Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Narrative in Her Story, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and Papers, Please

I initially set up Well-Rendered to discuss narrative in games, so it seems remiss not to talk about a handful of recent favourites, which are to varying extents experiments in interactive storytelling. The reason I haven't so far is that they've all been deservedly successful and thus had a lot of critical attention already, so I can't bring anything new to the table. However, I've watched enough House to know that over-sharing could one day save my life, so I've written a little about each one just in case.

Please be aware that since these games explore narrative, they are best played with as little knowledge as possible, and this article contains spoilers. If you haven't played any or all of the games, they're all out now on Steam, generally for a lot less than you'd pay for a cinema ticket. Even for a 2-hour game, that's excellent when you consider the quality and originality of the stories within.

Her Story - Sam Barlow, 2015

In the week since it came out, Her Story has been the subject of much debate because the player's complete lack of control over events has lead many to question whether it's even a game at all. It's interesting that since I started writing six years ago, popular discourse has moved on from "can this game be considered art?" to "can this bit of art be considered a game?". While the former debate is very subjective because it depends entirely on one's definition of art, the latter debate generally ends with people shrugging and accepting that certain products may as well be considered games because they contain an interactive component, and besides, they clearly aren't anything else.

While I don't have any patience for the view that narrative experiments like Her Story should not be covered by the games press or sold through games distribution channels like Steam, I do agree that they are so far removed from conventional games in terms of developer intent and player experience that the label "interactive storytelling" is probably more helpful than "game" when it comes to analysis.

With that in mind, the premise of Her Story is as follows: A man was killed in 1994, and video footage of police interviews with a women closely involved in the case are stored in tiny snippets on an ancient computer database. You take on the role of someone sifting through the data 20 years later, and your only objective is to locate and watch the videos, using keywords to query the database and thus reveal unseen footage. The catch is that you're only able to view the first five videos that a keyword search brings up, meaning that you can't just search for the name of the dead man, for example, and watch every video in which the woman utters it. In order to view all the clips, you need to pay attention to everything she says (and take note of the odd visual clue) so you can use those subtle hints as search terms to unearth the more deeply-hidden videos.

Although you can add your own custom keywords to videos that you've watched, save them for later and arrange them into a useful order, the only purposes of doing this are to help you make sense of the story... and find more videos. You doesn't have to conclusively solve the mystery, and Her Story ends whenever you decide you've seen enough.

Her Story is compelling because the video clips can be revealed in any order, depending on which keywords you use. When I played, a throwaway search for what seemed like a fairly inconsequential term uncovered a major twist within the first 10 minutes. Far from ruining the plot, this spurred me on to try and understand what I had just learnt. However, that's only because the woman's story is both inconsistent and open to interpretation, even when its component parts are viewed in full, in order.

Indeed, if Her Story had been released as a short film with a linear narrative it would have been an intriguing mystery. As a fragmented jigsaw, it is disorientating, too. This is especially around the midpoint, where you don't have enough evidence to decide whether the woman is mentally ill, consciously trying to lead the police astray, desperately protecting a dark secret, or all three (...whether you ever have enough evidence is up to you to judge). Further to this, the fact that you have to understand, or at least register, the details of each video in order to progress means you are forced to engage with it far more closely than you would a film, often re-watching certain clips multiple times in order pick up on something you might have missed before.

There is far more to say about Her Story, but I'll limit it to this: that the story is set, for the most part, in my home town of Portsmouth. Except from the British campaign in Empire: Total War, I don't think I've played another game that even mentions Portsmouth, which is a shame because Portsmouth is full of history and would make a great video game setting. Naughty Dog, you heard it here first.

Papers, Please - Lucas Pope, 2014

Next up is lauded bureaucracy simulator Papers, Please, which casts you as a border control inspector employed by the fictional Eastern Bloc state of Arstotzka. Gameplay consists almost entirely of sitting at a desk and shuffling through the papers of the people seeking entry into your proud nation.

