Why ‘The Stanley Parable’ Almost Granted Videogames ‘Art’ Status

The Half Life 2 mod goes a long way to confirming that video games can be considered art.

Alex Aagaard

Contributor

2012 is proving to be a year of epic proportions in the entertainment industry. The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises killed it at the box office, and Diablo III broke several records even before it was released. And guess what? These numbers are not falling any time soon, since there are a few things like the Wii U, The Hobbit and Call of Duty just around the corner. But despite all this, I cannot help feel sorry for the smaller projects out there. One of these includes The Stanley Parable, a short videogame released last year that received little to no media attention. A shame really, since in a couple of decades, I guarantee that it will be regarded as one of the most pioneering games of all time.

Back in the summer of 2011, I traveled back to Denmark for summer holidays. One of my best friends, who also studies in England, arrived a day or two later, so we of course did what every Dane does after meeting up with old friends – drink. We sat at one of the bars in Copenhagen, and of course chatted about some of the stuff men do when gathered. We each shared and updated each other about everything that had happened in the year that had gone past – our embarrassing moments, our successful female conquests, our biggest rejections, and basically anything that could top anybody else’s story. One thing was different though; we each had gone separate ways in terms of further education. I studied Film and Creative Writing, and my other friend opted for Games Design course in the University of Teesside.

A conversation about our courses was inevitable, but once alcohol flows through our system and rises to that peak of supreme self-confidence, so are the debates. Somehow, in one of the wildest blurs of my time, we ended up in a discussion of whether or not videogames have evolved into an art form. My friend was evidently in favor, but I was against it for several reasons. These will be brought up further below, even though this essay’s inspiration would only pop up a random day in March of this year. He sent me a Youtube link to two videogame trailers; one called Dear Esther, and the other, The Stanley Parable. I was skeptical at first, as always, but I gave the videos a watch. I then downloaded Stanley.

I was hooked. These turned out to be two videogames that definitely pulled some new blinds. Finally, some videogames that preferred focusing on the narrative rather than explosions, guns, and hijacking airplanes. Substance at last stepped over spectacle’s face and offered the conventional gamer questions that he would have to solve independently. Nevertheless, this rush was extinguished nearly as soon as it burst.

Before I properly start, though, I reckon it is important to define my interpretation of an art form. Most people assume that art involves creativity, and whoever disagrees is one pretentious birdbrain in my book. Of course it does. Without a creative touch, how could an art form develop in the first place? What sickens me, however, is the looseness of the term ‘creativity’ whenever it is in conjunction to ‘art’. My 17’’ MacBook Pro probably required very creative designers. Whenever I notice those miniscule rows of holes that exert sound or the beams of light that squeeze out of each key, I instantly think how Apple have some talented staff. They do some beautiful work, but that is as far as it goes for me, since a laptop is not a work of ‘art’. Did it require creativeness? Of course. But so did the chair on which I currently sit as I type.

The same is applicable to videogames. Most gamers would like to see videogames considered an art form. The ‘why’ is meaningless, since most of their defensive tactics comprise of the MacBook argument: it requires oceans of creativity. The main variance to the MacBook argument is that videogames are classified as a leisure, which certainly relates to watching plays and films, writing poetry, painting on a canvas, slapping the bass, and many others. So far, I tend to agree with their view of art, but only until I counter them with the next point.

Yes, films, poems, plays, and others are all art forms – on specific occasions. A couple of weeks ago I watched American Pie: The Reunion at the cinema; listened to an old Nickelback track on MTV the other day; doodled a few classic cartoon characters saying with very vulgar messages. Are these all really works of art? When I watch films like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or read ‘The Cat in the Rain’ by Ernest Hemingway, then I sincerely doubt it. These masterpieces are members of subgroup from the broad nucleus that I label ‘entertainment’.

There are two stems that branch out of this nucleus, and, by using film as an example, there is the conventional film and the art film. Conventional films require as much creativity as the art film, and there are plenty of crafty directors throughout the history of cinema who have made pioneering films. Names like Woody Allen, John Ford, David Fincher, and Claude Chabrol fit in this category. Some of their films are undoubtedly brilliant, but are they truly art? The art film category, on the other hand, lists directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, Terrence Malick, and Lars von Trier. Their films deal with political, sociological, and philosophical issues that reflect anxieties and fortunes in reality. Now, here is where it starts getting tricky.

