I wrote before about a special moment of connection between author and audience in The Stanley Parable. That moment is born of a frustration —with the tension between the roles of narrator and player character in an interactive story. The game digs into that tension in many sequences, finding the two roles to be a burden, a blockage in the proper connection between author and audience.
Nonetheless, the roles of player character and narrator are in fact necessary to the understanding of their own shortcomings. Their great worth is in proving their own uselessness.
I’m sure you are now screaming that this would be a most apt occasion to rehearse some lines from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Patience: that will be the finale.
Failing to converse
First, the narrator is revealed to be the author. To begin with, “the author” just means the author of the story he’s telling: “Stanley went this way, Stanley went that way,” and so on. But later, the narrator takes on the role of the author of the game itself — exploring different design ideas and game types, and asking you for feedback. The next revelation is here: in that request for feedback, you are the player, not the character. The author, through the narrator, seeks input not from Stanley — whose supposed office has been left behind, and shown anyway to be a malleable figment of story set-up — but from the player, who can compare the game in its entirety to other games, to things beyond itself.
However, when a leaderboard comes into play — an artefact that should be of the player’s world beyond the game — the player is identified with the name “Stanley”. As much as this conversation should ideally be between author and player, it must be forced through the channel between narrator and player-character. Despite his efforts to ask you directly what you want, the narrator can’t slip this burden of talking only to your proxy in the game.
Conversely, the player can only reach the author via his proxy in the game, the narrator. This reciprocal asymmetry — where author and player must both be real but address only a placeholder of the other — is what builds the frustration. You are talking past each other, inevitably.
If only you could get out of the restrictive structure of the game…
The great escape
In a wonderful sequence near one ending of the game, the player leaves the game world and instead walks around an exhibition of artefacts from the game, with comments from the creators. The game’s credits are posted up on a wall, too. Just to be absolutely clear about your position here, the central exhibit is a scale model of the opening environment of the game, Stanley’s office. You are literally standing outside the game’s environment and looking in. The credits — particularly the note that the game was “Made using Source by Valve” — emphasise that the world you were in was one built by some people with some dev tools. But you’ve left that world now, right? This is a different world.
Of course that avenue’s fruitless. You no more escaped the game world then than you did on first leaving Stanley’s office. You haven’t transcended the game world, because you’re still playing. The narrator — the author — expresses great frustration at the head/wall banging of this whole endeavour. The roles of player-character and author-narrator cannot be escaped. Sure enough, when you exit the museum you’re back in the game. But there’s just one last desperate attempt to escape.
The author — now through the voice of a different narrator, female, untying himself from the connection to the particular in-game entity that was the first voice — begs you simply to quit the game before you’re crushed to death. “Don’t let time decide!” she pleads.
“Oh look at these two! How they both wish to destroy one another! How they wish to control one another! How they both wish to be free!
“But listen to me! You can still save these two. You can stop the program before they both fail. Push Esc and press QUIT. There’s no other way to beat this game! As long as you move forward you’ll be walking someone else’s path.
Stop now: it’s your only true choice! Whatever you do, choose it! Don’t let time choose for you. Don’t let it—”
And that’s the moment when you can transcend. You hit Esc, you quit, you stare at your desktop. You’re not in the game world now, and neither is the author. It’s a conclusion you reached together, where the tensions of your flawed communication channel have been removed.
It seems reaching your goal was the undoing of your whole expedition to get there. But the game is elucidatory in this way: he who understands it finally recognises it as senseless, when he has climbed out through it. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up on it.
And so you quit. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people