Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Graduated Gamer Reviews: The Stanley Parable

[SPOILER ALERT…? – I try very hard to exclude any and all spoilers from this review. The joy of playing a game like The Stanley Parable is the exploration, discovery, and mystery within it and I would hate to spoil that for anyone. I did not include anything in detail in this review pertaining to endings or Easter Eggs one can find in the game. I simply discuss the merits of the game, its uniqueness, the gameplay, a bit of the plot, and some of what makes the game amazingly worthwhile for a short and cheap title. You've been warned, but I doubt you’ll feel cheated out of any experience by reading this.]

I can honestly say I've never played a game like The Stanley Parable before. When people say it’s hard to define this game, they aren't kidding. I was very unsure what to expect when diving into this game. I had heard all the accolades from expert reviews and fellow gamers alike, but  I like to think for myself sometimes and actually try a game out to see if it’s as good or bad as people say. However, to say that I take a chance on an experimental game like this regularly would be a lie, especially one for the PC. Given that games were a luxury growing up for me, it’s still hard to this day to drop any amount of money on a title that I’m not 100% sure I’ll enjoy. However, sometimes I surprise even myself, and it’s a good thing too because The Stanley Parable surprised me in how amazingly enjoyable it was.

One might expect that a $15 game won’t get you much. Well that all depends on what defines entertainment value for you as a gamer. If you’re looking for a sprawling game that will eat up loads of your time like an RPG, you won’t find that here. If you’re looking for something that’ll scare you senseless or make you feel like a badass with big guns and explosives, then this game may not appeal to you. However, if you’re looking for something that is as funny as it is engrossing and unique, then you won’t find a better way to spend $15 on Steam.

Stop lying to yourself - you know you'll enjoy this game.

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. As for length of play, The Stanley Parable is a short game, and depending on who you are or who you ask the game takes anywhere from 3 to 12 hours to complete. I’m a bit of a slow-paced gamer and like to explore a lot more (I blame my RPG upbringing), so all-in-all I completed the game in just over 10 hours. And when I say I completed the game, well that’s a bit of a subjective term with a game like this. One does not simply complete The Stanley Parable without wondering if there’s more to it, but we’ll save that for a bit later.

The plot of the game is simple – you’re Stanley, a worker whose job at a large company is to push buttons on a computer every day, all day. However, one day you show up to work and hours go by without a single command to push any buttons. Upon exiting your office you realize (with the help of your ever present narrator) that you’re the only one at the office, with all your co-workers having seemingly vanished into thin air. From here, the game puts control in your hands to tell the story of Stanley in the way you see fit. Early on the driver in the story is this simple plot, but after a couple of times through the game, the plot no longer matters and takes a backseat to your whims.

Which door will you choose to enter?

The reason the plot takes a backseat is because the gameplay is all about choices. Throughout the game, there are typically two or more choices that you can make that dictate where you’ll go and what your fate in the game will be. It’s a genius tool that other games have used before, but because The Stanley Parable is such a short game the choices don’t have the weight they would in a huge game like Mass Effect or The Walking Dead. This is a good thing, because it gives the player the feeling that they can make choices on a whim without having to angst over whether their decision was a good one or a bad one. You’ll find out the consequences in a matter of minutes and shortly thereafter have the option to make a different decision.

 You might think that this would make a game monotonous and dry after about the 4th or 5th playthrough, but you’d be wrong for a number of reasons. The first of which is the design of the game, which over time can actually morph or change depending on the choices you've made and/or how long you've been playing. This was brilliantly done to allow me as the player to feel as if I was actually affecting the game with the choices I made, but also gave me incentive to keep playing again and again. What started as a quick playthough turned into a 3 hour session after which I was sad to shut it down. Replayability for The Stanley Parable isn't just high, it’s essential in order to get the most fulfilling experience.
Possibly the calculation for the ending you'll receive.

Still, for me the replay value wasn't influenced as much by the gameplay and choices as it was by the hilarious narration. As I mentioned earlier you’re adventure comes with its own narration. This begins as a way to help guide Stanley on his way to discover what’s amiss with his empty office, but it quickly morphs into a hilarious sort of dialogue between your actions and the often snarky narrator, voiced brilliantly by Kevan Brighting. It’s not often that the true star of the game is the narration, but this is the case with The Stanley Parable. I found myself on numerous occasions laughing out loud and grinning like an imbecile because of the narration. And the best part of all this is that your actions can have a huge impact on what the narrator says and when. Without giving too much away, I’ll say this: just because you did something once before in an earlier playthrough doesn't mean that the narrator’s response will be the same every time. Talk about a deep script!

