So in the last two weeks I've played two of the most acclaimed indie releases of 2013: Gone Home (http://fullbright.company/gonehome/
) and The Stanley Parable HD Remake (http://www.stanleyparable.com/
). The two games are simultaneously very alike each other and very different from each other. It's hard not to compare-and-contrast the two games, so I will not resist that temptation.
* Both are first-person perspective games.
* Both were Honorable Mention for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival.
* Both are very limited in what first-person games generally let you do with the UI; you can crouch, but you can't jump. There are no weapons to pick up or use.
* There are few-to-none enemies or interactive actors in either game. There's no health meter, or even a concept of health (except for small parts where an internal health meter is used for a different purpose).
* In both games, you're playing/controlling a specific character (Katie in GH, and Stanley in TSP), as opposed to a personal avatar.
* Both games are narrative-driven. As you go around the environment, a disembodied voice (which does not represent the character you control) comes out and advances the narrative. The voice primarily talks to the character controlled by the player (as opposed to talking to the player).
* Both narratives are best appreciated without spoilers. It's pretty common for both games to be introduced by a friend saying "don't learn anything about this game before playing it." Of course, that may cause backlash if you are paying for the game and you end up not feeling it was worth the money.
* Both games have a singular geography. By that I mean that, unlike a traditional FPS, neither game explicitly punctuates its geography into different "levels"; you might go to different sections of the map, but they aren't numbered with checkpoints or missions. You can easily imagine the geography of each game just taking place in one building; it's not a wide-open area to explore.
* Both games can be finished relatively quickly. If you're satisfied with seeing 90% of everything in a game, you can do that in either game in just a few hours, probably without even needing to look up hint guides or spoilers. And since both games are narrative-driven, there's not much replay value unless you enjoy looking for secrets and easter eggs. (If you want to get 100% of the game without cheating, there are certain aspects of TSP that will make it impossible to do in a few hours.) Because of this, it's a common complaint from some players that "the game isn't worth your money" -- these are players who prefer their games to be more action based with replay-value.
Now, about those differences.
The two games were developed on different engines, by different people.
GH is a more cooperative vision; while the story was written by one person, many aspects of it were driven by contributions from the different artists. TSP is much more from a single developer's mind and fits the auteur model better.
GH is warm and human, as shown by its decision to use hand-written notes and text for its user interfact; TSP is more impersonal and cold, and uses bold even-weight fonts for its displays.
GH's player character and narrative voice are young women; TSP's player character and narrative voice are adult men. One could probably talk about this gender contrast quite a bit more, but I'll just leave it at this.
TSP pushes on humor and is very trope-aware, and is perfectly willing to break the fourth wall when it's funny. GH has bits of humor but it's always within the story, and the overall story does not have humor as a main goal.
But in some sense those differences pale in comparison to what I think is the most thought-provoking contrast of all.
Contrasting both games made me really think about the terms we use to describe the flow of a game. Usually there is a dichotomy between a "linear" story and a "non-linear" story; but I think that dichotomy fails when it's being used to contrast these two games.
There are two important things involved in telling a story. First, you need to have the building blocks: a setting, a plot, perhaps some characters, and events that happen -- a world, so to speak. Second, you need to have a narrative path -- a sequence where you lead your audience through this world that you've created, showing them some of those building blocks.
Traditional storytelling is monolithic and linear. By "monolithic" I mean that your building blocks in the story are fixed and unchangable. By "linear" I mean that the narrative path generally marches forward in time. Movies such as "Pulp Fiction" or "Memento" are monolithic but not linear; Honey Bunny always has the hold-up in the cafe, regardless of whether it's at the beginning or the end of the movie. Movies such as "Run Lola Run" or "Sliding Doors" are linear but not monolithic; time progresses the same way but we are shown different events that cannot exist in the same world. Of course there are going to be some impurities, even in traditional storytelling -- when one of your characters has a flashback, your story has a bit of non-linearity; when one of your characters has a dream, your story has a bit of non-monolithicness.
Gone Home is a good archetype of a monolithic non-linear narrative. There is a consistent history throughout the whole game; but that history is being revealed slowly and non-linearly by the decisions of the player. The player is a bit like a detective; you inspect artifacts and objects that reveal aspects of what happened, of what the truth is. But for that to work you need to have faith that there *is* a truth; that the rules of the world are logical and consistent -- in other words, that the story is monolithic. The player has choices, but all those choices affect are the narrative thread. You can learn about things in this order, or that order, but eventually you're learning about the same things. You can experience X before you experience Y, or the other way around; but you'll always have access to X or Y. Gone Home has one "ending"; a natural point where the designers feel that you've learned the important bits of the story.
The Stanley Parable is a good archetype of a linear non-monolithic narrative. You always start at the same point and you're always being pushed forward in the story, but your choices actually affect the nature of the world the story takes place in. There is no "true history" for you to discover through artifacts and observation; the game teases you with things that look like they might have consistency, but is perfectly willing to discard that consistency to make the narrative interesting. On the other hand, because the story has this freedom of non-monolithicness, the narrative thread then becomes linear. Doors close behind you, barring you from going back to where you came from. Unless you're at a specific "choice point", you generally have no choices that have any impact on the narrative. If you choose to experience X, then you'll never get to experience Y, or vice versa, because X and Y can't coexist in the same story. The Stanley Parable has 18 endings.
Because of this difference, another thing that struck me is how the meta-game mechanic of savegaming services or disservices both games. Gone Home's savegame system is pretty much invisible. You can save whenever you decide to stop playing, and pick up where you left off seamlessly. Since you can always go back and revisit things you missed, there's not much reason to restore a savegame. The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, because of its linear structure, means that if you don't use savegames, you'll have to experience the whole story from the beginning again if you want to try a different choice. Or you can save the game before the decision point -- but that's somewhat problematic because it breaks the linearity of the narrative. In some sense, TSP is better enjoyed by a player who is patient enough to relive the same starting aspects of the game over and over again (which is rather few players indeed). I am reminded of the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, where the book wanted me to start each story from the beginning of the book, but I would always keep my fingers all fanned out at different decision pages and read different branches.
Overall, both games were highly enjoyable to me and I would recommend them both to anyone who likes narratives (and isn't super cost-conscious). If Gone Home is like experiencing a story through extended flashbacks, The Stanley Parable is like experiencing multiple dreams (or nightmares).