The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) was released last week and I ploughed through it over two nights, reaching a number of the game’s “endings”. I only dabbled with the original Half-Life 2 mod incarnation once, during IndieCade East earlier this year. But rather than fire up the mod as soon as I returned to Electron Dance HQ, I elected to wait for the remake.
There’s no doubt that the game is fun and you can almost smell the sweat and passion that’s been invested in its development. It might be best referred to, as Amanda Lange put it, “a work of absurdist surrealism”.
Okay, all good. But what does The Stanley Parable mean?
If you’re ready for spoilers, read on. If not, then you can choose to– oh GOD I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE THIS JOKE.
Cards on the table time, folks. Here’s the question for the big prize. What is the 2D shooter about?
Well done! It is indeed about the shooting of stuff but let's peel back the outer layer of this onion. I also want to discard some of the games where the primary mechanic is navigating obstacles rather than shooting, such as Scramble (Konami, 1981) and Zaxxon (Sega, 1982). When we take the genre as a whole, we notice that shooters usually require players to destroy as much as possible.
Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) lays out five ranks of aliens which march across the screen and taking the occasional decisive step towards the ground. If a single alien makes it to the bottom, the game is over. Aside from the distracting saucers, the player must blast everything.
Something more recent? In arena shooter Death Ray Manta (Rob Fearon, 2012) the player must dispatch every green bunny and pink robot to proceed to the next Manta stage. Even something like Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007), where each level only lasts as long as the background track, encourages the player to wipe out as much as possible for the purpose of acquiring extra lives and creating safe space.
I'm reminded of this short exchange from Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994):
Mathilda: Léon, what exactly do you do for a living?
Mathilda: You mean you're a hit man?
What is the 2D shooter about? It’s about cleaning.
This is it, people, this is enormo-spoilers. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
When they tell you that you are gorgeous and amazing, you wonder if it's not you at all but the butterfly effect. Maybe they have fallen in love with the synergy of a Zeitgeist moment and you are merely the object of misplaced affections. So you do something that looks backwards, something that tries to clone that superstar attention. We are all human.
The Aspiration remains one of the best pieces of writing you will find on Electron Dance. It is a detailed journal of my struggles in a game of Neptune's Pride, covering not just strategy but alien role-play and flirtation with a game-induced nervous breakdown. But once the series was done in 2011, the traffic did not stick around and for the rest of that year I could not shake off the feeling that I had slipped silently from internet wannabe to internet has-been.
I had some ideas for essays that extended The Aspiration and decided in 2011 Q4 to run a spin-off series. During the original series, The Aspiration had revealed they were heading for Earth so for the spin-off The Aspiration would finally reach Earth then hack Electron Dance. Also running it over Christmas might be a win in terms of traffic because most sites stop updates during the holidays. Thus The Xmaspiration was born. It sounded awesome, almost as awesome as alien vampires.
I attempted to hype it up before the series launched except... I created something monstrous. Something I lost control of. What I envisioned as a harmless bit of fun mutated into a full-blown ARG, an alternate reality game.
This is the story of that accidental ARG and how it destroyed Christmas.
I had finished writing a mail to Ed Key, the developer of Proteus, and the pointer hovered over the Send button. I proofread the mail a couple of times and everything looked good. It was time to click the button.
But I hesitated. Even though the wording was perfect, something was wrong. Doubting myself, I leaned away from the monitor and nudged the pointer off Send.
It did not take me long to realise the stupidity of what I was about to do. Twenty minutes in the making, I deleted the mail in less than a second.
This is a story about confession.
Arkane Studios' Dishonored skidded onto the scene last week, a game that echoes Looking Glass Studios' seminal Thief although sports skill upgrades a la Deus Ex. Inevitably there was both great praise ("awesome") and great disappointment ("short").
Over on Minnesota Daily, Simon Benarroch wrote how Dishonored lets us down because it doesn't encourage the player to take advantage of all the skills and items on offer. An interesting argument in itself, one I've considered before with other games; what good are all these wonderful toys if players do not use them?
