Let’s Play–Dear Esther | Part 1: Designing Hopelessness (Critical Let’s Play)

Hey, everybody!  I’m trying out a new format for analyzing video games with this critical Let’s Play.  For a while now, I’ve felt that video is much more suited to analyzing games and I hope you all will agree!  I decided to return to the Chinese Room’s masterpiece, Dear Esther , because it’s so dense and there’s so much to say about it.  I’d love to take this as an opportunity to talk about the game with all of you, so feel free to leave a comment and start a discussion!

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Atmosphere in Metro: Last Light

Atmospheric storytelling defines any immersive experience that allows one to feel enveloped by a world without necessarily being able to interact with it. Strong atmosphere typifies the Disney World experience as visitors walk and ride through convincing environments and narratives. Though Metro: Last Light takes a darker twist on the concept, its similarities to theme parks in this sense are notable. Metro repeatedly forces the player to walk through environments that show glimpses into daily life in this post-apocalyptic world.

Though every level in the game envelops the player in the story, the developers even include levels that contain little to no action and instead are entirely dedicated to immersing the player and delivering the story. These levels take players through Sparta—a lackadaisical military base, Teatr—the cultural epicenter of the post-apocalyptic world, Venice—the world’s crime-ridden underbelly, and a destroyed Moscow, in which every non-player character (NPC) is having a unique conversation. By giving such varied personalities to every character in a wide spectrum of communities, the game brilliantly incorporates its humanist themes into gameplay, revealing that every citizen and every country in the Metro has its own story, motivation, and goals; no one in the Metro is any more right than the next.

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Lounging soldiers in Spartan Station

In the opening level to Metro: Last Light, the player starts out in Spartan Station and must walk through a heavily detailed environment that sets the stage for much of the atmospheric experience to come. These traversable worlds consist of about two or three dozen NPCs going about their daily life. The attention to detail in these levels is admirable (to say the least) as each character has an interesting and unique story to tell. The Spartan station level bombards the player with conversations left and right which they can choose to listen to in full or quickly move through. Either way, the player receives a very believable experience of the player character’s home.

Stage show in Teatr
Stage show in Teatr

Later levels, Teater and Venice, show the good and bad sides of the average citizens of the Metro. Even though a lot has gone wrong in the world of the Metro, there are still people in Teatr devoting their lives to preserving culture. The player passes by a man relating stories of life before the war and has the opportunity to watch a show among other observable phenomena in the environment. However, at the same time Venice shows the underbelly of society in the Metro, adding to the long-list of crimes and atrocities committed in this post-apocalyptic universe.  The player witnesses shady dealings in the back alleys, hangs out in a bar, participates in gambling, and visits a strip club. While not necessarily critical of these activities, the game depicts this as the edgier and more morally corrupt part of the Metro.

The desperate hands of restless souls in the level, Dead City
The desperate hands of restless souls in the level, Dead City

In the level Dead City, the player gets to see first-hand the destruction that humanity caused. Dead City adopts a more horror-like tone to underscore the terrors of the war. Apparitions and shadows of the dead citizens of Moscow appear in the player’s path as they traverse the ruins of the once great city. The color scheme is notably very gray, the only exception being Artyom’s occasional visions of families living out their normal lives before the bomb was released on the city, and one unsettling, bright red table cloth. As in other parts of the game, these images along with the constant, distant whispers add a chilling note to the experience and remind the player that the area used to be a vibrant and densely populated city. Later, the player is forced to walk through a tunnel surrounded by ghostly bodies that reach out to them—a hellish image of tortured souls that serves as the strongest reminder of the horrors of war.

Even the enemy NPCs are given a semblance of individuality. Many games recycle dialogue for enemy NPCs; most notably, in Thief, enemies repeat the same five quotes at least a hundred times before completing the game. Contrastingly, in Metro: Last Light, while stealthily moving about enemy territory, interesting scenes and unique dialogue unfold before the player. This attention to detail allows for an even more immersive experience as repeated lines of dialogue often pull the player out of the game and make them realizes that it is a video game. Most importantly, by giving every NPC an individual personality, the game delivers its humanist philosophy that no person or country is any more good or evil than the next.

