In 1897, Frenchman Edmond Rostand wrote a play entitled “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The play told a story which has since been retold in various other plays and films: an eloquent man (Cyrano) who is in love with a woman, but who finds himself too ugly to suit her (in particular, he is ashamed of his long nose), instead woos her by feeding lines of his own poetry through one of his more handsome but less eloquent friends – essentially using his friend as a puppet for his own affections. Confusion ensues when this leads to the damsel falling in love with the man’s friend, as opposed to the man himself.

Cyrano de Bergerac

This story has impacted more than literature alone. In the 20th century, one psychologist, a Doctor Milgram, was well known for his controversial experiments on deference to authority (the infamous “Milgram experiments”); what Milgram was less known for was theory developed at the end of his life, which was directly related to the plot of “Cyrano.” Milgram hypothesized that people could not tell the difference between conversing with an ordinary person, and conversing with someone whose speech was transmitted to them by a third party. This latter kind of situation exactly mirrors the plot of the play; in reference to the play, Milgram termed a person whose speech originates somewhere other than their nervous system a ‘cyranoid’. For current purposes, I expand this definition to ‘an entity whose actions originate somewhere external to themselves’.  (You can read more on this in a very well-crafted 2014 Wired article on the subject of cyranoids.)

Milgram did not have the opportunity in his own life to conduct a large amount of research into the dynamics of cyranoids; however, since Milgram’s time, studies conducted since then (such as Corti & Gillespie 2014) have suggested that Milgram’s hypothesis was right: people seem unable to distinguish cyranoids from ordinary people.  This is the reason, for example, why unwitting participants in ABC’s hidden camera show, “Repeat After Me,” watch celebrities do and say whatever the show’s host (Wendi McLevon-Covey) tells them to do through a remote earpiece, without ever once doubting that the celebrities are acting and speaking genuinely.

Research in cyranoids is still wanting in terms of scientific data; however, there is another entirely distinct field in which cyranoids have substantial potential utility: the aesthetics of video games (in particular, I refer to narrative-driven video games).

The most general way in which cyranoids hold potential for game aesthetics is that, at first pass, it seems that most video games provide explicit cases of cyranoids. This is because of the avatar-player relationship: the player dictates the avatar’s actions, by definition of what it means for a character to be an avatar. In light of this, Milgram’s theory gives us a robust way of understanding just what sort of entity an avatar is: an avatar is an instance of a cyranoid. This also gives us a potential way into analyzing the relationship between avatars and NPCs: in light of how humans have been shown to behave around cyranoids, we might be able to point to cyranoid dynamics as the theoretical grounds for why NPCs treat avatars as “just another person” in their world, despite avatars being ontologically different from NPCs.

This general mode of analysis will take significant fleshing out, which is outside the scope of this paper. Presently, I wish to demonstrate the analytic utility of cyranoids by showing how they shed insight on the narrative dynamics on a well-known game that is explicitly concerned with how narrative functions in games: this is “The Stanley Parable” (Davey Wreden, 2011).
The Stanley Parable

“The Stanley Parable” tells the deceptively simple story of a man, Stanley, who arrives at his office job one day to find all of his fellow employees missing. The game is voiced over by a narrator, who describes what Stanley is doing at each moment in the story, as well as what he is going to do next. The player, controlling Stanley from a first-person perspective, has the choice of either acquiescing to the narrator’s description of what Stanley is going to do next, or of doing something different. For example, there is a point in the game at which Stanley encounters a door on his left and a door on his right. At this juncture the narrator says that “Stanley went through the door on the right”; the player, then, can either acquiesce by directing Stanley through the left door, or contradict the narration by directing Stanley through the right door. When the player contradicts the narrator, he will initially try to recalibrate the narrative such that Stanley still arrives at the conclusion that the narrator had in mind; however, should the player continue disobeying, it will be impossible to return to the narrative’s story, and he will express his mounting frustration as the game evolves in all sorts of ways that he did not desire.

Ultimately, “Stanley” is a game that is explicitly concerned with problems of choice and the linearity of game narratives. Immense as these subjects are, there are many possible tacks to take in analyzing the game as an aesthetic and argumentative piece. What I now wish to show is that one particularly efficient and useful way into the game’s dynamics is to analyze its narrative as a conflict between three distinct conceptions of Stanley as a cyranoid: Stanley controlled by the narrator; Stanley controlled by the player; and Stanley controlled by the game designer.

