Released in 2013, The Stanley Parable is a piece of interactive fiction created by independent developer Galactic Café. I introduce the game as an “interactive fiction” to underscore its attentiveness to narrative, because while it can be “beaten,” that is most certainly not its focus; besides, to argue the definition of a game is a topic for another essay entirely. The point is that, rather than focusing on nuanced mechanics and systems, the narrative structure of the game and its interrogation of player agency comprise the heart of The Stanley Parable’s experience.
On the latter point of agency, the game drives home the idea that, though games may afford players with a sense of control over the outcomes of both predetermined and emergent narratives, the range of outputs is limited by virtue of the limitations of assets and coding. In Grand Theft Auto V, for example, players can hold up gas stations, run over pedestrians, and go skydiving, but they cannot attend classes at a university, leave the fictional game-world of Los Santos, or perform any action that would require assets or feedback loops not provided for in the game’s files and programming. Continue Reading
The presence of meaningful choices or, barring that, the illusion of meaningful choices has long been a considered a solid standard for a successful narrative game. Normally, developers do this by creating multiple possibilities for the story to follow, allowing player actions to alter the course of the story. Instead of creating an enormous amount of possible states, Her Story, a story-based game by Sam Barlow, experiments with allowing players instant access to its entire story, provided players use the right search terms. Her Story’s structure, and how it differs from other narrative games, is the key to understanding how Her Story functions as a successful narrative game. To do so, I’ll have to explain the computational concept of the finite state machine, why it is a good model for narrative games, and how Her Story’s state machine differs from those of interactive fiction. Based on Barlow’s personal work in interactive fiction and the genre’s place as the earliest style of narrative video game, I will stick to comparisons between Her Story and interactive fiction (IF). Continue Reading
Before Sega retooled the series for MMORPG audiences, Phantasy Star was one of the most prominent JRPG franchises of its time. It had always remained ahead of the pack by experimenting with themes and narrative models years before its rivals could catch up. The first Phantasy Star game featured a slight political dimension to JRPGs seven years before Final Fantasy would do the same. And its sequel only continued that trend. One of the first RPGs for the Genesis, Phantasy Star II strengthened the political themes with a grim narrative and Daedalian dungeon design. Continue Reading
But ultimately, the interactive elements of Beyond: Two Souls prove to be of inadequate meaningfulness. Your participation as a player has minimal importance on how events unfold throughout the game. While players are given the opportunity to react to events and interact with the world, there is no real in-game penalty for failure, often including failure to act. The game creates numerous Deus ex machina situations to bail players out and reveals the general lack of agency the player has in influencing the game world. In Beyond: Two Souls, telling the story is more important than playing it. Continue Reading
As you explore this deceptively massive house, going from room to room and unlocking secret passageways that lead to even more rooms (a gatekeeping mechanism used to establish some sense of narrative linearity), you discover the personal domains of each of the family members and get to know their secrets, worries, pleasures, and vices. You stumble upon Dad’s stash of porno magazines, liquor bottles, and rejection letters from book publishers. You find out about Mom’s budding flirtation with a park ranger. You uncover a history of abuse perpetrated by your Great Uncle Oscar who died in this very house, leading Sam’s classmates to call it “the psycho house on Arbor Hill” and convincing her that the house is haunted. Continue Reading
When considering how to teach fundamental principles of game design, we find ourselves torn between two well-cited frameworks: the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics Framework (MDA) and the Elemental Tetrad. We want to teach both, because each has its merits, but teaching two separate frameworks is unnecessarily confusing. This essay therefore develops an initial proposal for a working theory of game design by integrating these two existing frameworks. Continue Reading