When I played the original Stanley Parable mod back in 2011, I was nothing short of enraptured. That may seem like a hyperbolic compliment at first, but it’s nothing less than the honest truth. I thought that The Stanley Parable was an intelligently crafted, concise and interesting experience that more resembled a thought experiment than a traditional game, and it turned out to be one of my favorite “games” of 2011.
To make an even bolder claim, I’m willing to throw the full brunt of my endorsement behind The Stanley Parable in stating that it may in fact be one of the most important video games to have been released in the past decade. And with the imminent release of the definitive HD remake later this year, I thought it was about time that I write about why I love this game so damn much.
The game is more than just a gleefully tongue-in-cheek take on the emphasis (and futility) of player choice in a deterministic system. it is more importantly a conversation, an interactive repartee between the player’s interactions and the condescending cajoling of a fatalistic Narrator that brings to light the unconscious baggage of assumptions that both players and designers alike bring into creating a game experience.
The Stanley Parable hinges on drawing the player’s attention to the unspoken assumptions of game design subtlety ingrained over the years into the collective gaming community’s unconscious arsenal of navigational/problem-solving strategies.
You play as the eponymous Stanley, a worker drone happily content to “push buttons” and “listen to voices” all day from the safety of his cubicle office. The game opens with Stanley realizing that he is no longer receiving any instruction from his handlers any more and ventures out into the eerily deserted office building in search of answers, all the while accompanied by a mysterious disembodied voice seemingly narrating all of his actions. At any time you can diverge from the beaten path of the narrator’s story, but not without incurring some consequence.
What follows is an experience that is both gratifying hilarious and vaguely terrifying if you think about it too long. The Stanley Parable not only pushes but outright defies the conventional systems of gratification inherent in almost all commercial video games (see: “choices”, “endings”, “winning”), and instead substitutes it with the opportunity of allowing us, the player, to peer behind the proverbial “fourth wall” of game design and see the great and powerful “wizard” of choice for what it truly is.
A contrivance. A myth. Shadow puppets posing as reality on a wall.
At the same time, even though choice in The Stanley Parable is openly mocked and criticized ( even one of the game’s maxims is ‘You will make a choice that does not matter’), the choices that I made throughout my playthrough(s) of the Stanley Parable meant more to me than most of those I have made in any other commercial video game in recent memory.
When playing modern choice-driven narrative games (ex. Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Skyrim) it’s typical for players to try and consciously ‘game’ the system of a game in order to reap some long-anticipated endgame down the road. Players do mindlessly repetitious tasks ( “pushing buttons”, “listening to voices”) in order to farm currency in order to buy upgrades or weapons with diminishing returns, safely coasting along through starkly color-coded morality systems and unchallenging dialogue trees in order to get the “good” ending. “Good” in this sense meaning “not glaringly cobbled together at the last second by the developers in order to justify the word ‘choice’ featured prominently on the back of their game’s box.”
In contemporary game design, the merit of a choice is weighed by its outcome, with in most cases little to no recognition or actual “involvement” on part of the player’s agency.
The choices in Stanley Parable run counter to this.
The game offers six endings, each of them prompted by a diverging tree of choices that come down to either taking a certain corridor or pressing a certain button. None of these endings is definitive or “canon”; there’s only one ending where the words “The End” are featured, but in no way does it feel like a conclusion. Stanley Parable is a game whose enjoyment and “message(s)” rely on and thrive through replayability.
The difference between choices in Stanley Parable and other contemporary games is that the compensation isn’t some piece of gear or an arbitrary “achievement” pop-up, but the lucidity of watching these past choices and endings from previous “lifetimes” culminate with one another upon repeated breakthroughs, gradually building into a Jenga block tower of an epiphany that can fall apart at any given moment.
The Stanley Parable holds a mirror up to players and ask them to describe what they see. Why do we make the choices that we make? Why do we feel an almost innate desire to “break” a game? Why does playing point to point through a scripted story about rebellion and liberation feel so hollow and contrived?
Those and many more questions are up to the player to pose and perhaps, hopefully, come closer to answering while playing the game.
The Stanley Parable follows in the iconoclastic tradition of Jacques Derrida; grappling with norms, demolishing presumptions, and leaving the audience to sift through the rubble to draw their own conclusions. It’s a lamentably rare experience and one of the most important video games of this generation. It is worthy of your notice.