The Stanley Parable, originally a Half Life mod later released commercially, is an interesting example of interactive fiction under the trappings of a video game. Ostensibly the game is, like Dear Esther and others mentioned on this blog, a story being told to the player as they progress through its world. Very quickly, however, it turns into a sort of thesis on agency in games (and electronic literature more broadly.) At its most basic, the player is dropped into the world and told to go a certain direction. The further off-track the player gets, the more in-depth the game’s discussion on agency becomes.
Placing The Stanley Parable under a genre is difficult, even considering the more vague sense of genre in elit as compared to other media. While it carries itself as a game or game-like thing, it is much closer mechanically to the hypertext poems we read earlier in the semester. The player is given a series of binary choices–left or right, primarily–with each choice taking him or her to a different ‘stanza.’ The game-like mechanics are used to set the tone of the piece, but the only deciding factor in the narrative itself is which “link” the player chooses and at which time. The player is then encouraged to follow through each possible permutation (and occasionally scolded for searching too hard for secrets,) not entirely unlike the first few poems we read.
What makes The Stanley Parable stand out is its commentary on interactive literature as a whole, purportedly being a piece about making choices but, all along the way, noting bluntly that every choice was programmed and anticipated. There is a small moment, for instance, at which the player can find a hole in the world geometry and “leave” the game’s world. The game’s narrator then launches into a dialogue about how the player thought they had broken the game when, in reality, they were precisely where they were allowed to be.
The game is interesting in terms of electronic literature not necessary for the game itself, but the way in which it thoroughly anticipates the player. Beyond the binary choices, there are several points in the game at which it deconstructs reading strategies themselves. For instance: I have a bit of experience working with the Source engine upon which the game was built so, instead of playing the game again and again as it wanted me to, I decided to try and take a look at its inner workings by cheating. The engine’s developer features are disabled by default, so your typical reader would generally never have access to the command console. After a little digging through the game’s configuration files, however, the console can be enabled. Attempting to use it, however, results in a stern talking-to by the narrator.
Attempting to do so again earns further admonishment. At other points, attempting to open every door or spending too much time in any one room will trigger similar commentary, purposely signifying that the developer is fully aware of what the player is doing.
While certainly not the philosophically deepest example of electronic literature, the introspective nature of the game sets it apart in the sense that it knows what you’re thinking and it will say so explicitly.