The interactive narrative is experiencing a sudden explosion recently, as everyone with a passing interest in gaming can see. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Firewatch, Dear Esther, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter – the list goes on, provided you move through that list at a slow, leisurely pace and occasionally go in the wrong direction without realising for ten minutes.
Don’t take the wrong impression from that joke. I’m not one of those grunting, stone-waving luddites that dismiss all these creations as mere “Walking Simulators.” There is room for all tastes at the great dining table of modern culture. But the best example of the interactive narrative was one of the first of its kind, and we’ve been moving backward since then. You don’t really need to guess, do you? It’s The Stanley Parable, that sparkling delight of a story that started as a humble Half-Life 2 mod, then flourished into something much, much more.
I do feel as though The Stanley Parable should be a mandatory experience for every goon with two thumbs and a keyboard who feels the need to make one of these products. The fact that this is a genre that’s experimental and bold (yet actually takes far less work to make than a normal game) means we get a lot of long-winded creations that are often in dire need of an editing team and a slap in the face from realism. It’s like when a hauteur film director demands to make his movie with a camera phone to give a sense of validity, forgetting in his arrogance that it’ll be really damn unpleasant to watch because of it.
But The Stanley Parable feels like a guide on how to do the interactive narrative right. First and foremost, in big, bold letters, plastered across the screen: CHOICES FOR THE PLAYER. Being truthful, The Stanley Parable should read Parables, as the player alters the story as they go, picking various paths to create a story that responds to them. And that’s important, because if the player’s presence doesn’t matter, then they keep wondering that one question – why are we here? You might as well have made it into a movie at that point, because you’re not making use of the potential in the genre. Oh, and giving us the option to walk in the wrong direction isn’t choice. It’s bad map design, and just makes people annoyed when they have to traipse all the way back.
Secondly, learn when to shut up. That might sound cruel, but the amount of these games I’ve experienced that are happy to waffle on about sod-all is shocking, not least because it’s as boring as watching water turn tepid. The narrator in The Stanley Parable was always justified in his speech, not to mention legitimately funny. Hell, he was a genuine pleasure to listen to, and managed to combine dry wit (the rarest form of video game humour) with a weird kind of pathos, one that unnerved and yet fascinated at the same time, prompting a certain level of consideration from the player with regards to their actions and the medium as a whole. Oh god, the pretentiousness is spreading.
Finally, and on that note, feel free to laugh about things. I don’t know why video games as a whole are so reluctant to go near comedy, but I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that it’s just too difficult. Good humour is like gold, but bad humour is like cyanide. It can utterly poison an experience if done poorly, and most writers would rather not take the risk. But that means we get a lot of serious, straight-faced mope-fests that wouldn’t even crack a smile if you pumped them full of morphine. I’m not saying that every game has to be a wise-cracking madhouse, but even misery is amplified by the existence of joy before it, as it gives us perspective. Humour is a very human thing, something we understand and relate to, and it also keeps the best stories from being one-note misery-mills where everyone just looks sad for two hours, then dies alone.
At the end of the day, making a good interactive narrative requires a hell of a lot of discipline. You’ve got to respect the story, respect the player’s expectations, and make sure that you’re not being a pain and refusing to meet the audience half-way. Oh, and if you just dump audio logs on a map and clock out, I will personally attack you with a tree branch. I’m serious about this.
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