Lastly, if you've heard anything about The Stanley Parable it’s likely about the various endings the game has. There’s a reason why such a big deal is made about the game’s multiple endings. Sure they add to the high replay value of the game, but it’s the uniqueness of the endings that makes them something to write home about. There are some endings that follow along with the universe you’re introduced to from the start and play into the story of Stanley and his company. But once you experience those few “simple” endings, you’ll want to find the purely absurd, sometimes depressing, but almost always hilarious endings that will keep you playing for hours just to see if you can discover a new one this time around. I won’t spoil any of them for you, and it’s easy enough to find them all with a simple Google or YouTube search, but I highly recommend you spend the first hour or two exploring on your own without any guides, as the game was intended to be played. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

TSP may or may not have a rankings system.

While speaking with a friend the other day, he stated that The Stanley Parable isn't for everyone, and he was glad that the game’s humor spoke to him so he could enjoy the ride. This is essentially what the game’s enjoyability boils down to – if you love the dark, snarky, and sometimes bizarre situations and narration you’ll experience in the game, then you’ll love it. Still, some people will simply not enjoy the game for one reason or another (a friend of mine played it and just found it too strange and kept “expecting something to happen”) and that’s okay. The Stanley Parable is still worth your time and money, because it’s a unique game that doesn't come along very often, and should be experienced just for the sake of curiosity. Just remember – you can’t always trust that voice in your head, no matter how funny it may be.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Week of Infectious Gaming

I grew up in Michigan and there’s an old joke/saying in the Great Lake State: “We only have two seasons – winter and construction,” because both are unavoidable and seem to last forever. Well, I’d like to add a third season to that list – flu season. For the past 3 years I've gotten  flu shot, and the past 3 years I've contracted the flu, including this year’s unpleasant batch of virulent hell that nature unleashed upon my system. Still, I’m rarely one to be both down and out, so while I took 4 days off from work, I decided to see what my life would be like if I spent an excessive amount of time playing video games like I used to do about ten years ago.

Back in my youth, particularly my middle school days, I used video games as an escape. It wasn't really a way to escape the real world because I was miserable. I didn't need video games to help me forget troubles at home or school, and I had friends to keep me company from time to time (especially during all-night 4-player split-screen Goldeneye and Mario Party sessions). No, my escape into video games was mainly because summer vacations can get pretty lonely when you’re an only child. When mom and dad went off to work, I’d get up at the crack of noon, grab a bowl or three of cereal, and head down to the basement to rock some N64, PSX, or PS2 action. It was a way to pass the time until my parents came home. Then, when night fell and my parents went to bed, I’d grab some Doritos and pop (yes I’m from the Midwest and yes it’s called pop) and settle in for a gaming marathon into the wee hours of the morning (usually using my father’s alarm clock for work as an indication to power down).

The absolute best way to spend a childhood.

It was during these blissful years of my youth that I gamed for an average of 10 hours a day when I didn't have to step foot outside. Was it a blast and did it get me through what would normally be a boring summer? Hell yea! Was it healthy? Shut up, nobody asked you! Still, those years have long since been gone, but with my sick week ahead of me I had the opportunity to go back in time to my teenage years and play games the way they were meant to be played – in huge marathon sessions in dark rooms while ignoring the fact that anything or anyone else exists. On the docket this week were two games I've been deeply invested in the last couple of months: Fallout 3 and Battlefield3. Sure they’re both a bit dated, but Fallout 3 is one of my favorite RPGs of all time, and ever since my dad got me hooked on playing multiplayer Battlefield 3 I've been nothing short of an addict. Combined, since mid-December I’d logged almost 100 hours of gameplay before my sick week, so gaming marathons shouldn't be a problem for me.

Now bear in mind that this week, while fun and freeing in terms of gaming was also partly miserable due to the fact that I was running a fever for nearly 72 hours and my bones and joints felt as if they’d each done an Iron Man event recently. Therefore I know that this little excursion down memory lane isn't entirely indicative of what a true week in gaming would be for me (not to mention the  full-time girlfriend I live with, who, while cool with my gaming habits still requires attention from time to time). However, until I’m unemployed I won’t have a better shot to record my “findings” than this, so here we go.

