An Ode to Stanley & Esther

Ah, yes. The classic dream, of dropping everything, moving to a cabin in the woods or on the heath, and making an artsy video game. Living the dream.

Popular gaming culture today swells with generic shooters, unoriginal shtick, franchise building, and overproduced games from big developers that rarely deviate from anything already on the market. The release of more and more games with each passing year renders many indie games – despite the vision, originality, and ambition present in many of these – almost unnoticeable in the grand scope of the industry. Notwithstanding such setbacks in breaking into a broader consciousness, two recent titles are among the most significant releases in the steadily growing indie game world. First comes Davey Wreden’s The Stanley Parable, an unassuming game which in an unprecedented way, consciously challenging conventions of style and gameplay to deconstruct the experience of playing games. Second is the game Dear Esther from Dan Pinchbeck, Robert Briscoe, et al. at thechineseroom, an experimental game that, in its frustrations, highlights its subversion of basic gaming principles. Both games are products of an impassioned indie gaming community powered by accessible technologies — much like the digital video revolution in the cinema — democratizing the medium for creators outside of the centers of power. The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther both run on the Source Engine, but rather than aligning with the dominant genres by way of tried-and-true formulas, these two indie innovate by foregoing tired formulas for creative solutions.

The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther are fairly short games. Both involve a lot of navigating conceptual and narrative space, with the games serving almost as interactive presentations of essays. Progressing through space triggers voiceover narration that gradually delivers each game’s thesis on the futility of choice. Davey Wreden and the creative heads of thechineseroom (especially Robert Briscoe, Dan Pinchbeck, and Jessica Curry) present essay games, mirroring film essays in the cinematic world. Through a combination of voiceover and accompanying images, film essays participate in a discourse on an abstract topic, typically philosophical or political as in the late Chris Marker’s San Soleil and La Jetée or Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme.

The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther occupy interesting positions as games, however, incorporating a third element along with narration and image: interactivity. The element of player choice drives the images and words forward, reflexively working to critique the medium of games itself in a critical discourse. Both games know the rules and language of gaming; this knowledge leads to rule bending because both games are openly unsatisfied with the clichés and contrivances of mainstream videogaming. Rather than employing the typical gaming devices to elicit preordained reactions, The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther strive to find something fresh in their experimental principles – intransitivity, estrangement, a lack of “fun,” self-awareness, etc. These elements aggressively interrogate videogame mechanics rather than simply demonstrating them, never taking player actions for granted.

In The Stanley Parable, the game’s sharp, reflexive writing reveals the discursive deconstruction of gaming elements going on all throughout the story. While moving the titular character forward, bits of narration are triggered with an antagonistic voiceover that breaks the fourth wall to directly engage the player. This reflexivity destroys suspension of disbelief, making sure that players recognize the diegetic world of The Stanley Parable as a game and not some fabricated narrative world. The ubiquitous voiceover that defines The Stanley Parable is a beautifully executed example of reflexive writing, but don’t mistake this game as the pioneering example of self-awareness in games. There’s the deconstruction of the medium in Spec Ops: The Line, the quasi-meta dialogue of Portal by an antagonistic narrator (with stabs at dark humor), and the widely cited self-referencing within the PS2 Metal Gear Solid installments, for starters. What differentiates Davey Wreden’s game from other reflexive works lies in the witty absurdism behind it all. The game begins by establishing Stanley as a stand-in for the player, portraying the character as pushing buttons all day and waiting for orders on what buttons to push, how long to push them, and what order to do it all in, much like a player lost to the hypnotism of repetition. The narrator’s description of Stanley as a mere drone parallels the player’s own role behind a set of controls, pushing buttons and following orders from an unseen authority – therein lies the crux of the game’s impact.

The narrator’s lines are clearly meant to be read as a discourse between the player and the makers of the game itself because the game acknowledges the player, interactivity, and the choices one makes as the sole driving force of the narrative. When given control of Stanley and the player’s eventual encounter of diverging pathways, this sudden opportunity of player choice — despite what the narrator says — lends the game an existential flavor. The player can elect to disobey the narrator’s words — “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left” — but such disobedience prompts an increasingly frustrated narrator to charge Stanley of “ruining the story.”

Thus, The Stanley Parable works as a piece of metafiction to critique the narrative structure of videogames, addressing issues unique to the medium from interactivity to player choice. Breaking the fourth wall and addressing technical aspects of the game itself is an example of narrative intransitivity, altering gaming’s visual and technical language to dissect the very aspects that differentiate gaming as a unique artistic medium. The Stanley Parable foregrounds the technical aspects of games rather than leaving the mechanics invisible, with the narrator noting the first person view’s inability to show the character’s body and the character’s own role as a silent protagonist. Such estrangement to traditional modes of gaming renders The Stanley Parable one of the most self-critical artistic works of the medium, raising profound philosophical questions and a number of weighty closing monologues depending on which vignette the player undergoes based on prior choices.

For those similarly afflicted as Stanley, the mere act of walking down a hallway is an existential crisis.

There are numerous ways to complete the game, but the ending in which the player completely disobeys the narrator at every turn results in the game’s most intricate resolution. Requiring an intertextual reading of the game, this ending projects the character into another context entirely: a surreal, stripped down version of Half-Life 2’s opening. The intersection with another game prompts even more fourth wall breaking and metafictional philosophizing by the narrator, but the ultimate end of this vignette carries curious implications. The entire raison d’être of The Stanley Parable centers on free will and player choice, the driving forces that make videogames a unique narrative medium. By challenging the narrator’s instructions, the game leads to unfinished corners of the map with the narrator explaining, “No one’s even built this part of the map because you were never supposed to be here in the first place. It’s just a bunch of skybox and dev wall textures. That’s it.”

