Good Free Will Hunting

I love video games, but my Games tag doesn't get near as much of a workout as Movies, TV, or Books. It's not difficult to see why; properties in those latter three categories don't take much of an investment, either in time or money. If I'm going to get into a new game, though, it involves considerable commitment of both. In fact, Gone Home was the only new game I was able to devote any amount of attention to in 2013. Until the December Steam sale hit! Suddenly, a bunch of games became a lot more accessible, and there were two I immediately jumped on. While both of them delve into the intricacies and complexities of fate and free will, their tones and gameplay styles couldn't be more different.

BioShock Infinite is the one with more mass appeal. It appeared on several best-of lists, but beyond that and a few minutes of peering over the shoulder of a friend who was playing it, I didn't know much about it. I've never played any of the BioShock games before. When it hit a ridiculously low price, I decided that its strong word-of-mouth meant it was worth the risk of me walking into it blind. And I'm so glad I did. In BioShock Infinite, you play as Booker DeWitt, a private investigator who finds himself in the floating city of Columbia in 1912 to track down a girl to trade in exchange for a gambling debt. This is the most beautiful game I've played in a long time, and for the first section, you might actually find yourself pining for a simpler time. A time of straw hats and victrolas, when patriotism and religion weren't such loaded phrases, and fun was wholesome. But during the city's big festival, the game takes a sudden turn that literally made my jaw drop, and reminded me that there was plenty about the good ol' days that wasn't so good.

Your companionship with the girl (Elizabeth) is equally fraught. She's kind and smart, but dangerous and unpredictable. She helps you in some fights, and leads you to others. Her freedom is something Booker desperately wants to help her achieve, but at what cost? The gameplay is nicely intuitive for a Bioshock newbie like me, the characterizations are impeccable, and did I mention the graphics? So, so pretty.

But for all the writing and plot work that went into BioShock Infinite, it's still an FPS. Action rules over thought. To really twist your mind inside out, dive into The Stanley Parable. Its premise is childishly simple. Stanley is an office drone who pushes buttons day after day. One day, he discovers that all his coworkers are curiously missing. A helpful narrator then explains to the player how Stanley should go about solving this mystery. "Stanley took the door on his left." "Stanley entered the code 2-8-4-5 into the safe." "Stanley flipped the power switch."

On my first playthrough, I dutifully followed all the instructions given to me. Total game time? About five minutes. OK, good night! Nah, just kidding. The next time I played, it was time to start questioning authority. "Stanley took the door on his left." Screw you, narrator. I'll take the one on the right. "Stanley entered the code 2-8-4-5 into the safe." Nah, let's see what happens when I input 2-3-4-4. "Stanley flipped the power switch." What if I don't even feel like going into the room with the power switch? What if I want to explore the basement, instead?

The narrator does not take kindly to these brutal displays of disobedience. No, he doesn't care for them one bit. If you do not follow instructions to the letter, the narrator becomes increasingly angry and anxious. With every choice you make as Stanley, your relationship to the narrator and to reality warps further. Who is this narrator? What stake does he have in Stanley's decisions? What effect does contradicting an omniscient being have on the universe? Are you the player? Or is the narrator? Is Stanley fictional only in the player's universe? Or is he fictional in his own? Is there a narrator narrating the narrator's story? Your brain should be a pile of goo by this point, and that goo made this game one of the most interesting experiences of the year. Sure, you may not have rescued the princess from the tower. But you took control over your own destiny about which office door you walked through. Now that's real accomplishment.

BioShock Infinite: A
The Stanley Parable: A-


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