The Stanley Parable has been, for the most part, well-received. There’s not much I’ve heard in the way of complaints except for its cost versus length and, most notably, its use of a narrator. Having that (sometimes) omniscient voice describing things that aren’t happening, can’t happen, or just happened is vital to its commentary. Without it, The Stanley Parable would be a much stranger game indeed, but for all the wrong reasons.
Narration, however, is largely a tool that eschews subtlety. It’s one of the benefits of books; the author can guide readers to notice and not notice certain things like reactions and clues that would otherwise wreck the pace of a moving visual medium like film.
Most importantly, though, narration can let you into the thoughts of a character. If it’s a first-person tale, then you can skip all the adjectives and adverbs in describing characters as they walk and talk and instead just say what’s important: how those actions are perceived by everyone else. And if it’s third-person, you have more liberty in jumping between scenes and characters without having to force intersecting paths in the story.
But when it comes to video games and television, it becomes a bit of a crutch. You know how everyone thought it was super cool when Arrested Development did the mockumentary-style of show but the slew of imitators that followed kind of soured the public on it? It’s because we realized as an audience that it’s a bit lazy in terms of storytelling.
The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation don’t necessarily have narration, but they do all have the talking head segments that are a staple of the mockumentary format, which, as all of those shows went on, eventually became an artifact of convenience rather than formative development. For the remaining moments of those shows, the camera crew doesn’t exist, gets shots that are basically impossible for documentaries, and might as well belong to a more cinematic single camera setup.
The interview segments where characters tell you straight up the morals learned, their thoughts, and what you need to take away from a joke or story or event are lazy, though the quality of those things tend to make up for the narrative crutch (hence their popularity). But they’re still kind of lazy.
Narrators have also become something of a trend in video games, as a few critics have lamented on Twitter with the release of The Stanley Parable. Bastion most recently made it a big deal again, thought before that Atlas in BioShock and Max Payne in, uh, Max Payne both had a good run at the framework. And while I found the delightfully British voice to be essential to The Stanley Parable (oh, and LittleBigPlanet, speaking of British narrators), I totally understand where those people are coming from with narrators.
I’ve put some thought into it, though, and it occurs to me that in-game presentation of story in a video game is most like a stage play with a Greek chorus. In television and movies, directors and editors can point the audience to love or hate, trust or question a character just based on the lingering moments of a shot. What you see is all within control of the person with Final Cut.
Video games, though, don’t have that same control, or at least they don’t when you’re playing and in control. When the narration comes in while you’re wandering around of your own accord like in The Stanley Parable, it functions as a Greek chorus, a non-diegetic collective that’s part of a play that voices the thoughts and themes of the ongoing show to the audience. They do this because you can’t zoom in on someone’s face on a stage to get a point across.
I think that’s why narration in video games largely goes without comment. We realize that they serve a purpose, so that we can maintain agency while accruing narrative information (not to mention it’s ripe for the unreliable sort, my favorite kind of narrator). In The Stanley Parable‘s case, we also get a superb performance from Kevan Brighting, but we understand that it’s a cog from another machine that fits rather well into video games. It can be lazy in most narrative frameworks, but it fits our visual and player-driven medium just fine.