26 October 2013

I’ve been playing a bit of The Stanley Parable recently, and it gave me pause for thought. Then I played Gone Home, and it added to my thoughts. So let’s talk about interactive stories.

So, what is an interactive story? Well, it’s a story that can change according to the consumer’s input. To be precise, it’s not really a story, but rather an potentially infinite set of stories, and the viewer decides which particular story he or she wants to hear at that particular time.

The main difference between a game and an interactive story is that the latter has no gameplay. No well defined victory or defeat conditions, no clear objective, and the only rules are those imposed by the medium through which the story is presented. And as such, I think we should not review interactive stories as games, because they make rather poor games. Instead, we should evaluate them with two main criterias: is the story any good, and does it gain anything by being interactive?

For the first part, it’s mostly about execution, and you could probably review it as you would any kind of fiction, whether it’s in litterature or cinema or whatever. The second part, however, is an essential caveat: after all, it’s what makes the medium stand out from traditional storytelling. And in that regard, I figured I’d do two micro reviews in one. So let’s look at Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, and how they differ both in their approach to interactive storytelling and their actual quality. I’ll start with the former because it’s fresher in my memory.

Gone Home

Let’s get things straight: I did not enjoy GH. Well, I did a little bit, but it failed to blow my mind, which is something I would expect from a title that got such raving reviews. It might have something to do with how every reviewer (who all gave it 9s and 10s) out there spoiled the twist in it by telling how it approached LGBT themes very well. I mean, wow, who wants to bet that this missing younger sister isn’t heterosexual? Still, the story is well written and well presented and well executed and well… so how can I dislike it, you ask?

Because it utterly fails at rule #2. It’s not an interactive story. You don’t construct the plot yourself, you’re simply handed bits of it through various audio logs as you fiddle around the house. Basically, there are some items that, once interacted with, will trigger a log that is vaguely related to that item. So, it’s a 15 minute film that they stretched out to one hour by pausing it once in a while until you find the right button to press.

As for the plot itself, while it does deal with themes that are rarely found in interactive media, it doesn’t past pointing the finger at it. It brings nothing to the table and pushes no envelope. It’s a cute little story with a happy ending that doesn’t benefit in any way from being interactive, except perhaps that now it feels longer. And it’s so clichéed… I’m sure they really wanted to tell that story. But that’s a story that failed to get to me in any meaningful way, probably because of how predictable it is. And in any case, it would have been better as a film. And that’s the real shame.

The Stanley Parable

TSP sits on the other end of my spectrum, because it fully benefits from being interactive. For those who are unaware, The Stanley Parable is… well, I’ll let Steam say it:

The Stanley Parable is a first person exploration game. You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end.

In short, you control a man named Stanley who goes to work one day to realize that nobody else is there. And that there’s a narrator talking in your head with an incredibly sweet voice. And that, indeed, the end is never the end (is never the end is never the end is never the…).

At first my stance was “we should label interactive stories as such”, but then I realize how important it is for TSP to be classified as a game. Because it’s the perfect trap: you go in there expecting a game, and you instead get something that subverts most video game tropes and also raises pretty interesting questions about the concept of agency. Several times, you think you are in control, only to realize that you are not. And it’s funny and well written and oh dear that narrator. In short, it blew my mind. Several times.

Wrapping up

I spent the same amount of money and time on both titles, and while I regret my purchase with GH, I can’t recommend TSP enough. It’s exactly what an interactive story should be. If you give Gone Home to two different persons, they’ll basically get the same story and probably experience it similarly, but if you do the same with The Stanley Parable, boy, you’re in for a night of heated discussions.

As for if we should separate games from interactive stories, well, I still think we should. But just as Spec Ops: The Line benefited from looking like a generic military first person shooter just to better destroy players’ expectations, I think sometimes, a little bit of stealth is required.

The Stanley Parable is up on Steam. Go get it, you cheapskates. Gone Home is also on Steam if you’re interested, but I’ll let you search for that one on your own.

No I am not bitter go away.