Are We Too Easily Impressed By Intelligent Games?

Part of my job requires me to maintain my hobbies. My living is dependent upon me sharing my opinions regarding music, sports, TV, film, and video games, and as such roughly 50% of my working hours are devoted to listening, watching, playing, and, when I can find the time, breathing. It’s a rather silly occupation, this whole “commenting on the interesting stuff other people are creating” nonsense, but hey, someone’s got to do it and it’s a lot more fun than sitting in a cubicle pressing the same buttons over and over again.

Someone who does enjoy sitting in a cubicle pressing the same buttons over and over again, though, is Stanley, the mute protagonist of The Stanley Parable. Stanley is an office worker whose mundane day-to-day life is interrupted when he discovers that his co-workers have suddenly disappeared, and his game requires you to do very little else other than walk, and only occasionally does it require you to interact with the environment around you. To describe it in such a way, though, is doing a disservice to what The Stanley Parable is really about, which due to the game’s ambiguous narrative, is still very much up for debate.

The Stanley Parable forces the player to consider their agency not just in video games, but in reality, too, and as such I believe it transcends the vast majority of other narratives in its medium. The experience of playing it has resonated with me far more than most other games I have played, and for that I awarded it full marks in my review of it on this very site.

Underneath that review was a comment left by ‘Barth_Vader’, which I will include here verbatim: “people blow their loads way too quickly when a game is unconventional and tries something new. 'IT'S SO SELF-AWARE AND QUESTIONS GAMING OH MY GOD 10/10 CITIZEN KANE OF VIDEO GAMES MASTERPIECE'. whatever, it's still a glorified walking simulator to me.” My inclusion of that comment is not intended to mock Mr. Vader, but rather to address his opinion (one which is shared by many) that games such as The Stanley Parable are wrongfully fawned over by the gaming media ahead of other, more deserving games by virtue of their unconventionality.

As previously mentioned, my job requires me to play video games, probably quite a few more than the average consumer, who will likely only invest in two or three games per year which have received hugely positive reviews and/or belong to a series which they’re a fan of, such as Call of Duty or FIFA. I play those games too, but I also play the critically maligned retail releases, the uncelebrated PC games, and the bargain-bucket, cookie-cutter titles that hopelessly attempt to ape their more successful peers. When I play a game, I have an exhaustively large spectrum of its contemporaries to compare it to, so when games such as The Stanley Parable arrive which have no true comparisons that can be made to it, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Video games are almost exclusively action-packed and emotionally vapid, and I’m okay with that. I don’t need or want every game I play to head-butt me in the heartstrings for me to enjoy it, but so rarely is this the case that when a game causes me to feel something outside of that familiar rush of adrenaline when I mercilessly gun down an NPC, I am more inclined to take notice of it. Die Hard’s a great movie that I could watch again and again, but sometimes I just want to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, y’know?

So did I give The Stanley Parable a perfect score simply because it offered something a bit different to what I’ve grown accustomed to in my video games? No. The Stanley Parable is an experience that shouldn’t be missed not because it’s “unconventional and tries something new,” as Mr. Vader put it, but because it excels so marvellously at that new thing it tries. But that’s not to say that I and the rest of the gaming media aren’t more likely to forgive a game’s problems if it has a stronger narrative, with this year’s BioShock Infinite being an example of this.

I found the majority of BioShock Infinite’s shooting sections tedious which, given that BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter, meant that I spent a lot of time while playing it feeling quite bored. However, upon completing it and finding my jaw slamming to the floor due to its now-infamous ending, which magnificently turned the entirety of the BioShock Universe on its head, all I could do was tell everyone who’d listen to me to play it as soon as possible, and it remains one of my most highly recommended games of the year. It is impossible for me to argue, then, that games which display a narrative maturity do not find their gameplay flaws being overlooked, but I do not consider this to be a problem.

I have played countless games which I would recommend based upon their gameplay alone, but rarely do I come across one which has made an emotional impact upon me. So while I wouldn’t sit down for a marathon session of The Stanley Parable in the same way that I would with Super Mario Galaxy or Guild Wars 2, that doesn’t mean that I value it as a game any lessI just value it in a different way.

We’ve yet to see a title that perfectly balances both its gameplay and its narrative, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t praise the games that excel in either area. Yes, we are perhaps more forgiving of games which offer us something more than just a big-budget thrill ride, but in truth we have to be, to ensure that these games aren’t brushed aside in favour of their more prominent contemporaries that are blessed with a broader appeal. I don’t want every developer to strive to make their game a high-brow work of art, nor is that ever going to be the case, but much in the same way that Miley Cyrus sits happily next to Sage Francis on my iPod, I see no problem with celebrating both sides of the coin.

I hope that clears things up for you a little bit, Mr. Vader.