Metro: Last Light thoroughly taps into one of the most unique abilities of video games as an art form by delivering narrative and background through its atmospheric setting. Many games from Bioshock to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons have similarly been lauded for atmospheric delivery of narrative, but no game has quite the same amount of detail and purpose behind their atmospheres as Metro.

While the game’s atmosphere is intricately designed and impressively executed, it’s important to note that the game is not a flawless work of art either as some of this imagery is extremely objectifying and demeaning towards women. I will return to Metro: Last Light in a later article to discuss its unfortunately misogynistic undertone.

While the game’s atmosphere is intricately designed and impressively executed, it’s important to note that the game is not a flawless work of art either as some of this imagery is extremely objectifying and demeaning towards women. I will return to Metro: Last Light in a later article to discuss its unfortunate misogynistic undertones.

Native (Self- and Mis-) Representations in Video Games

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Indian enemies in Cowboy Kid

There has been a long history of misappropriation of other cultures in Western society. Native American cultures frequently fall victim to this as seen in sports, fashion, and art. As a part of this culture, the video game industry has exploited images of Native characters in similar ways; though, over time, they have gradually been converted to a medium for self-expression in many Native communities. Native people are one of the most underrepresented groups in games, and when they are represented, it has often been in disrespectful and stigmatizing ways. The vast and distinct cultures are usually jumbled together into a Pan-Indian stereotype and displayed as “primitive” or a thing of the past. One of the first depictions of American Indians in video games dates back to 1971 with the original Oregon Trail. Since it was meant to be an educational tool, Oregon Trail is not terribly offensive. On the one hand, tribes are individually recognized, and fairly accurate histories about these peoples are provided. Tribal peoples serve as guides and people to trade with. On the other hand, the original version of the game also uses them as hostile enemies, contributing to a long list of games that use American Indians as targets. Subsequent versions of the game corrected this flaw, but the damage was still done and the original use of Native Americans as enemies in an educational tool indicates a common disrespect for Native peoples in the collective unconscious of Western society.

The Oregon Trail was followed by many games that weren’t nearly as culturally sensitive. Indian Attack (1983), Kane (1986), Cowboy Kid (1991), and Hammer Boy (1991) use heavily stereotyped Pan-Indians as the backdrop for their Western-style settings. The Natives are depicted as primitive cultures and are used as enemies to slaughter by the masses. However, Custer’s Revenge (1982) is the worst by far as what many regard as the most offensive game of all time. The game depicts a character based on General George Custer repeatedly raping a naked, Native woman. Notably, the Native woman is named Revenge, creating an objectifying double entendre on the title. The game not only sexualizes Native women but also perpetuates the idea of indigenous women as “inherently rape-able”*. Due to strong protests by feminist movements and American Indian communities, the game stopped being sold. Unfortunately, a large number of copies remained in circulation and was therefore able to be reproduced and further distributed

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Humba Wumba from the popular kids’ series, Banjo-Kazooie.

The sexualization of Native women in video games did not end there. The fighting game Tekken (1994) features Michelle and Julia Chang, half-naked, Pan-Indian women. The first-person shooter, Darkwatch (2005), uses a female shaman as the antagonist who is shown completely naked in some promotional materials. Even the kids game, Banjo-Tooie (2000), is guilty of sexualizing their Native character, Humba Wumba. It should also be noted that this sexualization is not just harmlessly inappropriate imagery. According to a study by Amnesty International, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of other ethnicities and an overwhelming number of these assaults (86%) are committed by non-Native males. This suggests that the common sexualization of Native women in pop culture is both responsible for and indicative of continuing colonialist sentiments in Western society.   It is not hard to believe that such depictions of Native women—as shown in Custer’s Revenge—are directly responsible for perpetuating beliefs of Native women as “inherently rape-able”. In other words, the common disrespect for Native women in art leads to the same sentiments in real life.