But Benarroch then confuses the situation:
It wanted so badly for you to have all the options all the time that you never really had to stop and think. Because you can do everything exactly the way you want to, it becomes clear once again that you aren't really creating your own narrative, but playing someone else's.
Because you can play exactly the way you want to, you aren't creating your own narrative.
I've spent five hours on Dishonored so far and only just started the second mission of the game. I’m being Thief-style thorough and will definitely not finish in the standard ten hours, a figure derided as “too short”. So I admit I’m not approaching this topic from the perspective of experience.
Nonetheless, my reaction to Benarroch's essay was this: What?
In the last few minutes I completed The Adventures of Shuggy and –
Wait, are you still there? Did you click away already? Okay, bye.
You probably won't miss anything.
If it takes me half a year to play through Far Cry 2, it means the breadth of my gaming experiences over that period are diminished. I have GTA IV sitting on Steam and I don't even want to touch it. Skyrim is a definite no-no. Dark Souls flirts; I shrug my cold shoulders.
Electron Dance ideas need to come from somewhere; if you play just one long game, you're resigned to writing about it for a long time. “Oh God, HM, do you really think the internet needs any more writing on Mass Effect?”
Short-form games seemed to be a way of avoiding this trap. I thought of how much theoretical ground could be covered with diverse five-minute game bites rather than multi-month meals. I shouldn't have to wait for the moon to change phase before playing something else (mentioning no names Sword & Sworcery) and some of these small flings can lead to all sorts of interesting chatter.
But actions have unforeseen consequences. Do the same thing again and again… and you can end up scarring yourself with strange behavioural patterns that are difficult to resolve.
November 23, 2010. Quintin Smith posts about a free browser game called The Infinite Ocean on Rock Paper Shotgun. I plan to dabble with it but stay for the duration. Jonas Kyratzes is easy to find in Google, easier than Mr. Mxyzptlk. I hammer him into my RSS feeds and lurk in his comments.
The following article is about Nicolau Chaud's sex game Polymorphous Perversity; it is most definitely NSFW, contains spoilers through to the game's ending and discusses sexual violence.
Proceed with caution.
Since then, we've traded observations and thoughts on game design and the nature of development. Nonetheless, having a great back catalogue saves no developer from the box-office bomb or the magnum opus that pisses off the fans. With the months ticking by, I was anxious about the ongoing development of your sex game Polymorphous Perversity, passing from the realms of hobby project to obsession. The more hype the project received, the more likely it would disappoint.
I know you've been anxious to hear my thoughts, so I'll start with this: you set yourself up to fail.
This is the final article in the series The Academics Are Coming.
In the 1970s, the term “Cycle of Deprivation” entered British political nomenclature.
It was a hypothesis asserting that disadvantage was cyclical and persistent across generations. The children of “troubled families", it suggested, would be condemned to repeat their parent's mistakes and inflict the same disastrous upbringing on their own children.
The important thing to note about this hypothesis is its focus on problem families rather than poverty. This is a crucial point as researchers have shown that poverty does beget poverty but the “cycle of deprivation” hypothesis has been rejected - disadvantaged children can rise above their “troubled” origins without external support.
Yet this hypothesis is continuously regurgitated, framed to fit the political narrative of the moment. From “The Cycle of Deprivation: Myths and Misconceptions”:
This means that alongside the focus on social exclusion, child poverty, and inter-generational continuities in economic status, there is a parallel and increasing emphasis on anti-social behaviour, parenting, and problem families. Arguably what comes over most strongly from a review of the past 30 years is the persistence of dichotomies – between continuity and discontinuity; between intra-familial and extra familial factors; between social scientists and psychologists; between research and policy; and between individuals and institutions. Overall, the result of the neglect of this important part of recent intellectual history is that several wheels are being regularly reinvented.
Recently, the UK government launched an initiative to tackle “troubled families” using a report by Louise Casey as a touchstone. This report makes no reference to thirty years of research, relying instead on a series of interviews and admits “that this is not formal research… these interviews [are] not representative of the 120,000 families that are deemed as ‘troubled’”.
Being ignored and, occasionally, belittled is part of academic culture; it is not unique to game studies.