Many video games offer you choices, moments where the player is given autonomy and can have a real impact on where the game goes. But is this really the case? If the game has already been put together, and every choice you make has already been planned out for you, is there really any room for autonomy? Does the player really have an impact, and is this in a strict sense a choice, or just an alternative?
These are some interesting questions, and they are some of the questions raised by the Stanley Parable. If this kind of exploration into the nature of games – and choice especially – interests you then you will get so much out of the Stanley Parable; however the brilliance of the Stanley Parable is that it works completely separately from this. It’s the kind of game that inspires evaluation and discussion, but independent of this it’s still insanely funny, brilliantly creative and completely enjoyable.
The conceit behind the Stanley Parable is really quite simple. You play as Stanley, Stanley has a boring job but he’s happy. One day Stanley arrives at work and nobody is there, Stanley goes off to explore why this is the case and his journey can take him to a number of destinations. The core element of the Stanley Parable, and what makes it quite so special, is the narration. Stanley’s journey is fully narrated by a witty British voice, that comments on his actions and tells him what he has to do next. In many ways this set up is reminiscent of Bastion, a fully narrated game where the voice-over reacted to what you did in a way that made the story feel really seamless, and made your actions seem important.
The narrator in the Stanley Parable is even more impressive than the one in Bastion though, partly because of how much he reacts to what the player is doing. The idea of the game is to mess around with it, poke at it in any way you can think of in the aim of trying to get a reaction out of it. Whether this is overruling the narrator, or just doing silly things in the hope the game will notice. What’s so impressive is that you just can’t catch the game out, the narrative bends around you perfectly, and though everything is pre-scripted and pre-ordained, it feels completely fluid and reactive. The game feels like it is directly responding to your autonomous action, but in reality all it is showing is that you have no real freedom, and that everything you can do has been pre-planned. This sounds dry and depressing, but it’s actually really funny. The writing is impeccable, and the narrators reaction to all of your actions are simply hysterical.
Though your choices are limited, the Stanley Parable is a game that will keep surprising you, and one that offers a large amount of variety. There is one directed path through the game, and it’s very short. If you follow the narrators lead, you will finish the game in ten minutes – but it will be a hilarious ten minutes. The joy in the Stanley Parable though comes from trying to find where things could be different, looking for different paths to take and purposefully not doing what the narrator says in order to see how the game could turn out. The reward is a number of very different, but equally hilarious, endings that map to each possible route through the game. Some are straightforward to find, some require some real thought. What’s really amazing though is that the game is always one step ahead, and just when you think you’ve managed to do something it couldn’t have accounted for, you are greeted with some brilliant voice-over that reassured you that your actions were very much expected.
The environment you play through is an office, one that is small and simple looking. But by putting a few branching paths, and by each one adding a larger amount of possibilities, the Stanley Parable is able to consistently surprise you and show you so much. Some of the places the narrative can go are incredibly creative, it’s a game that keep bringing you joy while it constantly outshines itself. There’s some absolutely amazing stuff to uncover, and to even hint at what some of it is would spoil some of the most brilliant surprises in gaming. Rest assured that the game gets really creative, and very clever.
The variety doesn’t just come from the endings though, another hugely impressive part is how the game reacts to the way you play it. Whether it’s what objects you try to interact with, how long you spend in a room or just what strange thing you keep doing, the narrator knows, and he will talk to you about it. What is more impressive is how the game keeps track of what you have done, ensuring that things keep being different. It will comment when you repeat things you have done before, and even certain parts of the level will just go differently on later playthroughs. One example of this being a door that opens after you enter a code, to get to a number of endings you will keep having to do this, and the voice-over will be different depending on whether you enter the code before the game tells you (because you remember it from before), refuse to enter the code or just be a good little Stanley and play ball. However on one playthrough, the game just knowingly skipped this whole routine, and just announced that Stanley somehow opened the door and carried on his way. The door opened by itself and the game continued. It’s these kind of hilarious one-off moments that hammer home how impressive the game is, and how intricate it can be.
There’s so much more to say about the Stanley Parable, there are essays you could write about what it says about games and how it manages to successfully use tropes to subvert them (something very hard to pull off). Ultimately the game ends up as a loving reminder of how silly some things in games can be, but also it never fails to forget why games are so great. It’s a critique of game design, but it’s not all criticism, there’s no cynicism here just recognition. It’s a loving critique of choice driven narrative games (and gaming tropes) in the same way that Cabin in the Woods is a critique of horror movies. It works because it’s a brilliant game as well as a fantastic and valid piece of commentary.
Overall the Stanley Parable is one of the cleverest and funniest games I have ever played. It’s a pure delight and will appeal to players who like a cerebral experience, as well as those who just want some fun. It’s a wonderful achievement, and the expanded amount of content as well as the visual overhaul means that you have to play this game even if you are familiar with the source mod it is based on.