Super_Street_Fighter_II_X_Art_T_Hawk_3julia-tekkennightwolf Thunder Hawk (Street Fighter), Julia Chang (Tekken), and Nightwolf (Mortal Kombat)

Similar to Tekken, other fighting games like Mortal Kombat (1995) and Street Fighter (1993) depict Native men, Nightwolf and Thunder Hawk, as half-naked, hyper-masculine fighters. These two characters fall into the “mystic” and “nature-friendly” Pan-Indian stereotypes that effectively depict Native people as primitive and antiquated.   Since characters in the game are given little to no background or personality, they seem to only be included to add an “exotic” feel to these games. Humba Wumba in Banjo-Tooie serves the same purpose. She is a shaman that speaks broken English, lives in a wigwam, and sports feathers. She has no other function in the game than to cast a spell on the titular protagonist, Banjo, in each level. The character could serve her purpose exactly the same if she had been any other kind of magician, characterizing her as a “background decoration” character as one that is both instrumental and entirely interchangeable*. Her only purpose as a Pan-Indian is to add said “exotic” feel to the game. If this wasn’t enough, the game also negatively depicts her culture by forcing the player to sacrifice a creature for her in each level so that she will cast her spell.

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The scene for Native representation in games improved with the 1997 release of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. While this game fell back on many previously mentioned, Pan-Indian stereotypes, it was one of the first to feature a Native protagonist, which was a promising sign for Native gamers. It depicts Natives as bow-wielding, feather-wearing hunters with other-worldly connections and never really delves deeper into the protagonist’s personality or culture. However, it doesn’t necessarily show Natives to be anachronistic to modern times as the game has a sci-fi setting and involves the main character using advanced weaponry like machine guns and grenades. Contrastingly, kids’ games, Tak and the Power of Juju (2003) and Brave: Search for the Spirit Dancer (2005) depict stereotypes that entirely set the Native protagonist in a primitive past. Furthermore, the inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans is not entirely the fault of the games industry in the case of Turok, since it is based on a comic book by the same name that harps on these stereotypes.

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Cherokee reservation as depicted in Prey

Depictions of Natives in the video game industry changed forever with the first game made semi-collaboratively with American Indians, Prey (2006). This first-person shooter follows Cherokee war veteran and garage mechanic, Tommy Tawodi, on a science-fiction journey to reconnect with his heritage akin to themes in native literature (like Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday). This game is one of very few to depict modern reservation life, specify the character’s nation of origin, and give the Native protagonist an interesting and complicated identity instead of the superficial caricatures of Natives that preceded him. The game developers set a new precedent by consulting Native Americans for cultural sensitivity guidance and employing Native people to voice their characters, classifying this as one of the first collaboratively made games between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans. The game still exploited the “mystic Indian” stereotype by connecting the protagonists’ superpowers with his Cherokee heritage; however, even this is more culturally sensitive than in previous games, as these superpowers are related to real, specific Cherokee oral traditions and, therefore, metaphorically demonstrate how Tommy reconnects with his culture.

Kanienkehá:ka village as Assassin's Creed III
Kanienkehá:ka village as Assassin’s Creed III

Following this game, Assassin’s Creed 3 (2012) classifies the first fully collaborative effort between Native and Western-American video game developers. The game’s protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, is a Mohawk boy who grows up during the American Revolution. While the game depicts Natives in a historical setting, it is important to note that all of the games in the Assassin’s Creed series are set in the past and the developers went to great lengths to ensure that it was both historically accurate and culturally respectful. The development team had Kanien’kehá:ka cultural and linguistic consultants with them throughout the game’s development to verify information and advise them on the use of certain cultural elements. The game creates an immersive experience of Mohawk culture and even reinforces indigenous knowledge through gameplay by allowing all parts of hunted animals to be collected and used. The narrative takes a look at the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s effect on the American Revolution and examines the colonialist tendencies of both sides of the war. Perhaps most exciting of all, nearly a third of the 40 hour long game is spoken in the Kanien’kéha or Mohawk language.

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Never Alone

While Prey and Assassin’s Creed 3 mark important strides towards sovereignty of self-representation for Natives in the video game industry, an even more important step was the creation of Native owned and operated game companies such as the Inupiaq developer, Upper One Games, which recently produced Never Alone (2014) to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The game focuses on a girl, Nuna, and her companion, an arctic fox, as they set out to end a harsh blizzard and save their clan. Along the way, they meet important figures from Inupiaq oral traditions and are aided by “Helping Spirits”. The story itself is narrated by a traditional Inupiaq storyteller. In addition to adapting Inupiaq storytelling to a new format, the game’s visuals are heavily influenced by Inupiaq art. Never Alone brings the concept of Native “visual sovereignty”* to the sphere of video games by creating a distinctively Inupiaq experience and catering only to an Inupiaq audience. Meanwhile, the game deconstructs stereotypes established by the game industry and instead perpetuates an authentic understanding of their people among non-Inupiat.

