The End is Never the End

This week was supposed to be about lasers. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, this week will no longer be about lasers. No, I didn’t break my laser cannon – that still works fine. But, Rich had been planning to write about the challenges of making lasers work with the Construct 2 game engine until his computer completely broke down this week. Words cannot describe the pain a true developer feels when his computer goes down unexpectedly. So, perhaps a highly scientific graph is in order:

 

rich graph

 

As you can see, things escalated quickly. So, in an effort to give Rich some emotional space to work things out with his hard drive, Austin and I brainstormed some new ideas. We decided to focus this week’s post on someone else’s game and how that game is informing and inspiring our efforts with AOTW. There are plenty of great sci-fi inspirations out there, but we wanted to look at something that has been very influential in the indie community at large and that also inspires us in challenging and indirect ways, so we decided to risk an existential crisis and play the Stanley Parable.

If you haven’t played this game, I would actually advise at least playing the demo before reading too much about it. I played it for the first time in preparation for writing this post, and it was definitely a mind bending experience. Essentially, your character is a generic office worker, who one day looks up and realizes everyone in his office is gone. He sets off to find his co-workers, and finds himself being implored to follow a certain set of instructions by a seemingly omniscient narrator. From there, almost anything can happen, depending on whether you follow the instructions or not. I played through three of the possible sixteen endings and then discussed my confused feelings about the game with Austin.

I found the “Confusion Ending,” the “Following Orders Ending,” and the “All a Dream Ending” in that order.

On my first play through, my tepidly rebellious streak broke through and I decided to bravely disobey the narrator when he told me to take the door on the left. After a series of subsequent misadventures, I eventually found myself being led by a very literal “adventure line” to a room that had all of the steps in my pre-scripted path listed on the wall.

On my second play through, my conventional tendencies broke through and I found myself feeling compelled to follow the narrator’s instructions to the letter. I just had to see what would happen if I followed the path the game had seemingly defined for me. This led to me “escaping” from the building I was in – an ostensibly happy ending considering the dreary state of affairs inside the building.

On my third play through, my compulsive streak broke through and I returned to a stairwell that I had passed the previous time. In this stairwell, you can go either up or down. I had gone up in the second play through, and the fact that I had gone up but not down had left me feeling un-balanced. To satisfy my perfectionist tendencies, I took the downward path on this play through. This ultimately led to the “All a Dream” ending which involves gripping madness, the realization that my character had been hallucinating the whole time, and the realization that I was now dead – arguably a very unhappy ending by most reasonable standards.

So, Stanley’s twisted office building seems terribly far removed from the interstellar tank combat that is AOTW. However, as I discussed Stanley’s fate with Austin and got his take on it, I realized that the Stanley Parable actually raises a lot of questions that are relevant to our game. Much has been written about what Stanley Parable says about player agency and the nature of choice in video games. I’m not sure that our conclusions are wildly different than anything that’s been said already, but trying to apply these thoughts to our own game is an interesting exercise. Furthermore, I think each of the endings I found has a unique message to impart to us.

The Following Orders ending is perhaps the most straightforward to understand. In this play through, I followed the pre-ordained narrative and was quite literally rewarded with an escape from reality at the end of the game when my character walks out of his office building into an idyllic countryside life. As the narrator says, “It was not knowledge or even power that he had been seeking, but happiness.” I think that the “escapism” label is a common refrain that people use when criticizing people for spending time playing video games. I don’t actually think escapism is absolutely bad – sometimes you just need to unwind at the end of the day and there should be a place for that in game development. However, we want AOTW to be more than pursuing happiness as an escape. At some level we want people to seek knowledge by exploring off the path and by finding reasons to make their own decisions in our branching story line.

Of course, this brings up the oft-debated question – is there such thing as true choice in a video game? After all, if the developer has pre-determined all of the possible choices, is the player just a mouse in a maze? This is where the Confusion ending comes into play. In this scenario, nothing you do ultimately matters, even when you “make your own decisions.” Even when you feel like you’ve escaped the “adventure line,” it breaks back into the room and eerily stays with you no matter where you are. To make matters worse, at the end you see that your rebellious choices were part of the plan from the very beginning. I found the implications of this scenario to be rather disturbing. Fortunately, Austin did have some good perspective that calmed my nerves a bit (good thing he’s the story writer).

In short– his take is that, yes, decisions within a game can matter because the player can project his or her own reasons for making the decision into the game, even in a limited context. This projection allows the player to extract his or her own meaning because even though the available choices and subsequent paths were pre-determined, the player made that choice for a reason. For example, in AOTW you might choose to help one mercenary tank faction or another because you believe that decision will lead to less overall harm to a planet’s citizens. Hopefully, at least in a small way, this will encourage players to seek knowledge by better knowing their motivations and by extension better knowing themselves. Furthermore, from my perspective, there are many art forms in which you have even less decision making capability – take literature or movies for example – but we don’t claim that it is impossible to learn anything because of this. Rather, you extract meaning by projecting a piece of yourself into that work of art and wrestling with how that makes you feel about the context of your own life. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves by getting too far outside the context of the game, but both in the branching and the more rigid parts of our game, we are certainly striving to do more than have a “Confusion” ending.

The All a Dream ending was the hardest for me to understand. I’m still grappling with it but I’ve got a few ideas. At least for me, this ending reminds me of how we sometimes use games to normalize ourselves, as Mariella (the “real life” character who spots the hallucinating Stanley) uses him to normalize her own life. We give ourselves an obviously fictional escape, and that normalizes our non-game life. Everything in the game is so fictional that, in contrast, it’s easier to believe that everything in your own life is concrete and as it should be. If you spend 3 hours a day, flying through space blasting aliens with triple barrel laser cannons, the fact that you are spending 8 hours of your day in a job that may not be what you’re meant to do doesn’t seem so obvious. Again, this is a fine line to negotiate, but we want AOTW to be a game that pushes you to think in a way that is consistent with real life critical thinking. We want it to sharpen a player’s moral and intellectual awareness, not anesthetize them. This is especially important to us considering that we are making a war game. While we’re certainly not above having some fun blasting fictional enemies with tanks, we want the player to be reminded that in essence, war is hell and often involves choosing the lesser of two evils. We hope to do this both with the choices the player is presented with, and with the tone that is imparted through atmosphere and character dialogue.

It brings up some heavy topics, but this unexpected experience of Stanley Parable was definitely inspirational for me. I’m glad that I had this unexpected opportunity to reflect more deeply on the nature of what we’re striving to make. We still have a long road ahead of us just to complete a game, let alone a thought provoking game. But, as the Stanley Parable constantly reminds you, “the end is never the end.” The journey should always matter.

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