While the basic conditions of entry - paperwork must be current, photographs and physical descriptions must match - remain the same, new rules are added each day to make your job more complicated. Diplomatic authorisation, work permits and ID cards are instated, and different groups of people require different combinations. And of course, the more pieces of paper you have to keep track of, the more likely it is that someone will sneak in a forgery. If you make a mistake, either by denying a visa to someone whose documents were in order, or by failing to spot a discrepancy, you receive a citation and eventually a fine from the authorities. This presents a problem at the end of each day, when you must divide your meagre earnings between your family's home, food, heating and medical care.

The gameplay is addictive (I mean, if you're of a pedantic bent, like me), but Papers, Please's brilliance is in how it confronts you with the moral consequences of your actions. Some people who arrive at the border without the proper documentation face persecution or death if they have to return to their home countries, and sometimes it's only an issue of an entry permit being a couple of days out of date. Your methods gradually become more exploitative as you're forced to strip-search people if they're a couple of pounds over their documented weight, or given the option of pocketing an under-the-table commission for detaining people whose paperwork isn't quite in order.

Will you disregard the plight of the desperate people who appeal to you for help so you can scrape together the money you need to feed your family? Or will you risk your life and liberty (and that of your wife and child) to destabilise an oppressive regime? Whichever option you choose, there is no great reward; your character will either be condemned to crushing poverty, or slightly less crushing poverty with a side order of overwhelming guilt.

Video games often ask you to choose between good or evil, but in most cases they do this by bestowing great power upon you, perhaps as a warrior, or the leader of an army. By casting you as a relatively powerless drone, Papers, Please forces you to reflect on the consequences of everyday actions, confronting you with the human cost of blindly acquiescing to the demands of an authority who may not have our best interests at heart.

The Stanley Parable - Davey Wreden/Galactic Cafe, 2013

There are two types of gamers. On one side there's the type who will, when faced with an objective, proceed directly towards it and ignore all distractions along the way. Then there are those who, like me, will always go in the opposite direction to the one the game is indicating, either out of curiosity of a neurotic fear (hi) they they'll be missing out if they don't. While it's possible for the former type to complete The Stanley Parable in under ten minutes, the latter can string it out for 6 hours or more.

Like 2012's equally experimental Dear Esther (which I reviewed for GodisaGeek), The Stanley Parable started life as a Source engine mod before being redeveloped as a full-scale release. This isn't really a co-incidence; the concept of each would have been pretty hard to sell without an existing following. In The Stanley Parable you play as Stanley, a cubicle dweller who comes in to the office to discover that everyone else has vanished. As he wanders through the building to learn what's happened, his every move is narrated by, well, The Narrator, an actorly voice whose pompous tone can waver depending on whether or not Stanley does what he's told.

The Narrator announces Stanley's actions before the player has carried them out, meaning that if they want, they can just do something else. "When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left," says the narrator, confidently, as you approach some doors. And you can indeed enter the one on Stanley's left, if you want. But you don't have to. Should you choose to enter the door on Stanley's right, the narrator will grow exasperated and lament that he's only trying to tell a story, and why are you making it so difficult?

The rest of the game proceeds along the same lines: you're faced with an obvious choice, the one you're clearly "meant" to take, but you're also free to go and do something totally different. The scenarios that you encounter as a result become increasingly bizarre, and the narrator's tone veers from genial to frustrated to pleading depending on what you choose to do. This is an ingenious yet light-hearted satire on the strained relationship that narrative games have with their players. One of the only defining features of a game is its interactivity, but storytelling requires pacing, plotting and editing that are very hard to deliver when you don't have any control over how the person being told the story chooses to allow it to unfold.

Fortunately, The Stanley Parable is more than just a smart commentary on the difficulty of presenting narrative in games. In fact, its greatest achievement is that it manages to do this while remaining consistently playful and fun. Unlike a lot of arty games, which are impressive on first playthrough but aren't entertaining enough to tempt you back for a second go, The Stanley Parable is endlessly amusing, and holds the promise of more surprises, provided you think up new ways to break the rules. I can't put it better than its own delightful marketing text, which says that "the game is not here to fight you, it is inviting you to dance." 