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Kanien’kehá:ka legend of the flying head as depicted in Otsi

As more and more indigenous people are getting involved in video game development through programs such as the Skins Project, an increasing number of Native-made games are being produced. Around the same time that Assassin’s Creed 3 was released, Haudenosaunee students from the Skins project got together to produce Otsi, a game about Kanien’kehá:ka legends. Additionally, a Cherokee company has begun production on a Cherokee language-learning game, RezWorld, about a man with memory loss, and sub-Arctic Cree game developer, Ernest Webb, co-directed the recently released game, Spirits of the Spring. In the history of gaming, Native American characters were often used as exotic “background decoration” or stereotyped enemies, lumped into a pan-Indian culture that is often stigmatizing toward Native peoples. As the Kanien’kehá:ka cultural liaison on Assassin’s Creed 3, Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer, put it, “Most people in the world today amalgamate the vast and distinct cultures of each indigenous nation into a sort of pan-Indian cliché, which does a big disservice to these cultures who work hard to protect and strengthen their distinct identity as a sovereign people against tough odds” (Venables). While Prey and Assassin’s Creed 3 represent important strides toward Native sovereignty over their cultural image in video games, the most promising step toward the expansion of visual sovereignty to games has been Native written, directed, and produced works like Never Alone. This analysis drew from experience with the above-mentioned games.  Additional influences include:

  • Amnesty International USA. ‘Maze Of Injustice’. 2007.
  • *Beebe, Laura. ‘Film As A Form Of Indigenous Storytelling’. 2014. Lecture.
  • Goeman, Mishuana. ‘Native American Women’s Issues Today’. 2014. Lecture.
  • LaPensée, Elizabeth. Native Representations In Video Games. 2011. Video.
  • LaPensée, Elizabeth. Indigenous Representations in Assassin’s Creed 3. 2012. Video.
  • Morley, Julie. ‘A Brief History Of Native American Representation In Video Games’. Cliqist 2014.
  • *Ogden, Stormy. ‘Prisoner W-20170/Other’. Sharing Our Stories Of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence. Sarah Deer et al. 1st ed. Lanham: Altamira, 2008. 161. Print.
  • Sarkeesian, Anita. Women As Background Decoration (Part 1). 2014. Video.
  • Sharam, Charles. ‘Native Americans In Video Games: Racism, Stereotype, And The Digitized Indian’. Project Coe. 2014.
  • Venables, Michael. ‘The Awesome Mohawk Teacher And Consultant Behind Ratonhnhaké:ton’. Forbes 2014.

The Modern Gaming View: Why Art Games Constitute Games

Though it is clear that the gaming community is growing more and more accepting of art games, it seems that there is still a pervasive view that their status as games is debatable. While they obviously break from a standard form in games, that does not change the fact that, of the main types of media (aesthetic art, theater, literature, music, movies, video games, etc.), they clearly fall under the category of video games. For all intents and purposes, they are merely Modernist games.

One of the main roots of this debates seems to be in a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes a video game. With the most avant-garde games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and Dear Esther, the most overwhelming complaint seems to be that there are not enough buttons. The four arrow keys and an occasional click do not create a sufficiently interactive experience to call it a game. However, the major flaw in this logic is that interactivity is still heavily required. These are not movies in which you can only change the camera angle; the player must knowledgeably interact with their environment to move the narrative forward.

Dear Esther controls

A counterargument to this is that they should not be called games but rather “interactive narratives” or “interactive experience”, but this idea is flimsy at best. Where do we now draw the line between games and interactive narratives? Do not the majority of mainstream video games contain narratives that the player interacts with? Take Call of Duty for example. The game relies on a plot (albeit a weak one) to give the player’s actions meaning in all of the campaigns. If the player felt no sense of progression in story, they would quickly bore of the experience.

