Games that play you?

Published on October 8, 2015

Can a game play you as much as you play it? We take a look at some interesting recent games that challenge the perceptions of digital storytelling.

Think of this: Could you imagine yourself watching a movie where, whilst you’re watching it, you begin to mistrust it? As the film progresses, you start to wonder if it’s misleading you, jumping you back to the beginning, or making you doubt if you’re actually moving forward through the movie at all? Or how about wondering at the end if you’ve actually even finished the movie, or if it’s just making you think you have?

No, of course not.

Movies, TV and books are all one-way experiences. You start at the beginning and the story is relayed to you in a continuous order. We understand this, and we’re very comfortable with it. The story itself may challenge us, make us think about the world, sure – but we never feel with film or print that we need to question the experience itself as it progresses.

Digital media is changing all that. Why does that matter? For a long while now it has been the fastest growing entertainment medium.

The video-game industry is projected to grow from $67 billion in 2013 to $82 billion in 2017. At the same time, global movie revenue, both DVD and ticket sales, hit an estimated $94 billion in 2010, down 17% after inflation from 2001.*

Generations have now grown up with gaming to the point it’s no longer a novelty – it’s a powerful entertainment medium that’s here to stay.

But since its creation, the gaming experience has focused largely on an objective-reward storytelling approach.

Objective-Reward Storytelling

In most games, you begin a story, and then you (as the player) are in control of the events that follow. This can be in a structured way, with you progressing in order from one story point to the next (like a platform game such as Mario), or a more free-roaming experience (such as GTA 5) where you progress however you want, in the way that you want, in the order that you want. But both of these approaches  follow the same basic model – you are required to complete objectives, and if you succeed you are given rewards (e.g. points).

So is there an alternative?

Interactive Fiction Video Games

A new experience is fast emerging, which challenges a player’s perceptions to the point of making them question the game as its being played.

Largely created by smaller game developers (aka Indie Gamers) who are not constrained by larger company profit viability margins, Indie Gamers are free to try new untested concepts – many of which have since become so successful that they adopted into larger budget games.

In these games, the digital medium plays to its strengths in the telling of a story, creating an experience that can only be told through a game.

There are quite a few games we could talk about, but I’m going to focus on just two from one single developer – they’re the most interesting examples. But at the end of this article, you’ll find some notes on a couple more examples if you’re interested.

The Stanley Parable (2011)

Created by Indie Gamers Davey Wreden and William Pugh, this game represented a major turning point in popular games. It is here that the gameplay progresses in such a way that you begin to question its own honesty – and whether you are even making any progress at all.

You control Stanley, an office worker whose job it is to press buttons on a computer, blindly following instructions, which he enjoys and feels comfortable with. As the game begins, he awakes at his desk, with the entire office building around him deserted. He hears a voice – a narrator in the traditional storytelling sense, who then guides him with instructions and a narration of what he (Stanley) is thinking. But almost immediately, something about the narrator doesn’t feel right, as if you shouldn’t trust it. For example, when you are faced with two doors and the narrator’s voice says that (you) Stanley confidently takes the left door (before you’ve actually done anything), you slowly begin to question if you should even do as the voice says.

As you break away, the voice becomes more annoyed with you, and constantly restarts the whole game from the beginning (or so you think). Later on, it becomes forgetful, losing track of where you were, and you begin to lose confidence in it.

Through the storyline, you find that the voice may be imaginary and you are going mad – or is it the head of the company that made everyone disappear controlling you? Each time you play, it gives you a slightly different experience, and as you ‘progress’ you start to trust the game less and less.

At one point, a second narrator takes over and tells you not to trust the first one, giving you different instructions – but should you trust this one either?

And the ending of the game? …that’s a blurry line. The whole narrative is designed to be ironic; you’re controlling a mindless character following orders and pressing buttons on a computer and then trying to escape – and how are you doing this? By doing the same thing in real life.

This is a fascinating example of how just by playing a computer game you can end up with an experience where you question what’s happened, what it means and whether the game will ever be completely honest with you.

If you’re still interested in this game, I recommend watching this series of play-through videos

The Beginner’s Guide (2015)

Again created by Davey Wreadon of The Stanley Parable, this new game once again challenges preconceptions of what is a game and how it can be used to tell a story.

The game is more of an interactive narration, where Wreadon himself talks of a prior programmer friend of his called Coda, who used to make gaming experiments. Wreadon then talks through these games in chronological order, letting you play the games as you go. Coda never released them publicly, and each wouldn’t be classed as finished in its own right.

