If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to personify different types of media for a moment.
Literature is the eldest. From flash fiction to the longest novels, it has been thoroughly explored. Comfortable in its tropes and standard structures, but permitting all kinds of experimentalism. Home to derivative commercial fiction and plotless literary meanderings.
Cinema, and its fraternal twin, television, are mature adults, but perhaps not quite as well-explored as their venerable older sibling. With the advent of ubiquitous streaming, we’re seeing new and exciting forms that break the strict boundaries of commercial viability that have constrained them for so much of their history.
Finally, there are video games. Just blooming into their teenage years, they have realized with a thrill that they can become something more than what they currently are, but are still not quite sure what they want to be when they grow up.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is indicative of these teenage growing pains, grappling with the questions of experience and participation that we’ve discussed here before. The game is nearly a decade old, and the narrative ideas that it pioneered have been expanded in other games since then. However, a new expanded edition is coming early next year, so now seems like a great time to talk about it.
The game begins with a black screen and cheerful, perhaps cheeky music plays as we zoom slowly through a very dull office building. We land in a particular drab office, facing the uninteresting back of a man in front of his computer.
The very British narrator sets the scene:
This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was employee # 427. Employee # 427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what employee 427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others might have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy.
And then one day, something very peculiar happened, something that would forever change Stanley, something he would never quite forget. He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he realized that not one, single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow. No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say hi. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation. Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time, but as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.
At this moment, when the player first gains control of Stanley, the game has already hinted at its objectives. Stanley has been made exactly for this job. He has been frozen solid, unable to move, as he waits for the player to finish the cut-scene. The player and Stanley have exactly one way to proceed: get up from the desk and step out of the office.
It is this interplay between the player and The Narrator that The Stanley Parable is all about.
A single play-through of The Stanley Parable is short and strange, and not especially profound. It might elicit a few chuckles. It might be a bit uncomfortable. And then the scene fades and Stanley and the player find themselves back in the office, starting over. The game is not in the play, but in the replay. The peculiarities of The Stanley Parable only become apparent when playing the game over and over again.
As the player, you soon discover that you can make choices that change the story. In fact, your choices have such a radical effect on the story that it is completely different and often contradictory between playthroughs. Strangely, this mish-mash of alternative stories makes any one version of it seem less and less significant. You may like or dislike particular stories, but the game doesn’t tell you how to win or lose. As a player, the most obvious goal is to explore and discover all the different ways to “complete” the game.
In this way, the narrative becomes unimportant. It’s the meta-narrative that matters.
Through playing over and over again, you also discover that you can interact with The Narrator himself. He does his best to describe what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do. He explains that you’ll go left at the fork, and the you can make him a liar by choosing to go right. He explains that there’s nothing of interest in that broom closet, but you can choose to sit there anyway, much to The Narrator’s consternation.
And yet, this is a false rebellion. The Narrator is just another character in the story. Even if you fight the story he has planned for you at every juncture, you’re still choosing from options that have been meticulously planned by the developers of the game. You can foil The Narrator, but you’re still playing into the hands of the developers.
You have choices, and those choices have consequences…for a little bit. Then the game starts over. The world begins anew. The Stanley Parable asks if those choices—choices pre-defined and wiped away after each reset—have any meaning. Can any choices in a video game have any meaning when they only have consequences within the game, and perhaps, within the player?
A Light Touch
These are heady questions, and a lesser game might find itself mired in dull philosophy. However, The Stanley Parable couches everything in absurdism. It alternates constantly between the bizarre and the mundane. Kevan Brighting’s voice acting as The Narrator provides dry wit and hammy over-acting in equal measure.
The game is enjoyable even if you only pay attention to the surface-level silliness. But it gives the player the opportunity to dig deeper, if they so choose. Chances are good that some of the well-hidden story paths will slip by even a dedicated player without a guide, giving the impression that the game just keeps getting more subtle and strange as you invest more time into it. A quick google search for “the meaning of The Stanley Parable” will make it clear that plenty of players have chosen to dig very, very deep into the game. Honestly, maybe a little too deep.
And Even More?
It’ll be interesting to see what The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe edition adds to the original game. This is a game that really affected the landscape of narrative games in the eight years since its release, but that also means that it’s no longer necessarily on the cutting edge.
The marketing copy suggests there will be “new endings and new choices,” which again is merely the surface-level experience that the game offers. More interesting to me will be any new directions the developers take the meta-narrative ideas of the first game. Will it be derivative of the original, or introduce something new?
Getting the Game
The original Stanley Parable is available on PC via Steam.
Despite several delays, the Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe is expected in 2022, on Steam and consoles.