Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughts on The Stanley Parable

A couple days ago, after playing it over a couple sittings, and even suspecting that I wasn't done with it, I decided to jot down all the thoughts bouncing around my head about this game. It really affected me in a way that games usually don't. The following writing is raw and unrevised.

The Stanley Parable has lodged itself in my subconscious and is making me revisit all the things I thought I had figured out about freedom and choice. While the game is, on its face, a kind of weird commentary on the nature of choice in games, I think it actually works better as a meditation on freedom and choice in life.

Part of the challenge in figuring out what The Stanley Parable means is that it's constantly telling me what it means - which means I have to re-frame the question of what it means to incorporate the fact that it's telling me what it means. It gets pretty meta and confusing, but I believe that's part of the point.

A room with two doors looks like a choice. Pick a door and go in and get your special ending. But then, after the "ending" is over, you're presented with the same choice again. The Stanley Parable knows it's a game, and it wants me to play it over and over again. The nature of choice and meaning determines that whatever I choose will be meaningful because it was chosen in lieu of another choice. But then, what happens when the same choice is presented again? And again?

The abundance of that first choice, left door or right, makes the choice somewhat meaningless. After playing the game over and over again, I know what's going to happen if I choose the left door or the right. There's no risk, and so no reward.

Yet the moment when the first choice in the game became meaningless to me is the moment when the game became meaningful. At that moment, I asked myself "if my choices are meaningless, why am I still playing?" The only answer I could come up with was that I wanted to see what would happen. The choice at that point was a choice to keep playing.

The genius of The Stanley Parable isn't that it's a clever commentary on soul-crushing desk jobs, video game narratives, or even itself. The Stanley Parable is genius because it can do nothing but question its own existence. At every level the game unravels itself, working upward, until I, the player, question the nature of my own freedom and choices. It makes me think: even if my life is stressful, even if crazy stuff is happening around me, maybe the only choice that really matters is the one I make to get out of bed every day.

The game makes me make a version of that choice right in front of it. If I played the game forever, it would be canonical within the game's story. I could live The Stanley Parable, pushing buttons in a certain order to keep the game going. But choosing to turn off The Stanley Parable is a choice to play a different game, whether it be Real-Life or something else on Steam. At one point, it even asks me to. Even when I turn it off, I'm under its spell.

Monday, October 7, 2013


My friend Robin's game Soundself went to Burning Man this year. It's an awesome project and a lot of people are astounded with it. The book full of well-wishers is real, and huge.

I helped build a third of the installation for a test run right before one of the Indiecade Annex parties. I'm in this video lumbering around somewhere. (I'm also in the beginning of the kickstarter video). I'm surprised I haven't posted about this game before actually.

The game is still a work in progress. Instead of a videogame, Robin is calling it a "videodream," a name I suggested after hearing his working term was "experiential non-game." His definition is fascinating. But before I say anything about genre, I want to talk about Soundself specifically.

I think Soundself can best be described as a kind of mirror. It listens to the player and reflects its algorithmic interpretation. The psychedelic kaleidoscopic visuals react dynamically to qualities in one's voice.

The dream is interesting for a few reasons. From one angle, Soundself feels like it's alive, communicating with you in a very intimate way. From another, it feels like a mirror, almost as if it's showing you a picture of your soul. It's a playful, relaxing, therapeutic experience at the moment. Having to sustain even the weakest note (especially in front of other people) and seeing the beauty that comes out of that sustained effort is a special experience. (Keep in mind I've only played it in public settings so my experience reflects that).

I think Robin is going for something a lot more profound than "therapeutic" though. Is it a mirror of the soul? Is it something alive, with something to say about life? Is it a tool for discovering greater truths? I'm excited to see what he comes up with. Apparently the visuals are completely revamped from when I played it.

Robin's game (dream) is part of a nascent genre. but oh snap I just got my iPhone, hold on.

The Cyberpunk Question

Cyberpunk has made a resurgence in recent years. Former tabletop games Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are reincarnated as video games. Both Neuromancer and Snow Crash seem to be getting movies soon. Ghost in the Shell has a new season. The last Deus Ex game was very popular. These hard-boiled cyber-crime works are gaining new relevance in a world not so different than the ones they depict.