As he introduces each one, he narrates his real-life interactions with Coda, and how he felt the gameplay reflected on this at the time. Sometimes these are simple like the increasing focus on being in a prison, or non-conforming to conventional rules. But slowly, we learn more about Coda, and how his games start to show a darker personality, fraught with doubt and depression.

Wreadon’s narration becomes increasing intense, as we see Coda growing ever more introverted and clearly not wanting to make the games at all – but it’s obvious that Wreadon was ever more obsessed with them and encouraged his friend to make more.

Then in the story, Coda creates a game which Wreadon then begins to show other people to get their opinions – without Coda’s consent.

The following final game uses in-game graphics to send a message directly from Coda to Wreadon severing their friendship. Wreadon tells us that Coda then disappears never to be seen again and with no further games.

The narration becomes intense now, as Wreadon publicly apologises to Coda, and in angry desperation explains that he released the demo games (as we are playing them) to try and force Coda to get back in touch with him, and hopefully make more games (which Wreadon seems to now need like an obsession). By the end, it’s now apparent that it’s Wreadon who is a little unbalanced, and maybe Coda never was… the game never resolves this.

At the end of the experience, you are left with questions. Is Coda real or fictional? Did all this really happen, or is it just a story? Wreadon has given no interviews and wants the game to stand as its own experience. I find it extraordinary in that, at the end, you feel you really know Wreadon and Coda’s relationship intimately  – and the only way this has been achieved is through the playing of simple games and voiceover narration.

The internet is still buzzing with discussion on what it means – one suggestion is that Coda is in fact Wreadon himself before he created The Stanley Parable and found industry fame. It might be a reflection on transforming from a ‘bedroom game maker’ into a profitable business.

Personally, I think it’s fiction. Wreadon is a powerful storyteller (he has his own Youtube video channel with interesting fictional films where he shows that he’s also a considerable actor) and I think The Beginner’s Guide was an experiment to show how just playing a game can be used to provoke a reaction within the player on a personal level.

You can watch a complete play-though here.


So what does this all mean? Is there any kind of point to this new game-based storytelling direction?

Our industry often uses digital media to tell stories – whether it’s a game, a website or an app – all of them are become increasingly reliant on engaging the user and engrossing them into an experience.

I believe experimental games like these show us that we can take this concept much further than we think. Even with today’s high-powered, super-fast processing digital platforms, you can still turn a seemingly familiar format on its head and start a whole new discussion, with nothing more than a very simple game, a soundtrack and you.


Further games that push the storytelling genre:

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

Created by Team Ico in Japan, this was a revolution in high-end 3D games, in that you control a character within a world where there are no dungeons to explore, no towns to visit – not even any other people. It’s just your character who, to save a young girl, must track down terrifyingly massive lumbering creatures, manage to climb up their huge bodies, and kill them one by one. The creatures are overwhelming and instil a feeling of apprehension and even fear. However, it is only as the game nears the end that you discover that the creatures you have been slaughtering are harmless, innocent creatures near extinction – and you begin to see that you are actually the villain of the story. This use of a game to spin your moral compass and make you think about the game after playing was quite a new concept for mainstream gaming in 2005.

Journey (2012)

Again, this is a game where you feel you are on your own in a landscape. Slowly you explore and are guided towards objectives – solving puzzles to progress. Soon, characters appear than begin to help you – sometimes you need them in order to complete the puzzle. These characters sometime follow you on your journey and you begin to get to know their quirks. They do not speak, or have any captioned dialog – however, you can communicate through basic symbols. You don’t even know their character name.

It is only as you play, that you begin to suspect that these other characters may not be controlled by the computer. Through their actions helping, or not helping – the way they act or move, or even get annoyed with you…  You start to realise that these other characters are actually players just like yourself, connected automatically through the game space so that you are playing together. This method of secretly connecting a player to another, and at no point revealing that this is happening, is a strong example of using a game to connect two people into a story, with an immersive experience unique to their ‘journey.’ This was a leading example of withholding the truth to a player in order to tell a story and, in doing so, causing you to question both the game and if what you are experiencing is under your control alone.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013)

This game on the surface comes under the standard Objective-Reward approach. You control two characters simultaneously (the two young brothers) as they explore a fantasy world to try and find the cure for their dying father. Unique in that you control both characters simultaneously yourself using one controller (one brother on each joystick) – the game progresses and the story is told as you get to know your two characters well.

What’s interesting is that this is done with no dialog or captioning at all – only through actions and a few generic vocal sounds – yet still an emotional story is told. You become so invested in their tale, that many online reviewers were reduced to tears at the story’s heartbreaking climax. In making the player perform a duty that, whilst not gruesome or graphic, Brothers showed the gaming world just how powerful the medium of gameplay can be in storytelling.