That Wasn’t Supposed to be a Choice: Metafiction and The Stanley Parable

Metafiction has become something of a trend in video games. Increasingly, game designers are trying to comment on the medium in which they are working through their games. In the midst of these games, one has stood out from its peers, and that is The Stanley Parable. While the metafictional approach of games like Spec Ops: The Line serve to critique certain conventions in video games, The Stanley Parable goes further, interrogating not only the tropes of the medium but the paradigms we use to create and understand them. By foregrounding fundamental aspects of video games in innovative ways, The Stanley Parable forces us to adopt a more nuanced approach to video game analyses, beyond the narrative vs. gameplay structure commonly employed.

As the concept of metafiction can be complex, it is helpful to turn to one of the more rigorous academic discussions of it, Narcissistic Narrative by Linda Hutcheon. While Hutcheon is looking primarily at literature in her book, many of the ideas are applicable to other media as well. Hutcheon explains that metafictional texts entail a “mimesis of process” rather than a mimesis of reality (10). That is, rather than trying to portray a realistic world, metafictional texts try to portray the process of creating that world by “plac[ing] fictionality, structure, or language at their content’s core” (29). This form of mimesis leads to “the unmasking of dead conventions by a mirroring of them” (10). The goal is to change the medium by showing the ways in which it is relying on the same old, tired methods, meaning that metafiction can be an agent for artistic innovation and renewal. But metafiction isn’t just concerned with addressing the process of writing: it also attempts to effect a shift in the relationship of the reader to the text. Through “the laying bare of literary devices,” a metafictional work “brings to the reader’s attention those formal elements of which, through over-familiarization, he has become unaware” (24). The reader is able to see the ways they have been complicit in the stagnation of the medium, as they have been uncritically consuming texts. The result is to “raise the reader’s consciousness of his act” (Hutcheon 143).

Playing video games is easy. All you have to do is follow the adventure line.

Playing video games is easy. All you have to do is follow the adventure line.

The Stanley Parable meets up to this pretty well. It’s very funny, and it’s funny because it shows the ridiculousness and linearity of many games. In many video game narratives, we are forced to go where the designers intend us to go. Even in open-world RPGs, if we are going to do quests, we have to follow the quest line. In one possible version of The Stanley Parable, this becomes a literal line, and when the line itself gets lost in the office building, the result is thoroughly entertaining as well as reflective of the medium. Should the player deviate from the narrator’s path, they are scolded and mocked, and in a particularly memorable scene, stripped of the ability to do anything except await their inevitable death by nuclear detonation while the narrator derisively explains to them their powerlessness. Ultimately, this metafiction reveals the very making of the game, as in one plotline, in a particular tour de force, the player ends up in a series of rooms which detail to them the process of the game’s development. Here, everything is laid out for the player, they can see it all, every step of the game’s creation. The game can then no longer be considered a confined entity, but rather spills over into the real world, as we see the real work that went into its construction.

Two minutes to nuclear detonation? Probably should have pressed the other button...

Two minutes to nuclear detonation. Probably should have pressed the other button…

As with any good piece of metafiction, however, The Stanley Parable isn’t just interested in commenting on the way games are made, but also interrogates the role of the player in the game world. In all of the different aspects, and many manifestations, of The Stanley Parable’s plotline, the narrator brings the player’s attention to their own actions and expectations. Throughout the game, when we interact with objects, like open a door, rather than having the realistic sound effect of turning a door knob, we get the sound effect of pressing a key on a keyboard. This is an obvious but effective collapsing of the role of the player with the protagonist, Stanley, as Stanley’s entire job before his coworkers went missing was to press a series of arbitrary buttons on command. Here, the sound effect reminds the player that they aren’t doing what they see on the screen, they aren’t opening doors or running around hallways. They are pressing buttons, just like Stanley does. This works in the opposite direction of immersion, often held as the Holy Grail (or Platonic Ideal) of video game design, as it makes the game less immersive, pulling them back to their real actions. This is one of the strengths of metafiction: rather than losing yourself in the narrative, the reader/player becomes aware of the act of experiencing the narrative, laying bear the truth of their relationship with the work they are engaging with. The player can no longer have a simple and comfortable relationship with the game, letting it carry them away to another world. Instead, The Stanley Parable shatters their suspension of disbelief, and makes players address what they are doing in the game.

Spoilers in this video!

