Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden

I'm a bit late on the trolley here, but here's the latest postmodernist / poststructuralist artsy Source mod to hit the scene -- it's Davey Wreden's "The Stanley Parable." Relatively spoiler-free critique follows:
  • Tree of life. There are lot of branching points in this game. Do they matter or not? You'll see. I will say, though, that critiquing the Branch as a ludonarrative structure is becoming increasingly misplaced these days because no one is defending it. Take the Landsmeet in Dragon Age 1, or Deirdra Kiai's "Chivalry is not Dead" -- there are so many branches and interactions, they're more "bushy" than "branchy," to the point that you can just barely distinguish between branches -- and if it's in both an AAA console action game and an indie PC-only notgame, it's safe to say that bushiness is a growing design practice.
  • Them thematics. The level design says a lot. Some of it has been said before (and maybe with more subtlety) and some of it is novel and predicts your reactions uncannily. I hate to call it a "trick," but the level design has a lot of tricks, much like Ian Snyder's "Feign" or Alexander Bruce's "Hazard: The Journey of Life" "Antichamber" or even the stuff I do in Radiator. These devices work once and only once... Which is okay. Tricks aren't bad.
  • Sotto voce. There's a lot of voice acting involved here, and (at least to American ears) the British tone is incredibly resonant and charming. To be fair, some of the credit should go to Wreden for writing a decent script too. It's all very well-done and probably the stand-out feature of this mod, though it's important to NEVER press "Escape" to go to the menu or it'll desync a lot of the dialogue.
  • Theme songs. I didn't like his choice or use of music. It was a missed opportunity to do more with the sound in general. I suspect Wreden was still learning the toolset (more on that later) because this type of thing is ripe for soundscapes and fun setpieces that might've interacted with the voice acting.
  • Broken saves. I'm not sure if this is intentional or not, but I couldn't save my game. This had the "benefit" (?) of making me replay through the entire thing instead of saving and reloading at certain branching points.
  • Paranoid Pakrat? Wreden has chosen to pack all the sound files into the BSP, which is strange because the usefulness of the SourceMod folder format is that you can leave the files there. Did he not want anyone to snoop around and listen to the voice over without playing through the game?
  • A clash against polish. I've wondered what a "punk" aesthetic might be in level design. This might be it; the environment is spartan and blandly constructed. It's not my intention to be condescending when I say that he is clearly not a veteran Source modder, though it sounds more asshole-ish the more I read it. Now, Wreden might bristle at this comparison, but in some ways it reminds me of Super Columbine RPG -- what I consider to be a horribly ugly, poorly designed piece of work that is absolutely worthless only if you measure it by the same arcane standards of a hyper-polished RPGmaker game with custom hand-drawn sprites. There is a different value set at-work here, one that rejects professionalism on principle. Plus, this "sloppy" style works really well here because it emphasizes the artificiality of a game environment.
  • Ego boost. Your money will always be good here. An excerpt from author_commentary.txt: I remember playing Radiator, deathly afraid that Robert Yang was going to come out with an episode that was exactly what I had been working on, except better.
Of course, I recommend playing it. (hat tip to Ryan Trawick)

DOWNLOAD The Stanley Parable v1.2 (.zip, 453 mb)