indie games

Video Games as Literature: Thomas Was Alone and Sentient AI

image source: wiki

image source: wiki

Brent Hopkins

Thomas Was Alone is an indie game developed by Mike Bithell that was originally a simple flash game, but was then expanded upon to become a full release for major platforms. I had the pleasure to play this game through Steam after picking it up on sale for something like 30 cents.

The game itself is a simple platformer that asks you to take basic four-sided shapes and help them reach their portals located somewhere in the stage. This is simple enough, and the learning curve may be the best one I have seen in a puzzle platformer. I never felt the game was too easy and, on the other end of the spectrum, I never had to resort to looking at a guide to solve an unfairly complex puzzle. This all benefits the game overall since this allows a lot of focus on the story of Thomas Was Alone.

The narrative of Thomas Was Alone is by far its strong suit. Bithell manages to use the 100 levels of the main game to bestow personality onto the most basic shapes you can have. This is done through narration that either occurs at the beginning of a level or at certain trigger points in a level. The narrator is perfect at  giving each shape a special flair when they are talking  and I must admit it doesn’t hurt that it is a pleasant British one to boot (I feel like semi-snarky, British narrators are practically a must have for text and dialogue-heavy games).

Thomas is the first shape that you meet and you quickly learn that he and his other cohorts are artificial intelligences that have become sentient. Their goal is to acquire knowledge and escape the system, which in terms of the real world would mean floating around freely in the internet. This is a pretty interesting story for a rather short game (I beat it in 4.6 hours, according to Steam) but there are some flaws. The most obvious issue with the narrative is that nothing is really fleshed out. You have a team of shapes and they are very clearly unique: one can float in water, one can double-jump, and Thomas is the “Mario” of the team as the all-around shape. The personalities portrayed also help flesh out the characters, as each is a relative extreme. I found myself thinking “Orange Square is a dick but his relationship with Long Rectangle is endearing, so let’s make sure they help each other a lot.” This is a complete success in storytelling and I am happy that I found myself making these little mental decisions in much the same way I did in the game Journey.

The design decision to go level by level with snippets of the story means that the end has to come by chapter 100. This is a platformer though, so it is obvious that you can’t have the player sitting and waiting for the narrator to shut up to finish a level. I think Bithell hit a relatively sweet spot in Thomas Was Alone, but I was definitely left wanting just a bit more story by the end.

Another issue with the story is that at times it completely interrupts the gameplay, or vice versa. I found myself on more than one occasion going through a level too quickly when the narrator was far from done, so it turned into an audio novel as opposed to a game. The same thing happened when I was expecting more narration in a level and it wrapped up really quickly. It could be argued that this wanting of more storyline is a success, but it truly just felt disjointed and too noticeable.

Thomas Was Alone takes the bare minimum in terms of graphics and gameplay and gives some heart and soul to it. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses, but together they accomplish something far greater than all of their parts. The growing of the AI characters throughout reminded me of the film Her, where I could imagine this being the prequel of sorts to the story of the AI represented in that film. In both, the AI are never portrayed as malicious, but instead as beings with the ability to absorb and attain knowledge at a rate that far exceeds that of humans. This vast knowledge doesn’t lead to a Terminator type insurrection from appliances but instead shows that AI quickly pass the human emotions phase. Skip the murder everything phase and get right to wanting to be seen as equal “beings.”

I kind of like this new approach to AI that Hollywood and the gaming industry have begun to take, because it really opens up a lot of interesting thoughts about what could happen if computers grew feelings. The 80s and 90s automatically figured that nothing good could possibly come from it, but these days, as computers become as much a part of life as breathing, it is nice to see that there are more options for narratives to take than that of The Matrix and its ilk.

Thomas Was Alone is a good game, not great by any means, but well worth the price and time that it asks you to invest.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

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Video Games as Literature and The Novelist’s View of Work/Life Balance

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Alex Russell

If you’ve ever had to make a hard choice between work and the rest of your life, well, that’s normal. The Novelist is about what happens when you make the wrong one. Oh, and they’re all wrong.

You play The Novelist as a ghost that’s inhabiting a vacation house by the water. The Kaplans (Dan, Linda, and their son Tommy) are on vacation for the summer, and they each want something different out of the trip. Dan wants to finish his second book. Linda wants to work on her painting. Tommy wants to have a fun summer. You might say to yourself that those don’t sound like they’re at odds with each other, but in the world of The Novelist they are violently opposed to one another.

The game unfolds over a series of chapters all centered around important events in the summer. In one chapter, the Kaplan family has to deal with a funeral. In another, Linda has an art show in town. In another, Tommy has a friend over. They all start out as mundane pieces of a family’s life, but the game’s actual narrative is all in how you respond to them.

It’s an interesting choice that you’re not any of the characters. You influence decisions by wandering around the house during the day and observing each family member. Once you feel like you have a grasp on what everyone wants, you signal the family to go to sleep. Then you whisper your choice to the family while they sleep. Whatever you decide will play out in a cut scene, and the results will influence how everyone feels about everyone else (and themselves) in the days to come.