One of the useful tools offered by Corti & Gillespie 2014 is a compact notation for describing cyranoids, of which I will avail myself in this analysis. The notation is as follows: a cyranoid, in which the actions some agent x are dictated by some third party y, is defined as {[x] y}. So, for example, the three competing conceptions of Stanley that I just picked out are codified as {[Stanley] Narrator}, {[Stanley] Player}, and {[Stanley] Game Designer}, respectively.

It is useful before turning to “Stanley” to consider how cyranoid dynamics function in other storytelling media, such as films and novels. It is clear enough that there exists no analogue in these media to the {[Avatar] Player} cyranoid that I pointed to as a typical feature of video games; we assume, unless explicitly shown otherwise (cf. Cyrano de Bergeron), that the actions of character in a story are not dictated by another character. However, there is another type of cyranoid that is virtually ubiquitous in these media, and which is so obvious that there is usually no point in noting it: the narrator of a given narrative determines the actions of characters as conceived within that narrative. So characters in these media are cyranoids of the form {[Character] Narrator}.

I will dwell for a moment on this last claim, because it is easy to doubt its veracity if one fails to parse ‘as conceived within that narrative’ correctly. Many narratives depend on the notion of an unreliable narrator, on whom the reader cannot depend for an accurate account of the events that are described within the narrative. In light of this, one might object that it cannot be the case that the narrator determines the actions of characters within a narrative in the way required of cyranoids. But what I am referring to by the ‘character’ in {[Character] Narrator} is the semantic complex resembling a particular entity within the narrative that is being told by a narrator. If there is some notion of objective truth in play, then it may well be that the narrative in question is untrue if the narrator is unreliable. However, this has no bearing on the status of the character as conceived by the narrative itself; it only has ramifications for the truth-value of the narrative and its constituents in relation to objective truth. So, saying that the narrator of a given narrative determines the actions of characters as conceived within that narrative is merely claiming that the actions of a character constructed within a narrator’s narrative are determined by that selfsame narrative, which is the product of the narrator. It is easy to read too far into this claim because, as I said, the claim is typically too trivial to bear mention.

The {[Character] Narrator} cyranoid becomes non-trivial when we turn to “The Stanley Parable” – in fact, part of what makes the game so interesting is that is underscores this concept and makes it nontrivial. The narrator of “Stanley” has a linear storyline formulated, which he is presumably aiming to recount to an audience – viz., the game begins by the narrator delivering the start of a story over a cutscene, which perfectly coheres with his descriptions; it makes sense that the narrator would expect the remainder of the story to progress in this way. The narrator, in other words, expects the {[Character] Narrator} dynamic to hold as in traditional narratives. This is the first of the three competing conceptions of Stanley: {[Stanley] Narrator}.

The problem with this conception of Stanley is that video games integrate choice and possibility in ways that traditional narratives don’t, as manifest in the relationship between player and avatar. The ability for the player to choose different ways to direct an avatar through the world frustrates any conception of narrative as a single, fixed path from a beginning to a conclusion. This peculiar dynamic of video games is what I described earlier as the {[Avatar] Player} cyranoid, and in this case is the second competing conception of Stanley: {[Stanley] Player}.

The conflict between the first and second conceptions of Stanley describes the friction of traditional storytelling in the medium of video games. We typically suppose in stories that the actions of characters are determined by some third party – a character with genuine free will, after all, would not function so much as a semantic component of a story, but rather as a genuine, living being. In this way, characters are always some type of cyranoid, narratologically speaking. But the question of who gets to determine the actions of characters is complicated by video games, and a tension emerges that is not present in other media. On the one hand, a typical narrative seems to require some kind of definite story arc, which would imply the {[Character] Narrator} framework of cyranoids; on the other hand, the person engaging a video game is explicitly able to control at least one character – the avatar – and this leads to a {[Avatar] Player} framework. When the character that we are analyzing is the avatar, we have a problem: two different entities, the player and narrator, are in a position to control the actions of the same character.

The conflict can be formalized using a model of game narrative that I call ‘narrative three-space’. The broad idea is that, because narrative-driven games have a main plot as well as a variety of sidequests and other things for the player to explore, we need three axes in order to represent the course of a video game narrative.  This can be graphically represented as follows.