This line between “video game” and “interactive narrative” becomes even blurrier when accounting for a game like Amnesia. While I cannot find articles and discussion threads about games like Dear Esther that do not question their statuses as true games, I have never seen or heard such a complaint about Amnesia. However, if we decide to draw the line between “game” and “interactive narrative” by the number of buttons, Amnesia would fall on the side of “interactive narrative”, requiring the same number of buttons as a game like Gone Home (and, more subjectively, about the same level of interactivity).

What could differentiate these games so much that there is such a disparity in arguments over their statuses as games? The answer is simple; the average gamer likes Amnesia better. That is it. What Amnesia lacks in controls, it compensates for in a more appealing narrative to the majority of the gaming community. Other than the type of narrative (horror versus drama), there are effectively no differences between Amnesia and Gone Home. In fact, Gone Home seems to flaunt this by creating the same suspense and atmosphere as the average horror game.

Gone Home-Amnesia

Frictional Games has pointed out that Gone Home was even originally made in the Amnesia engine.

This is where the modern (or, if you prefer, “Stanleyist”) view on gaming comes in. The psychological concept that perception is reality is a well-known and commonly believed idea. The same holds true here; perception is everything in gaming. The perceived sense of danger in Slender seems to appeal more to the average gamer than the sense of irrationality in The Stanley Parable.

In fact, this is distinctively the “Stanleyist” view on games. The “Buttons” ending in The Stanley Parable is one of the most abrasive and harshly critical attacks against the gaming community that I have seen so far. This ending leaves the player in a heaven-like setting in which they are surrounded by buttons; the ending goes on indefinitely and pushing the buttons causes nothing to happen. The sarcastic setting points out that the gaming community seems to believe that pushing buttons is what is important rather than any narrative or artistic purpose. However, without any sense of accomplishment or narrative progression, player actions in video games quickly break down, losing meaning and appeal. Be assured that this is not just my subjective interpretation of The Stanley Parable, as this is what the rest of the game really gets to the heart of as well. The player needs a narrator to give their actions meaning, and the narrator needs the player to have their story heard.

Heaven

While this new wave of games push the boundaries of gaming and could certainly be considered a new genre or a new movement in gaming, the degree of difference between these games and any others when thought about a little more carefully hardly seems like a different form of media altogether. Remember that, though a game’s atmosphere might not enrapture you, there are plenty of people for which it does. Though a significant number of gamers prefer the atmosphere in Amnesia, I am not alone in finding the quirky nature of The Stanley Parable similarly appealing. And, although many love the interactivity of games like League of Legends, there are also people who prefer the game mechanic of exploration in a game like Dear Esther.

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If you want to read more, click here to read about The Stanley Parable and Religion or Existentialism in Dear Esther.

Quick Crit! Inspired Intentions

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Put simply, inspired intention is the term used for the way games make us do what we are intended to.  This can be achieved by setting the right mood with a powerful score, balancing good character development and suspense, and drawing the player’s attention with lighting, intricate design, and movement.  Good use of inspired intentions is an impressive feat in all games from The Walking Dead to Bioshock and is certainly worth mentioning when discussing all forms of ergodic* narrative.

*Ergodic = relating to video games, akin to literary or cinematic in books and movies respectively.

What games use inspired intentions to make you sympathize with the protagonist?  How?  Write your thoughts in comment section below.

If you care to read more about Inspire Intentions, read the detailed version here.  Or, hit follow for more insight into the art of video games.

Quick Crit! Island of Isolation in Dear Esther

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Dear Esther takes place on a Hebridean Island which depending on the interpretation is either metaphorical or a place the narrator strands himself with the intention of committing suicide following the death of his wife.  The player traverses this island and never comes in contact with another human (despite references to other inhabitants).  Furthermore, these inhabitants are referred to as hermits, lonely (like Jacobson), and out of touch (like the shepherds).  The visual text also shows the island’s isolation (and desolation) with crashed and decaying ships surrounding the island.  Thus, the player receives the same sense of isolation that the narrator feels due to the loss of his wife.  These are all things that could likely go unnoticed but, upon further inspection, show brilliance in artistic design.

What did you feel about the isolation in Dear Esther?  What other aspects of this game do you think The Chinese Room did well?  Leave a comment in the section below!

For more on Dear Esther, click here to read about the Narrator as a Jesus-figure or an Existentialist view.

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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!