I knew there was something I was forgetting.
Nine games have been evaluated, placed on a numerical list based on my personal opinion of their relative subjective worth. Only one remains.
Playing with storytelling in a way that almost transcends being a ‘game’ at all, we come at last to…
#1 – The Stanley Parable
In its initial incarnation as a Half-Life 2 mod, The Stanley Parable was merely interesting. It played with narrative tropes to a degree, and was smartly presented, but being tied to exclusively using Half-Life 2 textures and props, and with no budget to speak of, creator Davey Wreden could only go so far. Still, the basics were there. A narrator who tells you to turn left, when you can choose to turn right, and a ‘main’ storyline that applauds you for breaking free from outside control even as it chastises you for failing to follow instructions.
Skip forward two years, and The Stanley Parable as we now know it has taken the original mod’s ideas of narrative rebellion and player agency and run with them, as far as they can go. Nobody is really quite sure how many endings there are, and many of them aren’t even ‘endings’ in the traditional sense, instead plopping you right back at what appears to be the beginning of the game, the effects of your actions not quite apparent until much later.
What story, you might ask? What narrative? It’s hard to explain. The basic premise is that you, Stanley, are alone in your office building, and must search for your missing colleagues. Except, that isn’t the story at all. In fact, depending on the decisions you make, the path you end up experiencing might have almost nothing to do with that opening scene. You’re at once completely in control of the decisions you make, and also completely at the whims of the narrator. You are storyteller, protagonist and victim.
I’m not sure if it’s partly because of my English Lit background, but this game is fucking clever.
It’s very difficult not to spoil The Stanley Parable. I’d really like to talk about the ways in which each little strand of narrative plays with your expectations and emotions, and I’d LOVE to quote some of the lines of dialogue that had me literally howling with laughter. But I won’t, because it’d ruin the game for those who haven’t experienced it, and this really is one of those things that you must experience first hand.
I know I say that a lot, but it’s true.
The only real advice I can give is to try everything. Try to deliberately break the game, and you’ll almost certainly find a response built in, if not an entirely new thread of plot. The sharp writing and impeccable voice acting will make boredom the last thing on your mind.
If you’re not sure whether or not this sort of thing is for you, there’s a free demo available on Steam. If nothing else, I urge you to try it. It’s bloody brilliant.
“Stanley had heard enough. This game, he decided, was it. The bee’s knees. The dog’s bollocks. Right then and there, he went and bought a copy of The Stanley Parable, and he absolutely loved it. ‘Ben was right’, he was heard saying moments later, ‘This game is everything I wanted it to be’. And Stanley, for a while, was happy.”
So, that’s that. My personal top ten of 2013. It’s interesting to compare it with my (slightly shorter) list from 2012, in that the general themes on show are very different. Then, I spoke mostly about difficulty, about complex systems that require mastery, and forging your own playstyle out of a rigid set of rules. This year, it seems, I’ve been far more taken with the emotional impact of things – games like Gone Home and Outer Wilds really do stick with you long after you’ve finished them. There seems to be a trend, particularly in the indie scene, towards figuring out how our blossoming interactive medium can be used to tell stories and create engaging experiences that simply wouldn’t work in any other format. Gone Home: The Novel would probably be okay, but it wouldn’t have that same sense of urgency. Even the most well-constructed first-person narrative in the world can’t compare to actually being the protagonist.
Still, there are plenty of games I wish I could’ve included. So here’s a quick list of a few things that didn’t quite make it in, listed alphabetically.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – I picked this up in the last few days of December, well after I’d written out this list, and I’m quite enjoying it. Thematically, it’s spot on – the AC series has always been more about looking cool than anything else, and Black Flag has cool coming out of its arse. I’m not sure whether or not I’ll still think that after another 30 hours or so, but 5-ish hours in, it’s pretty great.
Metro: Last Light – As a huge fan of the original Metro: 2033‘s blend of tense stealth and atmospheric, risk-laden combat, I was very much looking forward to Last Light. Ultimately, the game delivered, but it had lost some of the rough edges that I really enjoyed in 2033. The idea of powerful military-grade ammunition being your one and only currency meant that, once you ran out of the normal stuff, you were literally firing money at your enemies. However, ammo was just a little bit too easy to find in Last Light, meaning that this tension never really became an issue. The focus seems to have shifted more towards the storytelling, rather than the emergent stories that came from having to make hard choices during gameplay.
Papers, Please! – This very nearly made the list and, honestly, some of the things I’ve heard about it since writing my first draft made me think that perhaps I should’ve given it more thought. Unfortunately, I am but one man, and I don’t have time to play every game ever. Papers, Please! is one of those games that I played for a while, really enjoyed, and said ‘Yes, I’ll come back to this when I have the time’ – but I never did. A game all about corruption, both personal and governmental, sounds right up my alley, too. It’s definitely on the list.
The Swapper – One of the best pure puzzle games of the year, with a fairly dark twist. The Swapper involves creating clones of yourself, and swapping your consciousness between them in order to acquire enough power orbs to escape the starship you’re trapped on. Clones you’re not inhabiting fall to the ground with a sickening thud, and the overall atmosphere is certainly a few miles past sinister. Gameplay wise, The Swapper is almost the perfect sort of puzzle game – even the most impossible-looking room is completely solvable with the tools you’ve got at your disposal, and all you need to do is figure out how to apply them. Ultimately, it got cut from my list, purely because there were too many good games this year and something had to go.
I think that’ll do, for now. There are always going to be things I’ve missed, things you disagree with, or points I’ve made that are just plain wrong. So, please, share your thoughts!
What did you like? What did you hate? What are you most looking forward to in 2014?