To be honest, I really wasn’t quite sure what to expect in this gaming experience. My gaming experience is limited to that of Nintendo and Warcraft. So, I was somewhat tentative in approaching my role as the gamer. Perhaps I had a heightened awareness of my own responsibilities, which explains the several occasions in which I would second-guess myself while playing. I also was not sure as to how explicit the narratives would be in each game. Papers, Please takes the subtler route, while I was literally guided by a disembodied voice in Stanley Parable. As a mediocre gamer, navigating between these two extremes was an interesting experience. I also carried the preconceived notion that Papers, Please seemed a bit monotonous and limited in its potential. This, I think, limited the scrutiny that I gave to each passport as I missed important details to get on to the next phase of the narrative.
I see two significant themes worth mentioning. First, both games approach the relationship between choice and accountability. Papers, Please uses a ‘strike out’ kind of mentality, in which the user has to comply with the country’s immigration officer standards. If there are too many errors, the user’s character is thrown into prison. Every choice that the gamer makes not only has an impact on the people seeking admission, but also affects their in-game persona, reputation, and likelihood to advance in the narrative. The Stanley Parable further removes the time delay between choice and the results of that choice. The moment I would click, I would discover if my decisions were irrelevant, helpful, or ultimately harmful to my progress. In addition to this, both games explore the notion of connectivity within choice making. Each decision has untold implications. This is even truer in our actual lives. However, the games do well in employing a multilevel narrative that is adjusted depending on the inclination of the user.
Papers Please examines both the nature of choice making, as well as the fact that things are not always what they seem. The single skill that separates successful from unsuccessful players was the ability to recognize discrepancies within an application. If a user was able to catch on to these details, they would progress in the narrative. The simplicity of the game emphasizes the importance of this ability. That being said, I think the game does well in encouraging the user to develop a critical eye, that is, to doubt before one accepts the face value appearance. I’ll admit that I didn’t take my role as Immigrations Officer that seriously until the first incident, in which a person throws a bomb, getting shot in the process. It was at that moment that I begun to pay closer attention, trying to extract narrative details from the somewhat dry process of reviewing applicant credentials.
In the Stanley Parable, I was initially tripped up by the first decision. I looked around the room on two occasions, still getting my bearings both with the controls and expectations. On the first time through, I accidentally clicked and closed the office door, which initiates one of the ‘game over’ narratives. On the second time, I thought I might have missed some important detail, and chose to close the door again. The third time was the charm, however, and I continued on through the building. This first experience was a quick and harsh way of realizing that my choices would literally determine my experience. After seeing the game played a few times (including my own attempts), it became very clear that there were multiple story lines, in-game achievements, and other aspects, all of which depended on what choices the user made, and in what order. The user is paramount. This, to me, strengthens the game’s narrative, which I believe is one of exploring the notion and power of agency. Even the fact that a user may play ten times without fully unpacking the game encourages the user return each time with a keener sense of responsibility.
After playing these games, I realize that the strength and form of any narrative is very content specific. The two games were exploring similar themes with perhaps different emphases; thus, their playing style needs to reflect those differences. While these games may be exploring the concept of agency, there is only so much that can be accomplished through this platform. Any gamer will bring a significant level of emotional distance from the events playing out before them. When all is said and done, the choices made in the virtual world are, well, only virtual. So, the games are successful in their delivery of a concept to consider, but are limited through the nature of their medium.
Narratives come in many forms. Playing these games was an eye opening experience, as I realized that games are an incredible way to deliver a level of immersive experience that is much harder for the written word, or even visual depictions to create. The game creates an environment just as stimulating as that in a film. However, the user steps into the shoes of the protagonist, and feels some form of the implications of their choices. This element of control makes it much easier for the game to produce meaningful learning in its participants.