Narrative Three-Space

In this model, the game’s narrative begins at the origin, (0, 0, 0). The z-axis describes progress in the main plot of the game, concluding at some maximal z-value, which typically represents the point at which the game’s credits roll. The (x, y) plane represents what I call the ‘exploratory domain’, which encompasses all actions the player can take that do not advance the game’s main plot. A point, which I label ‘lambda’, describes the current position of the avatar in the game’s narrative. The game’s narrative proceeds by the player relocating lambda by one of the vectors available to them at that position in the three-space, each of which represents a different available choice in the game’s narrative (so, for instance, a player may be able, at some point, to either battle a boss, pursue part of a sidequest, or start a different sidequest) Each point in the three-space represents a narrative event in the game. Given this narrative space, a playthrough of a given game is described by the path of lambda, as directed by the player, from the origin to the maximum z-value of the three-space.

Returning to “The Stanley Parable,” we can describe its narrative three-space in the following terms: the narrative dictated by the narrator is the ‘main plot’, represented by the z-axis. Every narrative that results from the player disobeying the narrator is a distinct path through the exploratory domain, described by vectors which have only x and y components (that is to say, they do not advance the main plot). Notice two things about this framework. First, the formalization makes clear that “Stanley” inverts the narrative structure of most video games: whereas the narratives of most video games are anchored by the main plot, which the player ultimately aims to see through to its conclusion, the majority of narrative in “Stanley” comes from avoiding the main plot. Second, this allows us to schematize the conflict between the {[Stanley] Narrator} concept and {[Stanley] Player} concept like so: the game highlights a conflict between lambda (i.e., Stanley) being guided by vectors with z-components, thereby advancing the main plot, and vectors with exclusively (x, y) components, advancing without regard to the main plot. This is a precise account of how “The Stanley Parable” pits traditional storytelling and video game storytelling against each other: linear storytelling is at odds with choice mechanics because the multidimensionality of an exploratory domain necessarily eschews any potential for a narrative that is perfectly linear. Put another way, the dynamics show that the kinds of strictly deterministic linearity we have been discussing and genuine agency on the part of the player are mutually exclusive.

The Phone

In one of the possible 19 endings to “The Stanley Parable”, the player “breaks the game” by making a choice that was supposed to be impossible within the context of the narrative: trapped in a room with a ringing phone, which Stanley supposedly must answer, the player instead directs Stanley to disconnect the phone. This leads the narrator to acknowledge the player directly, saying to her, “You are not Stanley!” This is the crux of the conflict between {[Stanley] Narrator} and {[Stanley] Player}: the narrator assumes he is describing a character, a complex semantic unit, the actions of which are entirely determined by the narrative; but in fact, as the narrator realizes in this outcome, he is interacting with an agent external to the world of the game, who imbues this character with the ability to choose whether or not to follow the narrator’s narrative.

The Museum

The preceding dynamics alone would suffice for a game with insightful meta-commentary about video game aesthetics; however, “The Stanley Parable” goes one step further by also inviting the player to consider the fact that it is the product of game designers. In another possible ending, Stanley is taken to a pristine museum with vaulted ceilings, transported away from the narrator moments before Stanley’s death. A different voice poses a question to the player: “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same. Do you see now? Do you see that Stanley was already dead from the moment he hit start?” The exhibits in the museum are various pictures and stories from the real-world development of “The Stanley Parable”: concept art, early beta versions of various endings, snippets of narrator speech that were ultimately discarded, and so forth. After the interlude in the museum, the narrative returns to the moment immediately preceding Stanley’s death, and the voice implores the player to make “[her] only true choice”: quitting the game. This is our way into the third conception of Stanley as a cyranoid: {[Stanley] Game Designer}.

I have said that, as we can see by the narrative three-space, the player is able to make choices that lead Stanley to diverge from the narrator’s linear narrative; however, the choices available to the player are not unlimited. The totality of the game’s narrative, as represented by the three-space, is the product of the team that developed the game (I gloss the entire team as “Game Designer” in analysis); the Game Designer also codes the set of vectors available for the player to relocate lambda. As such, even though the player has choice within the narrative, the actions from which the player chooses are a function of the Designer – a third party. So in this way, it looks like we can actually define the player as a cyranoid in the form of {[Player] Game Designer}, so long as the player acquiesces to the act of playing the game. Since we have already determined that the player determines the actions of Stanley, the fact that the player’s possible actions are determined by the Game Designer lead to the conclusion that there is a third cyranoid as which we can define Stanley: {[Stanley] Game Designer}.

