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Choice and The Stanley Parable} ?> Seeing how different game creators attempt to make a believable world fascinates me. I mean “believable” in the sense that the world gives the player real choice; where there’s a sense of unpredictability. There are board games, like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne, where the board changes each time you play, or open world adventures, like Skyrim or Fable, that allow you to choose what quests to complete. However, there is always a limitation to the player’s choices (an exception is Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop role-playing games where the dungeon master writes narratives on demand. But even then, the DM is limited by setting, characters, and background if she wants to create a realistic experience).
Perhaps this limitation of choice reflects reality. Maybe, regardless of what we do, the world is destined for the same fate. Perhaps Fable has it right; the final fate of the world is destined and all we can control is our own morality.
Not long ago, I was introduced to the video game The Stanley Parable. In the game, you are Stanley. You work in an office where you are tasked to monitor data on your computer and press buttons as you are told. The game begins by telling you that you’ve done this diligently for quite some time, but you notice now that no information is being sent to your computer. A little puzzled, you get up and leave your desk to investigate what’s happening, and that’s where the story begins.
I should say the stories begin there. The game attempts to give the player real choice by regularly offering options for action, each of which changes the storyline. As you walk through the office, the narrator tells the story as intended, but you’re regularly given the opportunity to disobey. For example, in one instance, Stanley is to walk through the door on his left, but there’s also an open door on the right. It’s up to you to decide which door to go through.
I was given no explanation of the rules of the game when I played, so I naturally chose to disobey every command I received from the narrator. If I was told to enter the door to my left, I would go through the door on my right. If I saw a sign telling me to not use a lift, I would use it, and subsequently jump off it (even though I was warned that would only lead to death).
The brilliant part of the game is that the narrator adjusts to each choice you make, becoming more and more frustrated with you as you disobey. That is, until the narrator abandons the story and decides that he will join Stanley in an intrepid adventure to write a unique story.
I can honestly say I’ve never experienced as much autonomy in a video game as I did while playing The Stanley Parable, which is why it is the most believable world I’ve experienced in a game.
I wonder, though, if the freedom I experience in the game is true to my life, or if my reality is more similar to Fable. Do I, regardless of what I do, face the same fate with only the power to choose how moral I am in the face of that fate? Or do I have the power to choose my own story?
This is certainly a tough topic. How much power do we have in our lives? Am I destined to be who I am as a result of my upbringing? The culture I’m in? The group of people I call friends? Am I simply the sum of all of these things, or do I have choices that will affect my future? To what degree am I capable of overcoming the person that my friends, family, acquaintances or culture assume me to be?
I think I am able to break free of the “normal” mold that society expects me to fit into while also accepting the nudges and encouragements of those close to me. And I think it’s important that I do break out of that mold, for I grow complacent if I don’t. If we desire our society to progress, then we need to be capable of overcoming the norm. If we desire to grow, we need to be able to overcome the things that hold us back.
I do believe we have the power to choose. If our actions didn’t matter, what would be the point be of acting? That’s why I liked playing The Stanley Parable so much; it gave me choice. It reminds me I have the ability to choose what I think is the right path even if everyone else around me is doing something different, and that my actions matter.