domingo, 7 de diciembre de 2014

The Desk Jumping Parable: Narrative Lessons from The Stanley Parable

As I was reading Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiencees by Sylvester Tynan I came across an interesting concept in the chapter of Narrative in games. The term that Sylvester Tynan used to name this concept was Desk Jumping and it basically means interrupting the game's narrative with gameplay. 

Understanding Agency as the player's power of choice in the game world, the Game Designer faces the challenge of telling a story with a breathing, thinking, decision making agent (a.k.a. player) willing to interrupt his every move if the story and / or gameplay allows it.

It is categorized as a potential hazard for game narrative if not treated right, for instance, in The Last of Us one plays Sarah, Joel's daughter, in the prologue of the game. After a series of happenings, Sarah is in a pick-up truck with her father and uncle while they are trying to run away from the city. In this ride, several events happen in the streets and the player can control the camera by pointing at the direction in which Sarah is looking at. One could choose not to look at anything, so the Game Designer needs to make sure that the events that are transpiring in the background while Sarah is in the pick-up truck are not crucial to the story, knowing that the player can simply choose to not look at it and spoil the whole thing.

Sylvester Tynan calls this concept Desk Jumping because in Deus Ex, where the player is a super spy working in a secret organization, besides doing everything related to his super secret missions, he can jump on the Boss' desk, looking funny and spoiling the atmosphere of the game. The player may find this humorous, and the player's motivation may be to create a comedic scenario, while the character's motivation would be to get information on a mission. Desk jumping happens when the player's motivations are different from the character's motivations.

Some game designers disable desk jumping, which integrated to the context of the game can work but it means giving the player limited control of his character in specific situations. Some game designers ignore it, hoping that by not encouraging it the player would get bored of doing it, and some game designers try to incorporate desk jumping as part of the gameplay and narrative.

Then there is Davey Wreden, developer of The Stanley Parable, who dealt with Desk Jumping integrating it to the gameplay so completely, that he made a whole game out of it. The Stanley Parable is a game about Desk Jumping that treats Agency issues like mechanics and adapts the complete story to these issues.

I've got the power

The Stanley Parable sets up a scenario where the player is completely free to choose whichevere path he wants, and this sense of freedom helps him immerse into the game and feel like his character, poor old Stanley, trapped in a lonely office with no idea of where did everyone go.

The immersion is so dynamic that Stanley's personality is drawn by the player's actions, not by a preset background story and character story. The player can do whatever he wishes, and the game will react to it in hilarious, mad ways.

In this case, Stanley's motivation is to get out of the office and solve the whole mystery of where did everyone go, while the player's motivation may vary from creating humour, to find every possible ending, to just curiosity in trying everything there is to try and seeing how the game reacts, or they can be aligned with Stanley's. Desk jumping is so expected, that there would be no game if it weren't for this.

What if... Scenarios

The way that the Game Designers accomplished a winning Desk Jumping mechanic was by tempting the player to challenge (or, better put, think that he's challenging) the Game Designer and look for alternative "What if" scenarios. The game is set up in an office, with a narrator explaining the context of the game and giving the player instructions. The office is empty and no one knows why, and Stanley needs to discover why and mainly just get out of there, Pretty simple.

The catch is that the narrator narrates everything, I mean EVERYTHING, if the player is faced with two doors, the narrator would say something along the lines of "Stanley went through the door on the right". This is far from innocent, this is said to create a story and at the same time to tempt the player to take the door on the left. Why would a narrator mandate where the player should go?

Even minor details are heavy with story content, I once entered a broom closet and stayed there for about 10 minutes and the results were completely hilarous, the narrator would say that Stanley went into a broom closet for no reason, that there was no Broom Closet ending that the player could tell his friends about, and lastly he was so annoyed that I hadn't left the broom closet that he said that the player must have died on his keyboard, and that this was the only logical explanation about he not getting out of the closet. The 4th wall in storytelling was completely broken and shattered to pieces and the results were amazingly good.

Story Evolution

The story evolves so naturally and organicly that it is next to impossible not to feel overpowered and humbled at the same time. The narrator makes the player understand that he has merely an illusion of control, that he may control the story but that Stanley's fate would only be in the hands of the narrator, he becomes sooner than later an all powerful Game God (pretty close to the definition of Game Designing).

The story is far from linear, it has many endings and some of them are even endings "in development" in which Staley gets to unfinished rooms. The choices that the player makes not only affect the story line, but the narrator's reaction to the story, the endings, and mostly everything that happens in between.

Having a reasonable small game world allowed the developers to record a narrator line and create and environment for every decision. The most curious and exploring player would naturally want to draw a diagram about which doors to go and paths to take to unlock every single ending.

The narrative feels naturally a part of gameplay, the controls are so simple that they enhance the feeling that this game is all about a sotry, or, better, about many stories. Moreover, every restart counts as a part of the same story, and the narrator will just skip parts on purpose with literally "Blah, blah, blah" dialogs because the player has been there in a previous spawn and knows that specific sequence by heart.

Bonus Points

Not only did the Game Designer integrate desk jumping to the narrative, but Steam achievements as well. Brilliantly, when the player tries to get an achievement the narrator (which, as I said before, feels like an overpowerful God) detects it and goes on an on about whether Stanley has done enough to deserve the achivement or not.

It is the cherry of a cocktail of brilliant story telling in games. By nature, games have a big drawback in story  telling, which is that they are controlled by people with free will, but if the Game Designers integrate that free will into the main mechanic of the story, thus creating a dynamic narrative with very different conclussions that depend on the player's choice, we can all delight ourselves playing a true narrative masterpiece. 

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