This also tracks with the narrative three-space model: this third cyranoid picks out the totality of the three-space, which the Game Designer created and over which the player seems to lack authority. This is the sense in which quitting the game is the only “real” choice available to the player: it is the only choice that is not fundamentally encoded by the game itself – and, as such, it is the only choice that is not the work of the Game Designer. This highlights a second tension that, unlike the first, is particular to video game storytelling: are the actions of the avatar determined more by the player or the game designer? “Stanley” suggests that the game designer ultimately has more authority, since the only true choice for the player is quitting the game; however, the answer is not clear-cut, which is part of makes the tension interesting to explore within a narrative context. After all, although the set of total choices available for the player to make through the avatar is determined by the game designer, the matter of which members of the set the player actually chooses to use in the playthrough does seem to be determined by the player herself. This means that there can exist a real push-and-pull between the degree to which a player defines the avatar and the degree to which the Game Designer defines the avatar. So a complete definition of a Stanley cyranoid would be most satisfying in a form along the lines of {[Stanley] Player/Game Designer}, where ‘Player/Game Designer’ represent a dynamic relationship in which both the Player and Game Designer exert partial influence over Stanley.

Cyranoid analysis allows us to see the crux of “The Stanley Parable” in a new light: on this reading, the game is an exploration of determining exactly what ‘Stanley’ is. It highlights how this seemingly simple question has drastically different answers depending both on what medium Stanley is represented in (traditional media versus video games) and on whether we emphasize which choices he actually makes (which are determined by the player) or all possible choice he could make (which are determined by the Game Designer). The game itself can thereby be seen as a study of precisely what constitutes the character, and how seemingly innocuous choices of how the character is represented can drastically alter the character’s existence. This demonstrates both the utility of cyranoids in video game aesthetics, and also what makes “The Stanley Parable” such an enticingly bizarre game to play.

Oh, and not that I concern myself with authorial intent, but I close with a moment of icing on the cake.  Doctor Milgram, to whom we owe the concept of cyranoids?

His first name was “Stanley.”


Aaron Suduiko

Aaron Suduiko - Founder and Chief Video Game Analyst

Aaron Suduiko is the founder of With a Terrible Fate and a philosopher of video-game storytelling. He specializes in the impact of player-avatar relations on game stories.  Learn more here.

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6 Comments

Daniel · October 31, 2022 at 8:55 pm

I think this discussion of Cyranoids provides an excellent framework through which to explore the dynamics between an avatar and the various forces that affect that avatar. But I struggle to see how The Stanley Parable is more apt for this analysis than many other works, even many that precede Stanley. Is it just that Stanley strips away most distractions from these concepts?

In my quest to understand why intelligent commentators sometimes direct praise toward the apparently unremarkable Stanley Parable, some questions along these lines:

1. How do you determine which plot thread in The Stanley Parable counts as the ‘main plot?’ You say that a tension between traditional storytelling and game storytelling is drawn out by the way in which Stanley is structured around avoiding the main plot. But I see no reason to privilege the narrator’s initial description of Stanley’s activities as being ‘primary’ in that sense—particularly when the narrator is happy to assimilate many of the alternate paths as being canonical once they have been followed. It strikes me that The Stanley Parable could never measure up to older RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons in terms of drawing out the distinction you seem to be interested in there. And at any rate, if a parent improvises a story based on suggestions offered at junctions by their child, is that a contradiction of ‘traditional storytelling’ . . . or merely a contradiction of one cultural paradigm of storytelling?

2. How do you distinguish between a game whose fourth-wall-breaking content is worthwhile to consider as “inviting the player to consider the fact that it is the product of game designers” (as you do for the museum area in The Stanley Parable), and an older game whose fourth-wall-breaking content apparently doesn’t merit that treatment (like the Insomniac museum areas in the second and third Ratchet & Clank titles)?

3. How would this analysis substantively change if it were about an older game like, say, Bioshock? The role fulfilled by {[Stanley] Narrator} would seem to be adequately met for your purposes by {[Jack] Atlas}—and Bioshock too sports multiple mutually exclusive possible endings with variation across a limited range until those endings, adequate for the analysis of {[Jack] Player}, {[Jack] Game Designer}, and {[Player] Game Designer}.

4. This one doesn’t really have to do with The Stanley Parable directly—but what does your model of three-space offer that a simple two-dimensional analysis wouldn’t? Suppose, for instance, that we say that the story starts at the origin of a two-dimensional (x, z) plane, and ends somewhere up the z-axis. We could say that gameplay offers a range of apparently free movement on the x-axis as the z-axis is climbed. Notice that it is already easy to see that multiple (x, z) endpoints can be defined for any given z. What role, then, does the y-axis meaningfully add from an analytical standpoint? In other words, if you had to provide separate labels for x and for y in your model, what name would you give to each of them?

