Not possessing an abundance of free time lately, I’ve gravitated toward short independent games in lieu of long mainstream titles. Two such pieces, ‘Gone Home’ and ‘The Stanley Parable,’ have received acclaim and scorn in equal parts for not being, strictly speaking, “games.”
In neither ‘The Stanley Parable’ nor ‘Gone Home’ are your reflexes or cognitive skills tested; both are entirely narrative driven. But an argument can be made that via the means of narrative, you’re tested in a different manner.
‘The Stanley Parable,’ for example, asks you to take a look at the idea of “choice” in games. Do you have infinite choices, or no choice whatsoever? Is choice limited to those set up by the game designer, or are you technically capable of making your own decisions while playing? Is turning off the game and walking away a valid choice?
All these ideas are explored when the player steps into the shoes of the titular “Stanley,” a menial office worker, who one day gets up from his computer to find all his colleagues missing, and a posh, British narrator directing his every action.
There’s a clear cut line to the game’s “ending” if you follow the narrator’s instructions to the letter. But what if you didn’t? What happens if when you come to a set of two doors, and the narrator asks you to take the one on the left, you took the one on the right?
But where ‘The Stanley Parable’ challenges your notion of choice, ‘Gone Home’ challenges your emotional perception. Set in 1995, you play Katie, a girl in her early twenties, who has gone home to her parents’ house after backpacking across Europe for a year. When she arrives, she finds the house empty, and a note on the door from her little sister pleading with her to not go looking for answers as to where she’s gone.
Of course, as the player, you do the exact opposite of what your sister just asked you NOT to do. Certainly you could take a page out of the Stanley Parable’s book and just turn off the game, but that doesn’t seem as valid an option in this instance.
What follows is a story of discovery about what Katie has missed while she’s been away. When you begin, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a horror story. Big house, everyone’s missing, spooky flickering lights; the old standards are all on display here. But the only ghosts in the house are figurative; remnants of lives that might seem hauntingly familiar to anyone who grew up during the mid-90’s.
But is this a game? You don’t solve puzzles, you don’t jump on platforms or turtles with low survival instincts, and you don’t shoot anything; so how is it a game?
This is the same problem we run into when asking if something is “art.” Go to any portrait gallery, and you’ll often hear the dreaded “my 4-year-old could have done this” comment from people who have about as much artistic acumen as the canvas on which it was painted. Art is inherently open
to interpretation, whether by the artist themselves, or by their audience. It’s this interpretation in and of itself that makes something art.
If interpretation inherently informs artistry, then I believe it is interactivity that enlivens a game. All the jumping, shooting and fighting can be fun, but embodying another person, and living a small portion of their lives vicariously is what truly makes a game superb.
As such, ‘The Stanley Parable’ and ‘Gone Home’ are both unquestionably great games, and masterful pieces of art in their own right.