The curious implication behind this ending almost seems obvious: the game developers did construct this part of the map as an explorable area meant for the player to find — again, despite what the narrator says. Defying the narrator at every point in the game is futile in the grand scheme of the game; Wreden concludes that the role of the player is ultimately meaningless because true control always remains with the game. Each ending — despite the player’s defiance of the narrator — represents predetermined routes that the developers have created, thus rendering player choices futile under the untouchable authority of the game. Despite such a seemingly nihilistic conclusion, player choices may be meaningless but it’s also essential to drive the narrative forward, lest one cease to experience the game in the first place. This bizarre relationship of the game both dependent and independent of the player treads the realm of Schrödinger’s cat — simultaneously contradictory and true. That The Stanley Parable — an unassuming, free-to-play mod for the Source engine — can tread such ambitious grounds points to the absolute care of Davey Wreden’s artistry.

DISSATISFACTION IS THE ENDGAME

The very first few seconds of Dear Esther reveals how markedly dissimilar the game is to The Stanley Parable, though after a single playthrough, so many facets of the game feel so familiar. The game rests on a similar essay structure: a protagonist walks through space while voiceover narration plays through key moments of the narrative. Nevertheless, Dear Esther repurposes the narrative devices into new forms: the narration is completely divorced from the gameplay, the multiple pathways always converge at the end, the instructions are never given, and so on. There’s no inkling of any objective from the start of Dear Esther, leaving the game an exercise in aimless wandering as the voiceover’s prose narrates views of breathtaking vistas (the more credit to Robert Briscoe). The game works better as a visual essay than The Stanley Parable, with its somber atmosphere and abstraction of narration, and Dear Esther slowly unfolds as a far more complicated narrative with multiple stories and characters who are merely referenced and never explaiend. Dear Esther demands player attention with its fairly minimalist setup, completely closing off its world with vague allusions and an unclear backstory to dislocate and frustrate audiences. Dissatisfaction is the endgame with Dear Esther, leaving players powerless and exasperated but also provoked by the game’s fixation on anti-pleasure. By deliberately leaving plenty of narrative space for audience interpretation, the post-play experience opens up broadly, adding on to the numerous opportunities for contemplation during the game’s stretched moments of under-stimulation and slow pacing.

The exaggerated sluggish pacing of Dear Esther heightens atmosphere, especially when considering the genuinely good-looking environments and the somber sound design and score that accompanies the narrative. The nearly infuriating pacing between narration cues diverts the player from gratification and “fun” into a different state of playing, namely, to experiment with the game’s technical limitations and unravel whatever secrets Dear Esther has to offer beneath the surface. During one moment of the game, the narrator mentions a way to enter a beached ship through a hole in its bottom, but the game obstructs the player from even getting remotely close to the vessel at all. Clearly defined landmarks in an otherwise barren island prove unsatisfying as well, from the unreachable lighthouse to the numerous abandoned buildings that serve absolutely no narrative purpose. Venturing away from the island conjures a black screen and the narrator whispering the player to return: “Come back.” Such deliberate actions to tightly restrict a player’s freedom have profound significance in the world of the game, whether narrative or thematic. Approaching the end of the game, one realizes how straightforward the journey actually unfolds with each playthrough culminating in the same final cutscene jumping off the aerial.

The unwavering nature of Dear Esther’s ending should draw comparisons to The Stanley Parable in that both games ultimately comment on the medium’s definitive control over the player. Whereas The Stanley Parable masks its pessimistic stance on free will under the guise of meandering pathways and multiple exits, Dear Esther makes little effort to hide its outlook, offering forked roads that lead to the same place just a few steps later. The game denies any sort of agency from the player from the very beginning, presenting the player with the beckoning aerial lights within the first few seconds. Unable to do anything else but walk through space towards a predetermined objective, Dear Esther explores games’ lack of choice — in stark contrast to The Stanley Parable’s exploration of illusory choice. Walking at a snail’s pace through the elaborate cave systems and cliffs of Dear Esther and invariably returning to the same road no matter what route a player takes carries a frustrating atmosphere all throughout the experience. Defiance simply doesn’t exist in the game’s intentional narrative fixity, thus aligning the game’s rigid mechanics to parallel the fundamental theme driving the narrative forward: fate and the inevitability of death. Dear Esther’s final moments find the game consciously stealing away the supposedly all-powerful agency of the player and replacing it with a simple cutscene. They implicitly draw comparisons between Esther’s suggested death by drunk driver, another image of an individual suffering from something outside her control, and the player’s journey. All events leading up to the aerial end up, inevitably, with this final cutscene. No matter what actions the player has taken, all roads lead to Damascus.

The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther diverge and share so much from one another, with both titles exploring player agency and the nature of free will in gaming. To deny the significance of either of these works entails a missed experience of gaming culture’s most important titles released these past few years. Although The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther ultimately conclude with inelastic, prefabricated endgames to emphasize the questionable role of free will in the medium, both titles are liberating nonetheless. For the gaming world, these two works liberate the medium beyond the typical mainstream market games, moving away from the norm and into experimental forms of artistic expression. With that in mind, I can only hope that the future they promise arrives much sooner.

Miguel Penabella also writes film criticism at Free Tea with Purchase of a Family Meal. You can follow him on Twitter @TheFreeTea

Further Reading: Interview: Davey Wreden (Medium Difficulty)

A Retrospective/Post-mortem of Dear Esther (LittleLostPoly)

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