Pseudo-gods

I have recently noticed the common trope of omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent characters in a number of video games, which for all intents and purposes we shall refer to as “pseudo-gods”.  Furthermore, I have not been able to think of any examples of this outside of video games.  If this theme is indeed unique to games, then we have to ask, why?  (Really, we have to or else GLaDOS will kill us.)

GLaDOS

It could be that it is rebellious.  After all, the point is usually to overcome the pseudo-god figure.  The obvious example of this is Portal in which the player destroys GLaDOS, a robot in control of the facility that is keeping us captive.  However, even less narrative-driven games like Super Smash Bros. include this trope.  Think about it: the story mode ends with Mario destroying the hand that brought him to life.  In the indie, Flash-style game The Witch’s House, the player also must confront a witch that seems to control everything in the house to escape.  The common theme among these games is that the player feels trapped or held back by the pseudo-god, so he or she must defeat them.  Therefore, these pseudo-gods could be a manifestation of our need to stick it to the man—so to speak—even if it is subconscious on the part of the game creator.

Master hand

The easier answer—but one we shouldn’t just shrug off—is that it is a simple recreational device to disguise the omnipotent nature of the creator’s narrative or the limitations inherent in the game.  Though this could certainly be part of the reason, many games such as Assassin’s Creed have used other methods to explain this.  Nevertheless, this is the theme that The Stanley Parable seems to be playing off of with the Narrator.  This pseudo-god intentionally demonstrates the omnipotence of the creator’s purpose in games but also may symbolize the mind control people face in their daily lives (at work, through media, etc.).

There doesn’t seem to be one correct answer as to what pseudo-gods mean, but they are certainly something to consider.  This device could be as thought-provoking or simple as you want it to be.  Is it a simple plot device?  Or, is GLaDOS a comment on the very nature of reality and fate, just as the three witches are in Macbeth?  You decide!

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Inspired Intentions

**Minor spoilers for Portal 2… but let’s be honest, if you haven’t played it at this point, are you planning on it?

There is a certain dependence between audience and creator that is inherent and unique to video games.  That said, this dependence adds a layer of challenge for content producers but allows for more success in conveying their message to the audience.  To do this, creators function upon what we shall call “inspired intentions” which is to say the ways in which a game makes us do what we are meant to do.  This is frequently accomplished using the weak trope of objectives in some popular games but is a much more complex process for the ones that do it well.

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Courtesy of the IGN wiki.  AC is guilty of relying on objectives–even though it is a series I enjoy.

I think Portal 2 is one of the best games I have played for inspired intentions, so it will function as my overarching example.

A great score can do wonders for inspiring the right emotions in the player.  Portal 2 has–in my opinion–one of the best scores across all entertainment because of its ability to do so.  The score always makes us want to run away when we have to, makes us pensive when we can be, and establishes any mood from eerie to exciting.  However, it even goes beyond this by being ambient.  It is perfectly camouflaged with the player’s surrounding because it sounds like the harmonizing noises of a machine–brilliant, to say the least.  But, let’s be honest, I’m not a music analyst, so let’s get off this topic ASAP.

(If you are interested in giving it a listen, Valve offers it for free!)

Furthermore, it is well known that people’s attentions are attracted by actions.  By adding scenery movement (along with the right lighting), Portal 2 subtly suggests where the player wants to go.  In the escape scene, for example, walls disappear and a light bridge appears in the direction the player is intended to run.

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On top of all this, Portal 2 benefits from a well written plot and strong characters that make it easy for the player to merge identities with the main character, Chell.

Among academic discussions of video games, inspired intentions should be one of our top analysis priorities across the board.  It always struck me as odd that the Horror genre tends to get a decent amount of critical acclaim in the video game industry while Horror movies are scoffed at, but it is because Horror games make us perfectly empathetic towards the character–both player and character are terrified and want to run away.