    Aaron Suduiko

    Aaron Suduiko · November 1, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    Hello, Daniel! Thank you for taking the time to read my work and leave such a thoughtful question. I still like elements of the cyranoid model, too; I think, without realizing it, I had it in the back of my mind as I was developing my new work on gaming and Kafka. I’ll do my best to answer your questions, but let me give a little preliminary context that might help with your understanding of this article and my work more broadly.

    First, it’s a consequence of my method for studying game stories that virtually any game that one completes is apt for some kind of analysis and is in that sense “remarkable,” so I don’t know how much help I can be in helping you to diagnose what it sounds like you take to be the undeserved popularity of The Stanley Parable (correct me if I’m misunderstanding you). That said, I do see the game as different from some of the conceptually similar games you call out in your questions, so I’ll touch on those differences.

    Second, be aware that I published this study 7 years ago and many of my views—especially the more ontologically foundational ones—have developed further since then. The best articulation of my current views can be found in my “Video Games as a New Mode of Storytelling.” That said, I’ll do my best to be a good {[Current Aaron]Past Aaron} cyranoid in helping you to navigate this! (I also haven’t played The Stanley Parable since this publication, so forgive any blurry memories of game elements.)

    With all that in mind, let me answer your questions in the order you provided:

    1. I do see reason to privilege the narrator’s initial description of Stanley’s activities as being ‘primary’ in the sense under discussion. The reason stems from the fact that the narrator introduces the story, frames it very much like a traditional narrative, and, while he is willing to accommodate exchanges to the extent that the Stanley cyranoid can still be directed back to the narrator’s intended plot, he expresses increasing frustration and antagonism as more frequent and severe divergences occur. Those reactions are all predicated on the narrator having a clear sense of the plot in which he intends to involve the Stanley cyranoid, which is an idea he has prior to any actions taken by the player. Even his willingness to assimilate certain paths entails that there is something to which they are being assimilated, and I take that thing to be the plot he intends, at the outset, to represent. A contrast case that may be helpful to consider is Dishonored, which features a narrator-ish character (The Outsider) who frames the main story scenario but explicitly advocates for the avatar to make a variety of choices within that scenario in order to bring about different outcomes and choose what story to tell: Stanley‘s narrator is very much trying to unify the game experience with his fixed expectation of a plot, whereas something like Dishonored places the narrator closer to the level of describing a set of mutually incompatible possibilities (different walks through narrative three-space, to use the language of the article).

    Similarly, no, I don’t think D&D would be a better example of what I’m exploring here, unless we’re considering a particular campaign or DM character that emulates the above characteristics. I have only the most basic, passing familiarity with that form of gaming, but as far as I’ve seen, the structure seems to generally be that the DM plans scenarios and overall ways the story can go depending on player actions, and prompts the players to make choices, some of which cascade into those planned scenarios and some of which require improvisation on the part of the DM. There’s no doubt that there are a million fascinating storytelling dynamics to explore there, but I don’t think that one especially prominent one is the telling of a story about a narrator frustratedly working at cross-purposes with a player for the sake of his premeditated plot. Frankly, even imagining that kind of campaign makes me feel like players would probably walk away from the table, frustrated at a DM who wouldn’t let them “play the game”!

    The main point here, I think, is that the structure of Stanley is different than what we might call forms of “collaborative storytelling,” where the storyteller counts on audience participation to help guide events: Stanley, I think, focuses more on the subversion of a storyteller who doesn’t *want* any input beyond his own, but gets it anyway because he’s found himself in a video game.

    (Also, this is a very minor point for me, but since you raised it, I thought I’d be explicit: I have absolutely no stake in whether or not we want to call linear, static storytelling expressed by a narrator to an audience, who cannot influence the plot, ‘traditional storytelling’. I used that here to pick out a kind of storytelling with which we are all familiar in books, film, etc. For the reasons I’ve just discussed, I think that Stanley represents the player making trouble for that kind of storytelling through her agency. Obviously there are forms of interactive storytelling, like oral storytelling, that stretch at least as far back as Homer and constitute a vibrant tradition.)

    2. I haven’t played the Ratchet & Clank titles (they’re on my never-ending list!), but from a little research, I think the main distinction for me is that games of the Stanley case raise the concerns of development in a way that inheres to the world of the fiction, whereas those of the Ratchet & Clank case offer developer insights in a way that doesn’t penetrate into that fictional world’s substance. Especially because The Stanley Parable‘s fiction is so directly concerned with its means of representation, it’s easy to integrate a dreamlike vision of the development process in a way that’s additive to the story; it’s harder, I think, in cases like Ratchet & Clank that are more concerned with the content being represented than they are with the means of representation itself. Based on the wiki for Going Commando, this seems to be reinforced by the fact that there isn’t a way to access the museum from purely within the world of fiction: the player has to use a special menu, set her system’s clock to a specific time, or use an exploit. All of those player actions can be given narrative meaning, but without the game doing so, that developer content pulls the player’s focus away from the fiction of the game to instead consider biographical details of how this artwork was created.

