be a point where you write the game designer and ask for your $15 bucks back as the game is clearly only worth $5.

The game designer will give you three vouchers for the game and tell you to vouch for it to your friends for $5 each (as that's what you claim it's worth) and you've made your money back.

He should've only given you two--but hey--he, like the Narrator, wants you to be happy.

That's how you win.

If you read this whole review without playing the game, you already won ... (you also lost--so the other lesson is that those two end-states are not as singular as you might believe).

The reason you "win" here is because you are no longer really in conflict with the game itself. You are now outside the context of The Stanley Parable and are dealing with a different set of parameters (I bet the guy who wanted his money back is still in power struggle with The Stanley Parable's Facebook page ...).

The Take Away
The takeaway (for me, anyway) is that The Stanley Parable is a meditation on power-struggle between the moderators of virtual worlds and their inhabitants. It covers, brilliantly (there is even a cheat-code 'ending') almost all the existing ground I can think of. It makes the game about that instead of the relatively bloodless "plot line" that it's supposed to be about.

The fact that it's (for most people, it seems) a very pleasant experience rather than that of generally being in power-struggle is because of its context: once you get that this is the game--rather than dysfunction--you can get into it pretty quickly--but that doesn't mean the fundamentals change.

For people who are still making a big deal about 'railroading' in their pencil and paper RPGs the lessons are still valid: you're still playing--you're still the one logging in over and over ... looking for the next fork you can take to see the endings you aren't supposed to.


  1. Marco, off-topic but just checking back in; I know your attention is on the new JAGS, but any plans to bring JAGS Wonderland back into print?

    1. Yes. I am not sure of priorities yet (JAGS Arch should go into final typeset for publication as soon as I hear from our layout person) and then we have to decide what to do next.

      The conversion of Wonderland to the new rules and re-releasing it as a Print On Demand book is near the top of the list (so is the Wonderland home-companion, a follow-up book we want to put out).

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Thrilled to hear it -- I held off on buying a print copy when it was still available, wanting to pick it up when I had some spare cash. ...I've been kicking myself for several years now over that decision.

      I'm happy to hear you're looking at putting another book out. As such, would you be willing to accept some unsolicited feedback regarding what seemed like the biggest issues with Wonderland?

      -I know that the CPD support group was set up as a framework for campaigns, but I still feel somewhat that Wonderland suffers from the "Unknown Armies problem" -- "Okay, this is brilliant, what the heck do I *do* with it?" I would *love* some specific suggestions for campaign frameworks, or suggestions for adventures.

      -I love the level of thought you put into the Reflection rules, but at the same time, they were so complex I think I'd have a very hard time actually keeping track of them to any degree during play.

      Footnote: Of course the original Alice in Wonderland is what every GM should be striving for in terms of mood, but if there are other good pieces of media that really demonstrate what Wonderland should feel like, I've love a list.

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