Gone Home - The Fulbright Company, 2013

Gone Home is the least experimental of the games on this list, but it delivers the strongest emotional punch and is thus my favourite. Like the other three, it casts you as a relatively normal person: a college-age girl just back from a year travelling abroad. As Kaitlin Greenbriar, you return to your empty family home on a dark and stormy night, but the haunted house aesthetic is misdirection - you never face any threat. Instead, your objective is to explore and pick up clues in order to figure out where your parents and younger sister have gone.

The game is set in 1995, and most of the period detail comes from the magazines, VHS tapes and Riot grrrl cassettes left strewn about by Kaitlin's artistic younger sister Sam. In fact it's really Sam who is the main character of the story, and by following her trail you learn not just the reason for her departure but also about the search for identity that led up to it. The inner life of a teenage girl is vivid whatever the circumstances, but Sam's is more torrid than most. Largely misunderstood by her peers (she's a loner), her teachers (exasperated by the impressionistic essays she turns in in lieu of biology homework) and her parents (who embark on misguided attempts to help her fit in), Sam finds refuge in music, 'zines, Street Fighter and most of all Lonnie, a girl at school with whom she eventually falls in love.

From Beyond Good and Evil's cosy lighthouse to The Last of Us's abandoned hideouts, living spaces have long provided a way for games to convey character and backstory through interactive means (I wrote about this for The Escapist back in 2010), and Gone Home is dedicated to doing exactly this. Sam covers her room in posters and leaves schoolwork scattered around the house, but because she realises that her parents will never accept who she is, she hides her deepest secrets under lock and key. Meanwhile, the girls' mother leaves seemingly innocuous clues about her failing marriage in plain sight, while their father is reduced to writing hi-fi reviews for a living and filling cupboards with unsold copies of his JFK conspiracy novels.

The feeling you get when discovering an illuminating artefact is something only a game can really deliver. Through their living spaces, people betray the things they try and conceal with their behaviour, words and dress, and by letting you explore them, interactive narratives cast you in the role of emotional detective. Gone Home doesn't quite stick to the mantra of "show, don't tell" - at certain points in the game a disembodied voiceover from Sam will read a diary entry that explains certain episodes in her burgeoning relationship with Lonnie. This breaks immersion a little bit, not just because voiceovers don't exist in real life, but also because the exposition removes you from the more immediate sense of being alone in the house.

But that's a small quibble, and only valid if your primary concern is consistency of execution rather than the quality and impact of the story being told. The truly striking thing about Gone Home is how authentically it presents its subject matter. The lives of both teenage girls and LGBTQ people are under-explored in video games when you take into account how many of those people actually play games (hint: lots). Sam is given complete ownership of her story; she is neither pathologised nor made to have her experience filtered through the words of another. Gone Home is special to the people who recognise something of themselves in Sam, and there's a unique sense of relief and validation that comes from having a story like yours ("I never expected to see myself - or such a strong reflection of myself and my own life - in a video game", Polygon) played out in a medium you love ("I could cry - did cry - with the relief of knowing a game like this even exists" Kotaku).

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All four of these games are indie titles, and while more and more AAA games are taking narrative seriously (see my post on this year's encouraging E3 lineup for an overview), the vast resources required to make an AAA title combined with the limited size of the audience for art games means its unlikely we'll see them on a large scale any time soon.

However, I'm not convinced games with a high level of narrative focus actually need bigger budgets. Each of the games on this list is brilliant because of its concept and, to varying extends, its writing. The developers might disagree, but I can't think of a way in which any could have been improved with more money. Further to this, the critical (and I believe commercial) success of the games should mean we see more in the future.

And when we do, I will buy them.

All screenshots are promotional images from the official sites or Steam pages.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the write-up. Your mention of The Stanley Parable reminds me that I need to go try it!

    Of the others that I have played, Gone Home is also my favorite.