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On "Cool" Games and "Quality" Games

 

Note: In this blog, I do my best to avoid spoilers for The Stanley Parable.  However, discussion of the manner of storytelling and a few of its goals are present.  Tread carefully.


A few days ago, I caught wind of an indie game known as The Stanley Parable.  The project, developed primarily by two men, is aimed to question the typical, linear storytelling methods of video games.  Without treading on spoiler territory for the game (which I highly recommend playing), I will simply say that it is highly impressive.  The experience has seemingly endless branching paths and endings to explore, each with different messages for the player to receive.  The title also owes much of its success to the writing, which is both witty and thought-provoking without feeling jaded or forced.  By the end of a few playthroughs (a necessity to fully understand the game’s intentions), one will come away questioning the current status of video game storytelling and wondering if the themes presented in The Stanley Parable could be implemented into other games in order to create experiences that are both more personal and long-lasting.


In case you couldn’t tell, I was astounded by the lofty goals that The Stanley Parable managed to achieve.  The possible stories, witty dialogue, obvious parodies, and overall commentary on the state of gaming enamored me.  And then, after seeing most of what the game had to offer and being satisfied with the experience, I sat back and thought “Huh, that was a very cool experience.”



Not “That was a fantastic game” or “Some of the mechanics here were really well done” or even “Those graphics were spectacular.”  No; when I completed The Stanley Parable, I called it a “cool experience.”  However, I pondered, what could have made me consider the title “cool” as opposed to “good” or “quality?”  Was it the dialogue of the ever present narrator?  Was it the branching paths and reactive story?  The secrets and empowering feeling a player received when finding them?  Could it have been a conjunction of all these facets?  Or, perhaps, none of these aspects at all?


To find the source of this questioning, I first brought to mind some examples of games that are widely considered high in “quality.”  This year alone, The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite have been called “high quality”  by several publications.  Of course, these are titles that were developed by huge teams with gargantuan budgets, while The Stanley Parable was developed with what two men could garner.  While I don’t believe that this necessarily creates a distinction between “cool” and “good,” it is still a good thing to point out.


Now, what do these two titles have that The Stanley Parable does not (or vice versa)?  Both are very well rounded experiences, so to speak.  Each has a focus on story, but is also proficient in other aspects of gaming, such as gunplay and graphics (in fact, many would call The Last of Us the most graphically impressive game on consoles).  Both force the player to connect with the characters presented, going along with them for the entirety of a story.  None of these traits are necessarily new or original for the gaming industry, but the finesse with which each title pulls them together and successfully creates an experience around them is deserving of much praise.


So, in a lot of ways, both titles manage to bring several facets of game design (story, gameplay, graphics, etc.) together into a single experience.  When they (or any others) are successful, many gamers are astounded.  However, beyond the obvious bringing together of gameplay elements, I’d also argue that both The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite do something else entirely to gain respect with gamers: they bridge the gap between cinema and gaming.  With an obvious focus on storytelling and characters, each experience often feels movie-like as opposed to “gamey.”  Therefore, the games aren’t necessarily doing new things, but are doing things that are new for the gaming industry.  They aren’t questioning gaming, but simply bridging a gap, a feat which I’m likely oversimplifying.  Regardless, I believe that this is why I classify these titles as “quality” instead of “cool.”  Even with this classification, however, I still haven’t made it clear why I’d call The Stanley Parable as the latter.


The Stanley Parable has a clear identity from its onset.  Within the opening minutes, the player realizes exactly what he or she is in for: an experience with wit, writing, and commentary.  While I won’t go into the nature of the narration, storytelling, and commentary on the gaming industry, I will say that these elements (which are the game’s basis) make for an experience that is immensely thought-provoking.  At few (if any) points will the player ask themselves either “What does this game borrow from similar titles?” or “How does this game bring about advancement for the industry?”  No; if anything, the player is asking themselves “What makes this feel so different?


And there, I believe, lies the heart of my distinction between  “cool” and “different.”  While The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Grand Theft Auto V are games that manage to become proficient in many areas of game design (a feat that multitudes of developers aspire to reach), none do anything particularly different.  This doesn’t mean that the titles are not outstanding, it just means that they manage to pull off many things that have already been imagined.


Conversely, The Stanley Parable throws all of this out.  At no point does it attempt to become challenging or to perfect any established ideas of game design.  Instead, it spends its few hours critiquing and commenting upon the player, his or her hobby, and the gaming industry as a whole.  When it is successful, the player is likely to sit back and ponder, as these emotions aren’t typically something that they associate with traditional video games.  So, by doing something unexpected and new, a game can reach “cool” status.


In my lifetime, I hope to never see the end of innovation in the gaming industry.  At no point do I believe that new ideas and mechanics will stop being introduced, regardless of whether they are more or less common.  With that said, I’d also predict that games will continue to perfect already established formulas, wowing gamers regardless of whether the experiences are “new” or “original.”  However, I believe that my tendency to classify games as either “cool” or “quality” is a direct response to the goals of said game.  For me, a game that attempts new things and doesn’t spend a lot of time attempting to perfect and force every little thing can be considered “cool.”  Conversely, those that perfect established formulas are higher on the “quality” scale.  The distinction might seem moderately trivial, but I believe that it is one that could become crucial in the years to come.



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