This past summer, Davey Wreden's Half-Life 2 mod "The Stanley Parable" was released to a wave of critical acclaim. A one-man project that took two years to create, it explores the concepts of player choice and linear narrative in game design. It's mind-boggling.
If you haven't played it, you owe it to yourself to download "The Stanley Parable" right now. It's free, it doesn't even require Half-Life 2 to play (on the PC), and it takes under an hour to do everything there is to do. There's no shooting aliens involved, so even if you don't play many video games, you can appreciate this one.
Both "The Stanley Parable" and Portal deal with unreliable narrators who may or may not be characters within the game. Both feature silent protagonists who are a tiny part of a giant corporation.
But why? Why does Half-Life inspire such critiques of gamic narrative? The core Half-Life titles themselves involve a silent protagonist and uncertain overlord character. Valve is often put on a pedestal by the gaming community as the pinnacle of Western game design. Story and gameplay interwoven perfectly, with narrative and character development advanced without need for cutscenes.
I'm tempted to be cynical about this canonization of a game developer. But their work really is that good. And if they inspire someone to create something as chillingly beautiful as "The Stanley Parable," I'm okay with that pedestal Valve sits upon.
It was interesting watching my girlfriend (who doesn't play many games) play "The Stanley Parable." Upon learning the plot's twist, she quit the game and shut off the computer. "That's the only way to win the game," she said. And really, I guess she's right.