For example, I decided to focus on Linda’s happiness in my playthrough. On one day, I opted to have Dan spend a night talking with Linda instead of working on his novel or playing with Tommy. The next day, Linda felt better about her marriage, Dan felt worried about his book, and Tommy felt neglected by both parents. Me? I felt really sad for everyone.

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The choices are tough because each choice is also the lack of two other choices. It’s intended to simulate life — if you go out tonight and drink with your friends you don’t get anything done at home, etc — but it’s brutal nonetheless. You know Dan has to finish his novel over the summer, but every single choice of “write” instead of “play with your son” or “talk to your wife” drives him away from his family emotionally. Any choice to not do exactly what the family’s young son wants makes him miserable. I guess that’s realistic to a degree, but it’s too much sometimes. As another example, if you choose to have Dan not play with Tommy and a toy car outside, Tommy leaves the car in the rain and it gets ruined. What is sadder than a lonely child’s ruined toy?

I didn’t side with Tommy very often. My version of Tommy drew angry crayon drawings of his father neglecting him. My version of Linda, who was happy with her art career but unhappy with her husband, never seemed to get exactly what she wanted. My version of Dan was a wreck. Your milage may vary, but it’s hard to imagine any set of choices resulting in true happiness for these people.

It’s certainly true that any choice means you’re eliminating others, but it needn’t be this stark. I don’t want to give away any of the endings, but by only siding with Tommy a handful of times I essentially ruined the kid. It had a really damaging effect on me; I was actually saddened that I had failed this digital child. In that sense I have to say that the narrative (or the narrative in my playthrough) really works. The feelings are real, they’re not “video game feelings.”

The Novelist is a little repetitive – the gameplay isn’t worth mentioning at all, it’s even less of a traditional “game” than Gone Home – and it’s frustrating at times. The challenge of keeping all three people happy is a kind of story-based The Sims; every mood bar is depleting at the same rate, and you’ve gotta keep them all happy to win. I don’t know that I “won” The Novelist, but the mental image of that car in the mud is going to stick with me for a long time.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Video Games as Literature and The Stanley Parable’s Answer to “What is a Game?”

stanleyatdesk

Alex Russell

You are Stanley, and your job is to push buttons when a screen tells you to push buttons. You like your job fine enough normally, but today is different. Today, no one came to work. Today, the office is entirely empty except for you.

That’s where The Stanley Parable starts out, and that’s how it always starts out. The Stanley Parable isn’t a traditional game in a lot of ways, but it has a defined start. Every single playthrough starts with Stanley in his office, alone. Where it goes after that is up to you.

During each “run” of The Stanley Parable, a narrator narrates your actions just before they happen. He may say “Stanley went through the door on the left” just as you confront two doors. It’s up to you to then either follow the narrated story and play out the “true” The Stanley Parable or to “break” the game and make another choice. Most of them are just that simple: the game says you went up the stairs, but maybe you go down the stairs, and so on.

If you do what you’re told every time, you’ll finish the game in about 10 minutes. You’ll discover some secrets about what appears to be a simple office, and you’ll “beat” the game. That’s one way to do it, and it’s not wrong to do so. You’ll experience a complete story. You’ll learn something.

But you’ll learn just as much if you take the door on the right. You’ll learn about who Stanley really is (maybe) and what’s really going on with all these choices (also maybe). You have to decide for yourself what the story of the game is, and it changes a little bit every time.

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Frighteningly realistic workplace graphics.

The full The Stanley Parable experience involves playing it until you see every ending. You’re in for about three or four hours or so maximum if you do that, and that can make the price tag tough to swallow. You can buy it on Steam for the price of a movie in the theaters (though it’s been much cheaper during the Steam Summer Sale) and you will only feel cheated if you assign dollar amounts to fun in strange ways. I can absolutely assure you that this isn’t what you expect, and that much is worth it alone.

The only other thing to discuss is something that has come up a lot lately in games journalism. It sounds dumb, but it boils down to “is The Stanley Parable a game?” Since there are dozens of endings and you can’t really die, there’s no such thing as a fail state. Some of the endings involve the narrator restarting your game and calling you an asshole, essentially, and even those are “true” endings. The Stanley Parable is more interested in testing the boundaries of what beating a game means than it is with what “a game” is in the first place, but people love to debate this stuff. Gone Home, one of the best games of the last few years, is often labeled a “walking simulator” in Steam. It’s meant to be a dig, because in Gone Home the only gameplay is walking around and uncovering a mystery. The only gameplay in The Stanley Parable is making choices and uncovering different endings.

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Hostile work environment.

The Stanley Parable is open to interpretation. It’s a sort of “choice simulator” where the entire fun of the experience is that every choice is valid. You experience what it means to do A instead of B, but you also consider the fact that most choices don’t really matter. You get very different endings based on what you do, but you never know what inputs will give you what outputs. There’s no morality assigned to going down a staircase instead of going up one, but making that choice once determines if you stay sane or not. So instead of the choices in a lot of games about the morality of good and evil, the choices in The Stanley Parable exist to remind you that you are shaped by decisions that you don’t understand. Your life doesn’t have a narrator that you can listen to or ignore, but your life is also shaped the same as Stanley’s.

I say it counts as literature even without a “real” ending. It’s the story of choice, which is really what every story boils down to, even though most of them don’t start with door number one or door number two.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.