I yearn for the days when this used to happen on the regular.

Gaming marathons as an adult suck. Holy cow, that was difficult to do, but I’m serious – it’s awful and I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s the truth. Before I get too far into the details, allow me to backpedal a bit into my experience:
  • Day One – I play Fallout 3 for about 4 hours straight, during which I’m trying hard to keep it out of my mind that I likely have about 300 unread emails in my work inbox despite the fact that everyone knows I’m sick. During that time I've felt guilty about “wasting” a beautiful morning “just playing video games”. After a little lunch break with the girlfriend and watching a couple of episodes of Wilfred (amazing show, BTW), I turn on some Battlefield 3 and jump into an online multiplayer session. During this session, I feel bad about not doing any laundry and wonder if I should’ve at least helped pick up a bit. After a few more hours of guilt-ridden and/or frustrating play on BF3, I pack it in for the night and opt to watch a few more episodes of Wilfred.

  • Day Two – Not much else different here; I felt guilty for being a lazy slob (although I did shower during the day) and gave myself more stress by not checking my email inbox which by this point must be in the thousands. I’m also not getting any better from the flu, despite drinking my weight in water and pomegranate juice, so that didn't help. Also, Battlefield 3 was just full of what can only be described as ass-hats most of the day, which didn't quite make my online foray enjoyable.

  • Day Three – I didn't spend as much time playing today. While averaging about 8 hours the first two days, my guilt got the better of me and I checked my email (which was thankfully only in the mid-100s) and journeyed outside of the apartment to run a couple of small errands with the girlfriend. I did still manage to play a few hours of Fallout 3 and an online session of BF3 with my dad, but I only clocked about 4 hours, and that was attributed to adult responsibilities more that the flu.

  • Day Four – I caved and went to work. I shouldn't have gone because I still had a slight fever, but dammit that inbox full of emails must’ve meant that I was important and needed at work more than the Capital Wasteland needed me to help get Project Purity back online (a stupid conclusion that I obviously blame on the fever). After work I squeezed in a measly hour of online time with BF3 then went to bed vowing to get better and go to work on Friday, only to have fevered, nonsensical dreams during a rough night of restless sleep

  • Day Five – I decide that my health and Project Purity are more important than work, and decide to ride out the end of my flu with my Xbox 360. Fallout 3 is the game du jour with a sprinkling of Battlefield 3, but I still could help but feel guilty, like I could be doing something more productive.

"Hey there boy! Want to protect me from myself?" 

So now you have my synopsis of gaming during a week with the flu, and if it isn't painfully obvious already, the week was a bit bipolar from the perspective of a gamer. I thoroughly enjoy gaming, and have spent countless life-hours devoted to this “little hobby” of mine; however, it appears that my time as an adult (aka – the last three years) has severely altered my ability to get lost in my gaming. Having responsibility is a bitch. Bills need to be paid, paychecks need to be earned, and student loans need to be repaid. It all comes down to one universal truth – growing up means that people expect you to grow the fuck up and stop playing with toys and carry around a briefcase.

Okay, maybe I’m a bit bitter about the real world as of late given that I've been experiencing a bit of gaming anxiety, but the real world is not necessarily gamer-friendly. Unless you’re one lucky bastard and have the skill and/or luck to work for a company like IGN or develop video games for a living, playing video games is seen as a vast waste of time when you could be out there doing so much more, like selling your soul for a paycheck working for an evil corporation. This isn't a knock at corporate America, but rather a knock on the stigma that’s still inherent in America (and the world as a whole) towards gamers, and I felt the guilt I felt as a gamer this past week as I tried to enjoy something I love so much.

My brain's logic when deciding the merits of gaming.

So in a week where I was running a fever and had every right to sit in my PJs and play my Xbox 360 like I did for so many summers as a child, I was riddled with thoughts that I should be doing something better with my time. Being an adult comes with some awesome perks, like freedom to make any decision you want without someone else telling you it’s a bad idea and the money to buy anything you desire provided you have a steady income. The thing that I wish someone had told me growing up, though, was that it’s all a lie in one way or another. Even though you don’t have a parent telling you what to do, they've been replaced by something worse – a nagging voice in your own head telling you that you’re a terrible person for not being more adult. And even though you can afford more games than you ever could as a kid, you have very little free time to play them and it leads to huge backlogs and something that can only be described as gamer anxiety. So in the end, my week with the flu and many hours of potential gaming ended up being another rough lesson in how the real world isn't made for gamers. Maybe I should have spent my time more wisely, like inventing a time machine to go back to a better time, when gaming was the greatest thing in the world, and responsibilities were for fools. 