    I should also say that The Stanley Parable certainly isn’t the only game to manage aesthetic effects of this sort, and the examples off the top of my head are both older games (I underscore that fact because you mention “older games” a few times—though I’ll confess I’m not sure where that focus is coming from, if you were indeed driving at something with it). I haven’t played this is a while either, but Portal is a classic example that shares a lot of features with Stanley (more so than BioShock, I’d say), and its very self-consciously “game-designed” test-environment world invites the player to think about many similar aspects. The other example, if you’re interested in exploring “breaking the fourth wall without breaking the fourth wall” further, is Final Fantasy IX, which I’ve studied in this regard in an article that can be found here.

    3. As best I remember, there isn’t a moment in BioShock when Atlas recognizes the player (a “You are not Jack!” moment, so to speak). So, Atlas recognizes that {[Jack]Atlas} no longer holds, but not anything that holds in its place. BioShock also, to my recollection, doesn’t have anything “museum-like” in the sense we were considering in [2], which you’ll recall is the link to bringing the {[Avatar]Game Designer} and {[Player]Game Designer} cyranoids into consideration within the story. The presence of multiple narrative outcomes isn’t sufficient to do that work.

    4. For context here, ‘narrative three-space’ is a concept I developed over about half a year, starting in the latter phases of my theory of Majora’s Mask and culminating in a broader research paper on possibility in gaming. You might, therefore, find it useful to look at the origins of the model here and what I consider to be its most mature form here. I no longer use it as such because it has shortcomings, but it definitely continues to inform my later thinking about the topics of narrative possibility and player agency.

    Two dimensions are insufficient because the model was designed with a focus on video games that feature a single “main plot” in the sense of possessing a series of events that must be completed in order to get from the start of the game to its credits, the story’s defined endpoint. In such games, it’s possible to have reached a given point in the main plot—call it a Z coordinate, call it some specific example like having just cleared the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time—and go off on any number of different adventures before advancing the main plot further. Maybe Link finishes the Water Temple and then go clears a sidequest; maybe he clears it and goes on a collect-a-thon; maybe he clears it and then rides on Epona for a while. That plurality of paths available to the player at a given point of progression in the main plot is what the (x,y) plane was meant to represent. The key point is its multidimensionality. Maybe something like radians would make better representational sense than (x,y); maybe even more dimensions are needed to account for more subtle distinction in kinds of available event at any given point; but I don’t see fewer dimensions as doing the job this model set out to do.

    I hope that’s helpful! Glad to have you as a reader, and thanks for taking the time to ask about my work.

      Daniel · November 7, 2022 at 10:28 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thorough response. I am pleased to hear that your work has progressed from the stage portrayed by the article above. I will take a look at your thesis when I have the time. Incidentally, I am amused to hear that you have pursued an honors thesis in philosophy by focusing on narrative studies, given that I did roughly the opposite—pursued my own honors thesis in literature by focusing on philosophy.

      At any rate, to the points:

      1. The ostensibly adversarial relationship that sometimes manifests between Stanley and the narrator doesn’t feel relevant to the question I was asking . . . but I am prepared to admit that that depends on what counts as the story of a game in general. If the ‘story’ is only a function of an arbitrary subset of material presented in the game (perhaps via cutscenes, dialogue boxes, narration, and similar elements)—then I suppose I could understand feeling that the narrator’s insistence on the ‘mind control’ ending makes that path primary and makes the story of the game non-collaborative. But I would contend that the story of a game develops at every moment that the game occurs, just like it does at every moment that a scene occurs in a film. The story is laid out by narrative contexts implemented by the developers and navigated by players, and statements of any given character within those contexts (such as statements by the narrator of The Stanley Parable) make contributions to—but have no special authority over—how that story develops in terms of gameplay.

