Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Panopticism in "The Stanley Parable" and "Portal"

A really interesting example of a game that explores ideas of power, control and choice is The Stanley Parable, a mod based on the Source game engine. The mod was developed by 22-year-old Davey Wreden, who had never designed a game before, and has since been contacted by many developers, both professional and hobbyist following the mod's popularity. Not only does explore themes of panopticism, but it's wonderfully post-modern, frequently breaking the fourth wall, referring to the fact that it is a video game, and making a few interesting comments on video games themselves. The creator explains: “I wanted this to be kind of a slap to the face [to videogame developers], to say, ‘Hey, take a look at what you’ve been doing so far.’ I wanted to ask the question ‘Why are we doing this?’” (http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2011/08/the-stanley-parable/)



In the game you control Stanley who works a monotonous office job as employee #427, who spends all his days sat in his office pushing buttons with a monitor giving him directions on which buttons to push (already a direct reference to the act of playing PC games). Despite this he is quite content, up until one day he comes to realise that his building is completely empty.  

From the start of the game you are directed by an omniscient narrator with a pleasing English accent. As you are presented with choices in the game, he gives you directions on what is the correct route. The player is free to either follow or reject his directions, so there are a range of routes to take and endings to experience. I'd recommend watching the video below to experience the game in it's entirety (if you don't play it):


So Stanley is controlled by you, and you are controlled by the narrator (who may or may not just be a voice in Stanley's head, causing him to slowly go mad). The narrator is invisible - indeed Stanley is completely isolated - which gives an interesting conflict of whether or not you/he should be disciplined and follow the narrator's orders and do the right thing, and as a result 'win' the game, or fear the negative repercussions of disobeying the supervisor. The happy ending where you follow his orders doesn't answer any of the questions risen about where Stanley's coworkers are, and who the narrator is, which piques the player's curiosity into playing the game multiple times (with increasing skepticism towards the narrator's intentions) to find out what is really going on.

Constantly there is a very intriguing dynamic between the character, the player and the narrator which comments on the nature of playing games and obeying orders. For example, as he reaches a set of controls and monitors at some point in the game, Stanley is said to come to the realisation that he, like so many others that had been "reduced to images on a monitor, had been under someone's control, always at the mercy of this machine... a machine had altered his emotions to accept it blindly." This could place the player in the position of the panoptical supervisor, with Stanley being unaware of the effect this is having on his actions (and simultaneously this occurs between the narrator and player as well). Stanley has the opportunity to 'rise up against the oppressors' and win; if this happens, it is said that he "had seen power, he had seen enslavement, and he had destroyed it. The underling was in control now" ... "No more bosses, no more instructions on a screen, Stanley decides for himself now". Again, all can be taken to relate to how society nowadays is heavily controlled and supervised by invisible beings in power who we can't destroy.

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In many ways this game reminded me of the Portal series, but instead of a narrator the protagonist follows the directions of GLaDOS or Wheatley.


Similarly the protagonist is completely isolated save for her robotic companions (who often spend much of game as disembodied voices), and is presented with choices. In the first game she is essentially a test subject for GLaDOS's amusement, and the player follows GLaDOS' directions (and is continuously scrutinised by it) without much additional thought, with the only real goal being to complete the puzzles and get the reward (cake). As the game progresses, GLaDOS is revealed to be more and more sinister, until finally after failing to kill Chell, the player is able to gain access to the maintenance areas of the building and destroy it's hardware; the player goes from blindly following directions to questioning their mentor and discovering their sinister intent. GLaDOS panics and attempts to deter and mislead Chell, but it makes little difference now that she isn't following her instruction. 

The game again explores the relationship between the player and the 'guide' of the game, subverting the usual tropes and innovatively exploring gameplay itself.

Panopticism in this sense is interesting to consider, as all games require some kind of direction and control from both the player and a guide/tutorial in-game. The fact that newer games are finally starting to play upon this is a refreshing change in the scene. 

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