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Year Ahead in Gaming: My 2014 Wishlist

As gamers, we've developed little quirks, preferences, and (let’s face it) obsessions over the years of playing. Whether you started playing beloved platformers like Super Mario Bros. 3 or are a more recent gamer and stick to your guns in Call of Duty or Battlefield, you’re likely looking to the gaming industry to give us newer and better things every year. In a year that gave us 2 amazing new consoles in the Xbox One and PS4, 2013 was far from disappointing in the realm of exciting things. Console innovations like the Ouya and Oculus Rift are proof that video gaming is in the verge of a revolution where game development will be more open to the public to create and share, but gameplay now has the potential to immerse us into an experience we've dreamed since the term “virtual reality” was coined.

As we look ahead to what promises to be an amazingly exciting year in gaming, I’d like to share some things that I hope to see (and not see) in the next 365 days or so. With new consoles, tons of amazing games, and even some new and potentially annoying innovations on the horizon, there’s plenty of room for opinions all around. So please, enjoy mine:

Continued Support for the Xbox 360 and PS3
If there’s one thing that the lifespan of the PS2 taught the gaming world it’s that a console can live a long time after a new generation of consoles is released. The unusually long tenure of the PS2 was due in no small part to the fact that developers still gave the little black box attention years after the PS3 was on the market. Sure, it may not have had any of the flashy new series like Uncharted or Resistance, but people who loved sports titles like Madden or were interested in Japanese ports had plenty of reasons to keep their PS2 plugged firmly into their TVs. If Microsoft and Sony wish to please their customers, they’d be wise not to shift all their attention to the PS4 and XB1 too soon. Personally, I’ll be hanging onto my Xbox 360 for another year or two, and until I jump to the next generation of consoles I’d love to see plenty of support for those still hanging onto their beloved 360s and PS3s.

Seriously, nobody has that many hands!

Gaming Industry to Stop Shoving Peripheral Gaming Down Our Throats
This post has nothing to do with people using their Androids and iPhones for playing mobile games. By all means, have fun playing Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Temple Run on the toilet – I won’t judge. Instead, this is about the latest, and in my opinion most obnoxious and pointless push by the gaming world at large to get every gamer out there to use their smart phones, iPads, Kindles, FitBits, and anything with a wireless signal to play console games with their friends or when away from home. I’m not opposed to playing mobile games or playing with friends, but so many next-gen games are touting this new functionality to play games on both the console and a tablet when it seems like nobody really asked for it. If Sony and Microsoft are trying to piggy-back off of the WiiU, they’re missing the mark IMO.

Fewer “Gamers” and More Gaming
Seriously people, let’s all just get along. If you play video games, you’re a gamer. This has irked me for some time, not because I've come under any scrutiny myself, but because I hear this argument far too often from other gamers, mainly online. Anonymity makes even the nicest people IRL dicks online, and it seems that priority #1 is trying to make other gamers feel like they aren't “real” gamers. Before I turn this into a full page rant, I’ll just point you to this amazing post by Yamilia over at Twinfinite who sums up the ridiculousness of this “debate” quite nicely.

Never underestimate the power of nostalgic gamers in large numbers.

Extended Appreciation of Retro Game(r)s
For years people have been clamoring on about an HD remake of the NES classic DuckTales, and in 2013 they’re patience and passion was finally rewarded. On top of that, Nintendo released a lot of classic (S)NES games to their Virtual Console on the cheap to satiate the appetite of those rabid retro gamers. This trend needs to continue into 2014. The video game industry didn't get to where it is today overnight. Over the last few decades it’s been built on the backs of dedicated gamers, classic consoles like the 2600, SNES, and Dreamcast, and people’s nostalgia for their now-classic games. Rewarding those fervent fans with re-releases on XBLA, VC, and/or PSN, or even better with HD remakes is like saying thank you to their tireless dedication over the years. Besides, it’s not like they’d have to give the games away – they priced DuckTales Remastered at $15 and it’s sold pretty damn well so far. We aren't asking for much; just a little appreciation.

There you have it – what I’d like to see happen in the world of gaming in 2014. What about you? Have any burning desires for the New Year? Any awesome games you’d love to see announced or amazing innovations you’d love/hate to see? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.