      2. I suppose it is unfair to harp on about a series you have not yourself experienced, but to clarify: the Insomniac museum in Going Commando is accessible in-game without any interaction with the system clock or a separate menu. Simply hovering to a distant island in one of the worlds and jumping into a room is sufficient. I suppose there is a chance that’s what you meant by saying it is only otherwise accessible via ‘exploit,’ but that categorization seems somewhat arbitrary when considering additional content that lies beyond the one-way floors and walls of many 2D platformers, or the illusory walls of many FromSoft games. Once inside the museum, the player is addressed directly by snippets of dialogue from developers about materials and effects elsewhere in the world. These dev avatars that call attention to the fictionality of their context are entities/characters in the gameworld no less than than the two narrators of Stanley. The distinction between the museum level and the rest of the experience remains a distinction that, if made, is made at the discretion of the player in both cases. Along those lines, it’s very curious to hear you refer to how “those player actions can be given narrative meaning, but without the game doing so” as though that is not what is true of every action in every game, indeed every meaning of an artwork. In particular, implying the ability to objectively discern when a game is or is not providing some particular meaning makes me very curious about your ontology of art; but such details are no doubt addressed in your thesis, so I will seek more information there.

      3. I’m interested to hear why branching paths are not sufficient for an analysis of {[Avatar] Game Designer} and {[Player] Game Designer}. After all, in your response to (2), you strongly imply that intentionality on the part of game designers is accessible to you when merely navigating a gameworld—that such accessibility allows you to see which in-game elements are and are not part of the “the fiction of the game.” And, at any rate, unless we are particularly simple-minded players, I see no reason that we would need Atlas’ assistance in mapping the form of {[Jack] Atlas} onto {[Jack] Player}.

      4. I think you’re missing the objection to the third dimension there. The miscommunication might possibly relate back to the idea I mentioned in (1) that, in a game, ‘narrative’ progress doesn’t halt merely because there is no character speaking. In other words, I don’t think it is possible for a z-value to be held constant in the way you’re describing. But even if we were to temporarily pretend that the z-value entirely ceases to move when, say, riding Epona—it remains unclear why moving over into a sidequest and then back into the main quest would appear on the graph as anything other than treading a horizontal line out on the x-axis before continuing to climb the graph vertically (possibly after retreading the same line in the negative direction . . . if for whatever reason a given x-value is required for z movement). Again, for an additional dimension to be necessary for such a model, it has to play a unique role in the structural relationship it’s meant to describe. The superfluity of the y-axis (at least as presented in this particular article) derives from it sharing the same role as the x-axis: standing in for choices made among ‘primary’ and ‘side’ content. In other words, we might say that the z-axis is ‘story movement’ and the x-axis is ‘mechanical movement.’ Described like that, suddenly it seems as though y has been roped in merely to make the non-story part of the model feel more open, free, ‘exploratory’ . . . despite not fulfilling a role that is actually distinct from x. It remains unclear what makes one sidequest an x movement and another a y movement. Now, I could personally conceive of a similar model that is genuinely three-dimensional, with the z-axis being story movement, the x-axis being all movement due to utilization of core mechanics, and the y-axis being all minigames (moments with entirely unique/separate sets of mechanics). But I have given you the benefit of the doubt that a model of that kind is not being introduced with such emphasis for the purposes of this article, as The Stanley Parable would still only be moving on the z- and x-axes. Rather, I assume that you have something else in mind here for y, and that the something else in question simply remains unclear.

        Aaron Suduiko

        Aaron Suduiko · November 11, 2022 at 10:19 am

        How nice to hear that your studies also had the chance to involve philosophy! I hope that you enjoyed your time with the discipline. I think my previous responses said most of what I intended to say here, but, briefly:

        1. Assuming that you’re more familiar with my work now, I’d imagine you know that I take virtually everything within a game to be constitutive of story. I see elements of the narrator’s role within the story that I already mentioned as reasons that count in favor of organizing divergences from him as divergences from what’s been laid out as a main plot, which I see as addressing the question, “How do you determine which plot thread in The Stanley Parable counts as the ‘main plot?’” If part of the challenge behind that question is how I can claim that this is the sole correct analysis of the game’s narrative structure, the answer is that I don’t: as I elaborate on in the links I already shared about method, I think the study of game stories supports multiple illuminating analyses of a given game. If you offer something that accommodates and explains the data from throughout the game’s fiction in a coherent and illuminating way while eschewing the notion of diverging from a plot, I’d be surprised, but I’d certainly have no theoretical or personal problem with it.

        2. The referent of ‘exploit’ in my comment was ‘whatever the relevant wiki author(s) referred to as an “exploit” on the museum’s wiki page‘, which I visited in a good-faith effort to say something responsive to your question about a game I’d never played. What I meant by the comment that you found curious was simply that some games have more connective tissue between development-focused content and the developed narrative than others; e.g., the difference between a game that simply has end credits and a game that turns its end credits into an interactive experience with consequences for its plot. If you wanted to claim that any game referencing its developers within it is thereby making them a part of its fiction regardless of anything else, I don’t think I’d take any issue with that; after all, what I was doing in my reply was answering your question of how one might think to distinguish two cases.

