Sometimes when I sit down to play a videogame, I desperately want to start my next existential crisis. Thankfully, developers like Davey Wreden and William Pugh have my back.
In 2015, Davey Wreden (under the studio name ‘Everything Unlimited Ltd.’) released The Beginner’s Guide, while William Pugh (along with his studio ‘Crows, Crows, Crows’) released Dr. Langeskov, the Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist. These two releases were met with high expectations, as they followed Davey and William’s success with The Stanley Parable two years earlier. These three games push the boundaries of what a ‘game’ truly is, while asking questions about the nature of players and creators, and the relationship between them.
Compared to the generally linear narratives of literature, film, and television, videogames are an opportunity for stories to be presented in a way that grants a player agency and choice; however, the choices a player can make within a videogame have been provided by the game developer, and the player will always be limited by these restrictions. The Stanley Parable is all about choice, but is also a comment on the restrictions of choice within a game world.
You play as Stanley, who has always worked a job where he is told to press particular buttons, and he always does as he is told. When the commands stop appearing on his computer, he (and the player) begin receiving new commands from a narrator. The narrator plays the role of the game developer, instructing the player and offering boundaries. When the player follows the rules and instructions, Stanley is lead to freedom through a straightforward narrative; when the player attempts to break the rules, Stanley often meets his demise. Multiple doors and choices often lead to the same locations, showing the ways branching narratives often lead to the same resolutions, which are pre-determined by the game developer.
This comment on games and how they are played does not sound inherently ‘fun’ - which is what a lot of players seek when they play a game - and yet The Stanley Parable was met with so much success that Davey and William weren’t sure how to handle it. What is it about The Stanley Parable that players find so alluring that they continue to replay it now, seeking new endings and new narrative gems?
The question of whether narrative is as important as game mechanics has been a recurring uncertainty as technology has advanced and game developers have become more capable of embedding stories within their games. The Stanley Parable, with its sophisticated narrative and narration, and relative lack of game mechanics (you can’t even jump), renders this debate void; it is clear that narrative is important, a point made both through The Stanley Parable’s embedded message and its success.
But following this success, the question became, ‘What’s next?’ What sort of game does one release after making such a unique and subversive experience? Would similar comments on the game industry have an equally remarkable effect? How is it possible to create when you are feeling the pressure and weight of your previous achievements?
Perhaps it is from these feelings that both A Whirlwind Heist and The Beginner’s Guide were created. Each of these games speak less about the game products themselves and more about the process of their creation. A Whirlwind Heist uses a humorous experience to make a player ask questions about what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ as a game is being developed, while The Beginner’s Guide takes a player on an emotional journey and positions them to consider the difficulties of navigating the path between creating for success and creating for personal fulfilment.
The Stanley Parable blends genres and ideas, pretending to be a walking simulator or a puzzle game, but never quite meeting a player’s expectations, and this ambiguity and confusion flows through in The Whirlwind Heist and The Beginner’s Guide. These games make false promises, create goals that misdirect the player or are impossible to achieve, and experiment with what is real and what is not. They all use the trope of the unreliable narrator, with the player constantly asking whether they can trust the narrator, and therefore whether to believe their narrative and follow their instructions.
These narrators are one of the most notable similarities between The Stanley Parable, The Whirlwind Heist, and The Beginner’s Guide. The stories are incredibly written and equally well-narrated, with Kevan Brighting, Simon Amstell, and Davey himself providing the voices for each game respectively. The narrators each begin with a conversational tone that is engaging and encouraging to a player, but are capable of delving into frustration, anger, or intense emotional distress once that player is invested in the story, and these emotional shifts are deeply affecting. The intricacies of the scripts and performances are apparent, and they make it clear that these games are art.
But are these games really games?
I believe they are. But I believe they're also encouraging a shift in what a ‘game’ can be.
A clear and motivating goal is often considered a defining characteristic of a game - or, at least, a game that people want to play - and the ambiguous choices and unreliable narrators within The Stanley Parable, The Whirlwind Heist, and The Beginner’s Guide can make goals difficult to determine. These games refuse to meet our expectations, but have still found unexpected and overwhelming success.
Games underpinned by simple game mechanics, ambiguous goals, and strong narratives are finding their place in the spotlight lately, with Undertale becoming unexpectedly popular and, more recently, Pony Island receiving extremely positive reviews. Though similar experiments have been released and found success in the past, these experiences are finding greater acclaim as they become more accepted within a shifting definition of what a ‘game’ can be. More than anything, I believe their success settles the argument of whether game narrative can be as important as game mechanics once and for all.