The resurgence in Cyberpunk works begs a question. It's not a question about the resurgence, not really a "why now?" Instead, it's a "what now?" Cyberpunk has shown to be so prophetic that it's becoming a mirror for society, and it wants us to think about that.

The subreddit /r/Cyberpunk has about 34,000 subscribers. Since the content is not strictly moderated, submissions range from simple images to game trailers to news articles. These submissions represent a group negotiation of the meaning of cyberpunk. That meaning?

Cyberpunk is an aesthetic. It's cluttered, technological, dirty, omniscient and everywhere. It also carries a deep sense of paranoia and wrongness, from the conspiratorial moves of the AI in Neuromancer to the edge-of-reality busting in The Matrix. It's noir, run through the mill of globalization and corporatism. Secrets fight other secrets in silent technological wars.

A central theme on /r/Cyberpunk is "this is society today." The community treats the works of the older cyberpunk artists (Gibson, Stephenson, Masamune, Scott) as prophetic, pointing to the evidence in today's world. It's not a hard argument to make, as more and more aspects of our world take on those of a cyberpunk dystopia: the government monitors all communication, multinational corporations are incredibly powerful, technology is near-inseparable from everyday life, and the activities of hackers really do matter in the big picture. All the technology that make cyberpunk action sequences cool - HUDs, robots, cyborg augmentation, etc - is well in development, if not already in practical use.

When the comparison between that fiction and everyday life is so obvious, and the gap between the two is so small, one question keeps the gap from closing: what do we do now? I consider this the cyberpunk question.

That is, "what do we do now?" is the question cyberpunk asks us in 2013. We're on the train, pulling up to the station. Our stop is The Sprawl, a technological dystopia where mega-corporations make the rules and the lower classes use what technology they can to scrape up a living. Is this where we get off?

The word "punk" in cyberpunk usually confuses newcomers to the genre. Is it just a synonym for "cool?" Is it rebellious? It sounds like something you might want to be, a cyberpunk. It sounds better than "nerd" anyway. There are cyberpunk manifestos out there on the net, and apparently Timothy Leary started a group that called themselves cyberpunks (and eventually got involved with Billy Idol, who ruined it all). It seems to have always been a shaky thing to base an identity on. Users on /r/Cyberpunk who post about "cyberpunk fashion" tend to get slagged.

We can't easily identify as cyberpunk. But what about the cyberpunk question? What does the idea of "punk" mean to that?

Punk, in the abstract, is about doing things with disregard for any convention. Convention in the original context of punk usually meant rules, and rules usually meant authority. In the context of cyberpunk, authority is usually presented as conspiracy.

Protagonists in cyberpunk works are constantly finding out new truths and betrayals, some that bend reality. The anti-terrorist groups in Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell are physically near-invincible, so their main antagonists are mysterious and intangible (conspiracy and a baby AI respectively). In other works, like Gibson's novels, protagonists range from everyday hackers to veteran mercenaries. Their main antagonists are also mysterious, and usually not revealed until the end of the book.

Cyberpunk is largely about uncovering and resisting the mysterious forces that deign to use and control the everyday lives of regular people. It's usually a battle fought through different mediums, using technology to uncover and share information.

There are people fighting that fight today. The stories of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are stories of the now, not the future. Those two are being persecuted by the U.S. Government for revealing its secrets. Predictably, their stories as well as other stories about the NSA have made the /r/Cyberpunk page a few times.

The story of reddit itself is pretty cyberpunk. That there even exists a place on the net where people can share information so fluidly and in such large quantities is incredible. The site is a beacon for info junkies. It's also a staging ground for modern political activists, such as the Occupy movement, or the anti-PATRIOT ACT /r/RestoreTheFourth. In these sites, people gather to share and uncover the truth, to find the root of the problem and discuss what can be done about it. Those communities are communities of resistance, and they're framed by an architecture of free information.

The creators of reddit are the most cyberpunk of all. In today's world, hackers are the architects of society. Like in the digital world of Snow Crash, every structure on the net is hand-crafted by somebody slouched back covered in LED light. Reddit is a structure that is helping shape modern democratic dialogue. To endlessly quote McLuhan, "the medium is the message." If reddit is a message, I think that message is part of the answer to the cyberpunk question.