I have been an avid gamer since my youth so I consider myself something of an expert in these matters. In this brief essay I will reflect upon two games: “Papers Please” and “The Stanley Parable.” The predominant theme of both games is a lack of control. Most games present certain rules, such as physics engines, enemies and kill zones that must be not be broken but still allow you a wide discretion in how you complete the task. In “Papers Please,” the player takes on the role of a border guard in a dystopian society. There are certainly plenty of rules to follow but with each new immigrant, there is only one correct course of action and failure is immediately punished. In the “Stanley Parable,” the traditional limits of physics are all that are readily apparent. As the game plays out, however, you see that every decision you could possibly make has been anticipated- your freedom is an illusion. Clicking a door a number of times, waiting in a closet for a few seconds, everything has a reward or consequence.
Beyond the overarching themes these two games convey specific messages. Papers Please puts the player in an uncomfortable situation, deciding the fates of hapless refugees. The player can ill afford to be sympathetic as her family lives, suffers deprivations or dies depending upon her ability to conform to the state’s cold logic. Eventually the player begins to revel in their own success, to seek to process people with greater mechanical efficiency. Doing ones job becomes an end in of itself. The target demographic for video games, which includes a large number of middle-class teens living in safe environments, may find themselves making such decisions for the first time. But for many the game is a reflection of their reality. It is easy to criticize hold ourselves above such real life actors such as authoritarian bureaucrats, black market profiteers and the like. But the Milgram Experiment famously showed how readily most “average” and “decent” people follow draconian orders even if they witness the pain it causes. Playing Papers Please shows us the same lesson, only we are both the observer and the observed.
The Stanly Parable is a remarkable game in that its narrative can vary wildly depending on a bewildering number of contingencies. I would preface my own discussion by saying that I have not seen all the endings. It is without a doubt a commentary on corporate society, the excruciating monotony and crippling interdependence of the white collar life. If Stanly follows the “orthodox” path, he discovers that his entire life was directly controlled by secretive corporate elites and is given the chance to destroy it and walk away. However the presence of the Narrator undermines the more optimistic aspect of the narrative. You are only freed by doing exactly what you are told. Throughout the various branching story paths, Stanly and the Narrator have a complex relationship. Sometimes it’s cooperative, other times it’s adversarial. But in the end, the Narrator is always in control. Even if the player manages to frustrate his every command and even break the office building around him, the Narrator can simply restart the game as he chooses. The game forces us to face the question of whether or not it is best to simply comply with the orders of those in control. One thing is certain though: we are not the masters of our own fate.
The multi-path structure of a game differs from other media in that there are many possible endings. This makes it possible to convey multiple, perhaps unrelated or even conflicting ideas, in a single platform. It is also unique in that can forces its audience to understand the logic of the games universe. One can simply watch a movie and appreciate it superficially for the explosions and sexy actors without understanding what is happening. In a game such as Bioshock however, the moral decisions the player makes have real effects that might mean life or death for the player later. However this aspect of the game does present limitations in that it provides skill barriers to the overall narrative. Most anyone can watch a movie from start to finish. And while most anyone could probably beat Ninja Gaiden if they put in the time, the final scenes of that movie would never be seen by the faint of heart (not that Ninja Gaiden is a masterpiece of storytelling). Furthermore, the designer must strike a balance between game play and story. If too much resources or storage space is devoted to game play, the story will inevitably suffer.
A game is a unique story telling device in that its audience becomes personally invested in the narrative. It is difficult for even a talented author to create characters the audience cares about. But when the character is oneself and when other characters interact with the player, it creates an emotional or even a physical response when something happens to them. This can range from terror in the face of an unstoppable threat (Amnesia) to joy when a hated enemy dies (Shadow of Mordor) to grief when a valued ally falls (Halo 3). Lastly, the game makes its audience important. Whatever happens in the narrative, it is generally the accomplishment of the player. In a movie, by contrast, it is someone else who the audience may or may not empathize with.