This kind of reader/player experience is, to me, very rewarding. Rather than simply taking in a narrative as it is presented, metafiction forces the player to actively engage with it, drawing them to questions narrative conventions as well as their own role in the production of that narrative. We begin to see that the narrative is dependent on us, but that we are also dependent on the narrative’s structure. It’s a reciprocal and complicated relationship, one that The Stanley Parable brings to the fore with aplomb. We are expected to fulfill our role as the helpful protagonist in the game, and should we not fulfill our role properly, the narrative breaks down, becoming more and more convoluted, at times even confusing the narrator so much that he no longer knows how to get the player back on track. It is clever and funny, and in this sense The Stanley Parable is a great success. And this success has not gone unnoticed, as the game has received very good reviews, Game of the Year nominations, a lot of critical attention, and financial success.

But these metafictional aspects aren’t unheard of in video games. BioshockPortal, and Spec Ops: The Line all use metafiction to reveal certain tropes of the medium, and show how hollow or problematic they are. The Stanley Parable, however, deals with aspects of video games in an innovative way that challenges the very paradigms we use to understand the medium.

While most people would agree that the historic debate between narratology and ludology in games studies is dead, its ghost still lingers in the critical community. People writing about games now do not tend to favour gameplay mechanics over narrative in games, or vice versa, but still conceive of the two as separate entities. They are distinct aspects of games that must be looked at, and their intersection must also be examined. As Campster says in his analysis of The Stanley Parable, “I tend to approach it [analyzing games] from two general directions – a narrative-focused reading that looks at the plot structure, characters, dramatic arcs, that sort of thing, and a play-focused reading that looks at mechanical systems and how they interact with one another.  Then I try to reconcile the two into a cohesive whole.” This is a trend that permeates the way we analyse games as a community. Beyond the influence this paradigm has on game criticism, it also influences how games are received. If the elements of narrative and gameplay fail to intersect to a satisfactory extent, the game opens itself up to critiques of “ludonarrative dissonance,” while if the developers succeed in interweaving the two, we can praise the “ludonarrative harmony” of their game. It’s the Venn diagram of game criticism, looking for as much overlap between the two circles as possible, and serves in the minds of many as a litmus test for game quality. 

The Stanley Parable is a game that complicates such an approach. Campster insightfully claims in the same essay that “there’s no real looking at either in a vacuum. So the old methodology isn’t really going to work here.” The difficulty arises because The Stanley Parable eschews what we typically consider “gameplay mechanics.” We don’t use objects in the game world, aside from occasionally opening doors and pressing the odd button. We don’t shoot anything. We can’t jump. All we can do is walk around, make choices, and restart the game after the end of a narrative arc. Again, in the words of Campster, “the game’s systems consist of litle [sic] more than simple binary choices scattered throughout the environment. So a systems based reading isn’t very interesting onto [sic] itself.” The absence of conventional gameplay has led to claims that The Stanley Parable has “A lack of mechanics,” or, looked at more thoroughly on Digital Trends, “There’s an element of play in your repeat looks at poor Stanley’s meaningless existence, but there’s no risk, no reward, no escalating challenge, nothing that relies on the skill, strength, or luck of the operator. Toss ‘game’ out. This is ‘surrealist interactive fiction.'” I wouldn’t go so far. The Stanley Parable, in my mind, instead shows how superficialilty of the distinction between “game” and “gameplay” on one side and “narrative” or “story” on the other.

The Stanley Parable relates to gameplay in a way we’re not used to dealing with, disrupting the nebulous dichotomy of narrative and gameplay. This is accomplished in the game by foregrounding certain aspects of digital games we aren’t used to considering gameplay mechanics: choice, repetition, and narrative. I’ll start with choice. We often say that this or that game has a good story because it has so many interesting choices, implicitly assigning “choice” to the realm of narrative, but in The Stanley Parable, the game essentially is a series of choices. For the majority of the game, all you do is progress from one area to another, making choices as you go along. What is typically considered an aspect of narrative therefore becomes an element of gameplay, which Jesper Juul defines through Rouse: “‘A game’s gameplay is the degree and nature of the interactivity that the game includes, i.e., how the player is able to interact with the game-world and how that game-world reacts to the choices the player makes.’ (Rouse 2001, xviii).” As this definition shows, choice is clearly vital to the functioning of a game. Why, then, when we write about games, do we talk about choice as an aspect of its narrative? I believe it is because choice so clearly directs and alters the narrative structure of a game, just as it does in The Stanley Parable: different choices give you different stories. But to consider choice as only a part of the narrative is to understate the importance of its function: it is one of the principle ways “the player is able to interact with the game-world.” In The Stanley Parable, it is one of the only ways we interact with the game. By foregrounding the functioning of choice so clearly, Galactic Cafe complicates a simple or dichotomous understanding of choice, forcing us to examine the game in a more holistic manner.