        3. I don’t think we need access to dev intent for basically anything except biographies of the devs. My point in responding to your question here was that BioShock does not represent these cyranoids explicitly within the plot of its story, as Stanley does. On the level of analyzing its story, you could certainly introduce those cyranoids if you found compelling reason, in the course of your study, to do so. Mutatis mutandis for Atlas: the point was of course not that the player doesn’t recognize the shift in cyranoids without Atlas pointing it out, but rather that Atlas’ lack of realizing this doesn’t bring the cyranoid into the plot as the narrator of Stanley does.

        4. I did not miss your problem with the third dimension. My offer of something radian-based or with more dimensions was meant to address exactly what you articulated in your original comment and now in your subsequent one. One sample way to flesh out that alternative for the model would be for it to have a z-axis for its main plot and a separate axis for, say, every possible sidequest. That could allow for the tracking of different sidequest-related events in relation to, again, Link’s quest as the Hero of Time. I considered your “retracing the x-axis” idea earlier in the development of the model, but I didn’t see that as a sufficiently informative way to track the progression of events in distinct plotlines that are orthogonal both to the main plot and to each other.

        Thanks again for reading and thinking! Best of luck with your future gaming.

          Daniel · November 11, 2022 at 6:53 pm

          1. Yes, I read your thesis after making my previous comment. But that only called further into question the idea of any analysis of this game whatsoever including reference to one path as being the ‘main plot.’ After the thesis, I was ready to assume that was an artifact of this being older work by you. After all, what we can say in your more recent terminology is that The Stanley Parable has numerous paths through its possibility structure, with the vast majority of them involving disobedience of a narrating character. It remains totally unclear why anyone would pluck out a singular path from that structure in which obedience is preferred and refer to it as more primary to the work than the incredibly numerous paths in which it is not.

          2. Fair enough. As I said, possibly unfair of me to belabor a topic with which you lack familiarity.

          3. I agree that it would be entirely the task of the analyst to draw out those conclusions, but I disagree that the same is untrue in the case of Stanley. As I said in my prior comment, the narrators of The Stanley Parable are ultimately characters in The Stanley Parable. If someone is interested in intrusions of fourth-wall-breaking content into primary gameplay, then either Stanley or Ratchet would serve for analysis. If they are interested in the illusion of freedom afforded by games, then either Stanley or Bioshock would serve for analysis. Perhaps the answer to the mystery I posed in my initial comment is simply that: Stanley is arguably apt for discussion of several such aspects of games simultaneously.

          4. I understand that the three-space model is an older concept which you have since abandoned, so I appreciate you humoring me on that topic. In regards to your most recent reply, though, I can’t help feeling that referring to the x- and y-axes as avenues for single (types of?) sidequests now instead calls into question the role of the z-axis (unless we now recast z as a mechanical axis denoting ‘progress’ through a game or somesuch). That said, if the reference to the ‘exploratory domain’ was never meant to bring in the player’s mechanical interaction with the game (beyond the mere act of ‘deciding’ at certain junctures) then, though limited, I could see some utility to a three-dimensional analysis of certain very-small-scale games that have only three possible avenues of narratively relevant player choice at any given juncture.

          Aaron Suduiko

          Aaron Suduiko · November 14, 2022 at 4:19 pm

          1. I’m sorry that my motivation still remains unclear to you here! For my part, I feel that my replies have covered this specific point and the broader points of this line of inquiry by now, so I can’t really offer further effort to help you out on this score.
          2. I appreciate you saying that!
          3. I wouldn’t foresee my having any problem with what you suggest as the “answer” at the bottom of this one, and it highlights one of the things I love about storytelling in games and more broadly: the opportunity to tell new stories by mixing together complementary elements from others that came before!
          4. Yeah, it sounds like we may just see this differently! I still think the z-axis is pretty useful for thinking about games that have, say, a series of events with members and order common to any and all playthroughs of the game from start to credits. Obviously, as we’ve talked to death, the model at this point warranted revision, but I still find myself sometimes getting some valuable analytical orientation by thinking about games in terms of the main plot vs. events that happen outside of that plot. If you ever find yourself looking to write something exploring various permutations of the model beyond With a Terrible Fate‘s common section, I’d wholeheartedly support that!

          Cheers, and game well!

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