Gone Home and The Stanley Parable: Story Exploration and Agency
Games such as Phoenix Wright and LA Noire where gameplay takes a backseat to story have existed for a while – games where there is no real punishment for losing and you only complete minor challenges to move forward in the story. Recently, story exploration has emerged as a fully fledged genre. More like interactive stories than action-packed RPGs, story exploration games like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable have captured the hearts of casual gamers across the world.
However, Gone Home has faced scrutiny from the more hardcore crowd who don’t think it’s a real game. The Stanley Parable has not dealt with the same criticisms – perhaps because it didn’t reach the same level of popularity as Gone Home did, but also perhaps because of its features. This brings attention to a different question about these games. Rather than deciding whether or not story exploration games are ‘real games,’ it could be more interesting to figure out what differentiates story exploration games from movies or TV shows.
Almost every game in existence has a plot, and the plot is the entire point of story exploration games. For a lot of players, this means the experience is no different from sitting back and watching a movie; this is why it’s important that the plot be immersive. The player must have some control over story progression or else it ceases to be an interactive experience. This is where many criticisms of Gone Home come in – you move through the story in a linear way (which is of course not unheard of in video games, but it creates a weakness when you are doing little else but move through a story). You can explore any room you choose but in many cases a key or code that will take you to the next section of the house is in the last room you visit. If you miss a hidden item , you will learn less about the story, but there is nothing you can do to change its outcome.
The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, has an entirely nonlinear plot. The order in which you discover the various ‘endings’ it supplies is entirely up to the choices you make throughout the game. It comes with multiple possible endings, some of which a player might not even discover until they’ve played the game a few times through. The storyline follows the protagonist, Stanley, around as a narrator attempts to guide him through the story. If you deviate from what the narrator tells you to do, the narrator becomes frustrated but must follow you as you choose your own path. This affects the perception of the game – if you obey the narrator your first time through, you get a boring but positive ending, and this will shape your interpretation of the rest of the game differently than if you completely disobey the narrator at first and end up in one of many surreal, existential positions you will experience.
Gone Home has a moving plot, but the player can become impatient when they don’t discover anything of interest for a long time and the game can feel like a chore, something that could easily be viewed on a screen instead. The Stanley Parable allows the player to shape the experiences of their playthrough in a way that doesn’t strictly relate to completionism, and this makes for a truly interactive game.
One of the goals of games in the story exploration genre is to invoke emotional or personal reflection via the story itself. Gone Home uses plot effectively to induce emotion. It begins when the protagonist returns home from a summer vacation to find her house empty and her parents and sister gone. Playing through the game reveals the problems her family has been struggling with in secret for a long time. Many moments are relatable and very touching, but you still witness them as a bystander. You are playing as a character who already has set values and interests and relationships that the player doesn’t share. The emotions caused are on level with those you might feel watching a sad movie, but your involvement doesn’t contribute to them at all.
The Stanley Parable creates emotion using the player’s own mind. You can make your own choices about what path to follow through the game, but are simultaneously told that you have no free will. This can invoke genuine existential questioning in the player about the choices they make in real life. If the player only finds a few of the endings or is not interested in big philosophical topics, though, they may just be confused by the game rather than involved.
It is necessary for writers of story exploration games to go beyond the level of emotion felt when watching a favourite TV show or reading a book. Emotion in such games must be experienced directly by the player as a result of their actions, and Gone Home doesn’t do this. Its story is emotional but some players may wonder why they have to bother controlling the protagonist. The Stanley Parable potentially makes the player question aspects of their lives, but the emotion it invokes is not accessible to everyone, especially on first playthrough. Both Gone Home and The Stanley Parable have emotional aspects, but they also have failings. All players should be able to enjoy the emotional parts of a story, and feel as though they have some stake in the characters’ lives.
The main difference between a story exploration game and other forms of media is, of course, its gameplay. Any puzzles/obstacles encountered add to the argument that you are accomplishing something by playing the game, that this is an experience you could never find elsewhere. Gone Home’s gameplay follows a standard point-and-click formula: almost any object lying around in the house you are exploring can be picked up and examined to reveal something about the story. To a certain degree, this affects your involvement in the game. Different play styles lead to different experiences in that if you rush through the game without looking at everything, you will receive a very shallow version of the story, but if you examine every object you come across you will get a fully fleshed out story about yourself and your family. Occasionally, you face the obstacle of a locked door or safe that you must find the matching key/combination for in order to move on. This forces you to explore the house in more detail and keeps you from dashing through the game without taking time to interact with it.
While The Stanley Parable has an immersive plot, its gameplay is limited. You are in control of the plot moving forward, but you can do little else besides walk and look around. This is in keeping with the theme of the story, which is about whether free will exists, but it can still lead you to feel as if you are just going through the motions. This is particularly noticeable in a few sections that either take place in endless loops or long sections of walking where you have nothing to do other than listen to the narrator. Certainly the story is interesting, but it can be tedious to walk in circles for 5-10 minutes while listening to somebody talk.
Neither game has much gameplay or thought required from the player, but Gone Home makes the effort to have some minor obstacles present so the player doesn’t fall into repetitive motions.
Agency: A Determinant of Game Status?
So why does Gone Home get so much more flak than The Stanley Parable? Both feature similar gameplay styles and developed stories and emotions, and both are stronger than the other in some areas. But while The Stanley Parable has been widely praised for its innovative story and unique style, Gone Home has been put under a microscope to prove it is not a game. At the end of the day, this appears to be because Gone Home doesn’t need interactivity to tell its story. Many players would have been happy to sit back and watch the story unfold without lifting a finger. In that sense, the player has little to no agency. Yes, you have the option to miss out on certain collectibles and parts of the story, but you are always moving toward the same goal. Multiple playthroughs provide the same experience, and after a while, it gets repetitive moving room to room doing not much aside from opening doors, turning on lights, and picking up loads of benign objects to see if they will give you any information.
The Stanley Parable is vastly different. It is nonlinear and you are entirely in control of your game experience. Like Gone Home, it does include set plot points, but you can change the order you experience them, ultimately defying what the narrator tells you in-game that your set path is. This puts gameplay power directly in the hands of the player and makes them feel like they have a stake in continuing the game even if they are simply changing the order in which they play through several different micro-narratives. This alone seems to have saved the game from going through the same criticisms that Gone Home suffered from. Despite The Stanley Parable trying to prove you have no free will, by presenting the player with choices deliberately designed to make you feel as if you are defying the written story, the game gives the player a sense of agency and control which is not found in many games in the genre. It is possible that this agency alone freed The Stanley Parable from becoming the target of the more narrow-minded sections of the gaming community.
Video games are constantly evolving as a form of art. New genres emerge all the time, and as games get put out faster and faster, developers and writers must make new innovations to keep games fresh. This is where story exploration has started to flourish – it allows writers to create in-depth stories that might be popular as a novel or film and put them into game form.
Arguably, if story exploration is to find success as a genre, it must include elements to differentiate itself from media that is watched. Gone Home includes plenty of environmental interactivity but the story involves little input from the player, which has invited criticism despite the game itself being enjoyable. The Stanley Parable goes above and beyond to create an environment where the player feels in control of their experience, but have a limited ability to interact with the environment. However, their issues don’t mean they can’t be considered real games. Gone Home is linear, but so are many contemporary action/adventure games. The Stanley Parable may have very little real gameplay, but trying to find all possible endings still creates a challenge for the player. Despite their issues, story exploration games hold a lot of potential and to find true success, writers of the genre must create a story where the player feels at home and in charge.
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