Mainstream films are capable of dealing with these issues as well, but these tend to an accessory of their narrative. A conventional plot-line is commonly labeled as its ‘referential meaning’, and these most commonly the Hollywood type that you watch in a mainstream cinema. For example, Avatar deals with several environmental allegories that can be applied to society. The film’s referential meaning, however, is the love relationship between the male and female protagonists. The film offers no realistic suggestions on how our society’s environmental issues can be improved, unless ‘killing the baddie’ is a viable solution. The film is undoubtedly majestic to look at; I still regret not watching it on 3D when it was in the cinema. Yet as previously stated, unlimited creativity does not automatically make a project a work of art. It makes it a craft, and there is a fine difference. Otherwise, the many sand castles that I built in my childhood would be works of art.

An art film involves the development of a ‘third eye’. Theorists such as Stuart Hall and Roland Barthes have dealt with the semiotics of language and images throughout their careers. A prominent theory that they developed is encoding and decoding of a certain text. In simple terminology, their theory entails the possibility of a text displaying one thing that we, as an audience, can hear or see, but in reality, this sound or image intends to evoke a different meaning altogether. The easiest example is probably Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-worded story:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
— Ernest Hemingway

As we can see, there are several questions that have been encoded. We, as readers, only receive the information that is in the text – shoes for sale. But why have they never been worn? Has there been a tragedy in the family? Are they having issues with money? This is what decoding is all about. If this theory is applied to a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, its referential meaning is the evolution of man from a monkey to a celestial being. If one decodes it, then the film signifies questions such as the power of knowledge, the limitations of emotion, the collision of divine intervention and science, and countless others. This, in a general consensus, is art.

From Baudelaire to Brecht, art is defined with encoding and decoding. But when my friend and I had the debate at the bar, I had yet to hear about The Stanley Parable. I believed that videogames did not branch out into two different forms of entertainment; I thought that it was an industry based solely on entertainment. Many games have a referential meaning, and at that point, I thought that they had nothing encoded. Their sole purpose was a beating the final boss, saving the princess, scoring the winning goal, and countless other resolutions. They are good at what they do – entertain.

Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable are fantastic efforts that widened my perception, and they almost proved me wrong. Both are games that require decoding – lots of it. The latter left me particularly impressed, since it branded so a bountiful amount of unconventional thoughts, especially from the likes of a videogame. The game is about Stanley, the protagonist, who follows the same daily routine in his office. He simply works and sleeps. His routine is suddenly savaged one day, though, since none of his coworkers show up. His mission is to uncover the mystery. The narrator describes Stanley’s decisions as he tries to solve the mystery, but there is a catch: the player is not forced to listen to the narrator. In addition, the game has numerous endings, one even more bizarre than the next. Luckily, the game only lasts around 10-15 minutes, so one can easily restart once the game is over and find a different ending through another different path. If the player follows all of the narrator’s instructions, he is finally liberated from his dull lifestyle. The more he disregards his suggestions, the more he angers the narrator, who kills Stanley off time and time again.

One can use Foucauldian theory to analyze this game’s meaning, which is an impressive feat no matter the art form. Stanley may believe that he is liberated from his daily routine if he unconditionally follows the narrator’s advice, but does he really achieve liberation? All he did was follow instructions – the same routine that has kept him alive until the present day. Is it truly freedom when you continue following instructions of a higher being? When he ignores the narrator, on the other hand, he follows his own intuition, disregarding conventions that his world has granted to him and experiences true liberation. He may be killed off, but the decision was entirely his.

Due to this, I consider The Stanley Parable truly magnificent, but it unfortunately fails in one department. Both Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable are as close as one can get to stamping my ‘art’ label on videogames, but both games rely significantly on their narrators. A film like Through a Glass Darkly requires multiple viewings in order to gather all events to be analyzed. The two videogames, conversely, constantly tell the gamer what happens. In short, there is decoding throughout the game – but it is decoding through hints dropped by a voiceover. It parallels the idea of a teacher or a scholar unfolding Macbeth to a student.

Videogames need to develop self-decoding in gameplay in order to evolve into a possible art. But The Stanley Parable has exhibited gaming’s true potential. If a child has the potential to become a footballer, then he must be a prodigy at a young age. Videogames had yet to show their potential, since pioneering graphics and complex gameplay constantly eclipsed what art’s true potential is – raising questions. But designers are thankfully heading on the right direction, although there still is a large excavation ahead of them. I wish them the best of luck.