"When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left."

“When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.”

Repetition isn’t something we generally conceive of as a distinct gameplay mechanic or as an aspect of the narrative. It is rather just a kind of necessary aspect of a game’s construction in the unfortunate event that the player should die or fail at their task. They will have to “reload” the game, or jump back to a checkpoint. Repetition is often related to death, one of the reasons Jason Tocci writes so disparagingly about the potential of the protagonist to die in video games: “Death is considered here… an unnecessary narrative disruption due to the typical game structure of trial-and-error, die-and-retry.” But in The Stanley Parable, repetition, including repetition due to the death of the protagonist, isn’t a narrative disruption, but is rather a key element of the way the game functions. Certain plot lines, like the Adventure Line story arc, specifically incorporate this element of repetition into the narrative. And even if repetition isn’t included in every single plotline, in order to explore all the possible narratives, the player must be allowed to repeat the game. In short, the game simply wouldn’t work without constant repetition. Repetition is thus an immanent element of the narrative, as well as a key part of how the player interacts with the game world. Once again, a dichotomous reading of the way repetition functions in the game is impossible: it can’t be strictly confined to being part of gameplay or narrative exclusively.

The loading screen between repeats of the game. If you've played the game, you've seen this quite a few times.

The loading screen between repeats of the game. If you’ve played the game, you’ve seen this quite a few times.

In the last few paragraphs, I have moved a bit away from metafiction, but I would like to return to it now to explain why The Stanley Parable is so unique. Concepts of player choice and repetition are fundamental in video games, and we see these aspects of video games brought to the player’s attention in The Stanley Parable. The foregrounding of these fundamentals of video game design is a good example of a metafictional work “plac[ing] fictionality, structure, or language at their content’s core” (Hutcheon 29). In doing so, The Stanley Parable is able to break apart not only the typical way games are constructed, but also the way we approach them critically. It questions the validity of considering certain aspects of a game as belonging to different sides of a narrative-gameplay dichotomy. And this brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of The Stanley Parable: the way narrative functions.

What does it really mean to win in a game like The Stanley Parable?

What does it really mean to win in a game like The Stanley Parable?

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have a widely used and discussed definition of a game from their book Rules of Play, and I would like to make use of it here: “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (96). This definition is from 2004, so it is perhaps unfair to critique it from the standpoint of a decade later, but this definition has been influential enough that it merits interrogation. We could alternatively look at Jesper Juul’s definition from Half-Real: “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” Now it’s not surprising that, given these understandings of what defines a game and, consequently, gameplay, that Juul also writes that “Gameplay can be seen as independent of graphics or fiction, but fiction plays a large role in helping players understand the game.” But in The Stanley Parable, what is the “quantifiable outcome” that results from playing the game? In The Stanley Parable, are “different outcomes… assigned different values”? Clearly, these definitions don’t fit Galactic Cafe’s game. This is because Galactic Cafe places narrative as the goal of gameplay: we play it to get the story. The different outcomes Juul discusses are, in The Stanley Parable, different story arcs. Can the fiction of a game then be considered separate from its gameplay, as Juul claims? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that considering it as separate does anything except restrict what we consider good games, whether we are designers or critics. Narrative need not be something that’s superimposed on gameplay to make the end product more appealing to the player: it can be just as integral to the game’s design as any other “mechanic,” even being the end goal of the game itself. Perhaps if we stop thinking so rigidly about what counts as an aspect of gameplay, and what is an aspect of narrative, we can stop thinking so categorically about games in general, ending some of the more ridiculous game/anti-game/non-game debates.

This is not to say that we’ll ever completely stop talking about narratives and gameplay as separate entities when discussing video games. It is a useful construct to help us understand games. But The Stanley Parable, in presenting a challenge to such a paradigm through metafiction, advocates a more critical and nuanced stance on the issue. By thinking dichotomously, we risk oversimplifying how aspects of the game function, and our analyses will be incomplete as a consequence. If we truly want to understand how games affect the player, we’ll have to move a bit past the concept of “ludonarrative harmony,” and take a more holistic approach to game analysis. And maybe if we do so, we can at last exorcise the ghost of the old narratology/ludology debate. I think that the field of game studies would be better for it.

3 thoughts on “That Wasn’t Supposed to be a Choice: Metafiction and The Stanley Parable

  1. Pingback: This Week in Video Game Criticism: Flappy Bird Saga » Gaming News Alerts

  2. Pingback: My Second Self: Understanding the Relationship between Players and Avatars | The Animist

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