»Come, Stanley, let’s find the story!« On the Ludic and the Narrative Mode of Computer Games in The Stanley Parable

By Michelle Herte

The concept of multimodality, originating from social semiotics, appears to be a very promising one for computer game research, as the relatively new medium employs many different modes on many different levels. This quality of computer games may even be a main reason for the difficulties of digital game studies to properly define their object, prominently exemplified by the notorious dispute between ludologists and narratologists. By now there is the consensus that the terms narrative and ludic do not define computer games as such, but rather describe two of many modes which coexist in most games and are generally of equal importance (cf. NEITZEL/NOHR 2010: 419), just as the modes of human communication are described as coexisting and equal by social semiotics (cf. KRESS 2010).

While the respective forms and functions of the ludic as well as the narrative mode have already been discussed elsewhere (cf. THON 2007), this paper focuses on the self-reflexive potential of their specific combination and conflation as it is applied in The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013). This game is implicitly built upon the aforementioned consensus and the conflict that preceded it, as it exposes the problematic combination of coherent narration with a player’s freedom of choice. It takes advantage of the different levels of representation and interpretation involved in playing computer games (cf. SCHRÖTER/THON 2014) to put common ludic and narrative game conventions into the guise of the respective other mode, thus undermining player expectations as well as challenging player behavior. I discuss those selfreflexive operations using two prominent examples from the game that present, firstly, a narrative ending sequence in disguise of an (insoluble) ludic challenge in the game’s countdown room, and, secondly, a parody of the often used promise of narratively relevant player choice in the player-avatar’s presumed quest for the game’s story. Both sequences highlight different functions of the narrative and the ludic mode, while making them blur into one another on the edges between the game’s representation and the player’s interpretation.