The End is Never the End
The original Stanley Parable was a 2011 Source Engine mod dreamed up by USC graduate Davey Wreden. Using minimalist mechanics and a heavy focus on storytelling, Wreden built an interactive fiction which aimed to question the way stories in games are experienced and generate discussion about how the medium conveys narratives. This newer Stanley Parable builds on the foundation of the original, adding more paths to its branching story and an all-round graphical upgrade to its world.
The Stanley Parable is one of those “Probably not a game” games in that your experience does not involve any kind of test of your abilities, but is mainly about wandering through various 3D environments and soaking in the narrative events that occur along the way. Said narrative events revolve around a man named Stanley, a humble office worker whose job consists of sitting at a computer all day and dutifully pressing buttons on a keyboard. One fateful day however, his orders on which buttons to press stop flowing in and all of his co-workers simultaneously vanish without trace. It’s at this point you take control of Stanley, and under the guidance of a disembodied narrator set out on an adventure to find out what exactly is going on. Much of The Stanley Parable involves navigating narrow linear paths with little more ability in the world than being able to walk and look around, but occasionally you’ll be given the choice to deviate from the basic path the game advises you to follow. There’s no objective winning or losing through the choices you make, but these small decisions often have big narrative consequences.
Given that most of the joy of The Stanley Parable is in discovering the various quirks and oddities of its story, it’s hard to say any more without heading into minor spoiler territory, so consider yourself warned, you should close this review now if you want to find all of the game’s surprises for yourself. You see, the essential twist of The Stanley Parable is that the narrator is perfectly aware of the fact he is a narrator and that he's crafting a journey for Stanley. He dictates what you as Stanley have to do to progress along that journey, and one of the key themes of the game is the potential conflict between you as the player and this incorporeal writer and designer. For example, there’s a room early in the game where you are offered the choice of two identical doors and the narrator announces that you move through the door on the left. If you enter that door the story will continue as usual, but should you enter the door on the right, he will shamelessly attempt to retcon the story to fit your choice and railroad you back onto the right path. This then provides you with another choice: do you comply with his attempts to force you back into his planned events for the game or not? Either way the narrator will take your choice seriously.
The game manages to be uniquely peculiar and subversive in what it does, but depending on its mood at any given time, it can come across as whimsical and ridiculous or almost disturbingly dark, and yet it feels entirely at home at both ends of this spectrum. You might play through the game to reach one ending that is uplifting and liberating, and then play through again to find the next unsettling and insulting. While it is purposefully repetitive, what at first appears to be a fairly straightforward piece of interactive fiction reveals itself to spiral off in a number of bizarre and interesting directions. The way that the game constantly plays with your expectations as a player is fascinating, as is the way the narrator and the world react based on your actions.
The game manages to do a lot with a little, but I do want to stress that “little” part. As a work within itself The Stanley Parable is perfectly well-rounded and is not left feeling lacking in any major way, but when the time between first stepping foot out of Stanley’s office and reaching an ending is always very brief, it is worth remembering that the $15/£10 it costs you to buy the game has the potential to nab you much longer games with far more content. You can also spend a good portion of your time with The Stanley Parable not knowing if you’re “done” with the game or whether what you’re doing currently is actually purposeful in any way. While the means towards some endings are blindingly obvious, there are also endings that require some real searching to unearth and one that you must go to crazy lengths to reach. This couples with the fact that there is no indicator of what portion of the game’s endings you’ve discovered so far to mean that you can spend your time rerunning through the same scenarios and fruitlessly poking around every little corner of the game, hoping that you'll just stumble on another secret out of sheer luck.
If you’re gaming on a budget or looking for something that will always be open and honest about what it’s doing, The Stanley Parable is most likely not for you, but for those with a love of the unconventional and an interest in the relationship between game creators and their players, The Stanley Parable is an experience like no other.