What games do you think are good at inspired intentions?  How do they make you empathize and/or sympathize with the main character?  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

A Metatextual Analysis of The Stanley Parable

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**Spoilers for The Stanley Parable**

Let me begin this by asking the question that we are all wondering: why trust me?  I am not a professional game analyst, I have never made a game myself, nor have I gone to college to study video game analysis.  However, that is exactly the reason why my analysis is as valid as the next person’s; there are no real game analysts up to this point.  So, this game has already stepped leaps and bounds in front of all of its competition.  In the mere act of delving deeper into this game than people have with games before, we are validating its purpose.

If you have read other analyses of The Stanley Parable, it is no secret that the game left many dissatisfied.  An analyst from Destructoid claims that “the game offers no answers,” but I disagree.  The issue with many of these analyses is that they all try to pick apart each of eight or so possible endings separately.  However, as far as my knowledge goes, there is no way to play the game without going through multiple endings.  Most of them only last 15-30 minutes on their own, and by opening on a pair of two open doors, it is made clear that there is more than one possible path.  As if this wasn’t enough to convince us that the game is in the multiple endings, the loading screen boldly states in repeated text that “the end is never.”  So, what does it mean?  Let’s first look at a few of the individual endings so that we can analyze them as a whole.

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The most straightforward ending—the one in which the player follows all of the narrators commands—leads us to the ironically named “freedom” ending.  But, is it really freedom?  Of course not.  We didn’t act on any pretense of free will to get there, and we didn’t solve the mystery of the absent members.  As if it wasn’t clear enough that this ending shouldn’t give us any satisfaction, the player enters the blatantly named “Mind Control Facility” to shut it down even though, by doing this, the player is subjected to the same mind control as Stanley.  Think about it: Stanley starts out by only following commands and pressing buttons on a computer.  Furthermore, the character—not the player—is in control as he steps out into the free world in a cutscene.

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In the “confusion ending,” the player and narrator team up to break away from the broken narrative and make their own story.  As the narrator claims in what is later referred to as the “nonsense theory,” perhaps it is about the journey and not the ending.  Nevertheless, it is a disappointment to discover in a room where the player’s previous actions have been outlined that the whole ending was predetermined; there is no escaping the narrative.

Another ending establishes the dependence between player and narrator as the player must grimly jump from a ledge over and over as the only way out while the narrator begs Stanley not to.

In yet another ending, Stanley destroys the narrator’s story by going against all his wishes.  However, this leaves the player literally caged into the cargo lift—no doubt, a symbol for yet another predetermined path which leads the player into a dead end, a room crumbling apart.

The clear, underlying theme of all of the possible paths is that there is no true freedom among the predetermined possibilities.  It is all a carefully controlled experience by the game developers with only the illusion of free will, but, in that case, is this game really just about the semblance of choice in videogames?  Is it nothing more than a parody that offers “no solutions to the gaming tropes it comments upon” as the analyst from Destructoid says?  I believe the answer is no.  While it points out in several endings that all the player is doing is pushing buttons, the same can be said for book and movies in which the audience just sits silently and stares.  Moreover, such a claim is not substantiated when we consider that the developers put a lot of time into creating the game—a sure sign that they are not condemning playing games as a whole.

Instead, I believe that the purpose of the game is to break out from the linear, one dimensional storytelling by analyzing the games we play.  The player takes control of the narrative by giving meaning to it and thinking about it on his or her own.

The Stanley Parable is not a mere criticism of videogames; it is a carefully crafted work of art intending to inspire players to give more meaning to the games that they play.  As the game points out, the player needs the narrator (and, therefore, the game developer), but the narrator also needs the player.  Just as Don Quixote did for popular knight errant stories, The Stanley Parable asks the player to demand more intellect from their entertainment and help the game developer in turn by bringing intellect to their games.  You may be left unsatisfied by The Stanley Parable, but few great works of art will perfectly satisfy its audience.  Amazing authors from Cervantes to Virginia Woolf (and countless artistic films) leave the audience upset and maybe even confused, but they are nonetheless beautifully construed and great advancements in art.

If you liked this and would like to read more, I post criticisms of everything from Dear Esther to Portal.  Check it out!