(This primarily concerns itself with The Stanley Parable, so if you plan on playing it and haven’t yet, maybe come back to this later because this will contain mild spoilers. Maybe. You can do whatever. You are your own man. Follow your desires, friend. Fly with your dreams.)
There are many layers to The Stanley Parable. It’s a fantastic game that operates firstly as a commentary on the tropes of the industry. Merely turning on achievements will net you your first one, as will attempting to jump in a game that relegates the space bar to a keyboard abomination.
It is extremely self-aware. There is the broom closet, one of the few doors you can actually open in Stanley’s office. The narrator will then ask you why are you in there, why are you clicking on everything, why can’t you just get out of there and get on with the story. It’s particularly incisive on the linear design staple of obvious one-off paths full of collectibles and side quests.
Then, it is obviously a parable of the tragedies of office life, to resign yourself to spending more time in a bleak, desolate pen of gray walls than at home with your family and friends. What justifies giving up your dreams for something as philosophically meaningless as job and financial security? Giving up what makes you human in exchange for being referred to as nothing but a number is ludicrous, and yet that is the life of Stanley and so many more in the world.
In fact, that “so many more” may include you. You plop down in your seat in your cubicle, slink down, and browse the Internet until 9:30, maybe 10:00 AM. You sit and watch the clock in the break room at lunch, dreading when it counts down the dwindling minutes of your lunch hour.
Four o’clock rolls around and you watch the second hand tick away the least productive time of the day. Good thing you have a half hour commute ahead of you before you get home, eat dinner, and go to sleep before you wake up to do it all over again.
And while that is a striking comparison to the problems of settling into the nine-to-five life, The Stanley Parable is also fairly allegorical. The parable, in fact, may be more accurately described as pertaining to the question of free will.
The narrator actually points it out in the ending where you go through the museum of the game’s development. If all the paths are predetermined in life, then the choices and the life are meaningless and without purpose. In video games, this raises especially interesting questions. Games, even the ones that contain “randomly” generated dungeons, weapons, and enemies, are all crafted with specially designed possibilities.
The Stanley Parable highlights this especially well. It is such a consolidated gaming experience; from the simplified controls to the nearly always binary choices, it is a fundamental form of modern games. Because the major beats of a game are pins that players must navigate to, the space between them are where they make the game their own.
But when The Stanley Parable doesn’t let you jump or shoot or customize your Stanley and doesn’t let you instigate crew romances, that intermediate space where you make the game your own in Call of Duty or Battlefield doesn’t exist. The game’s design forces you to realize very quickly and harshly that you are walking a path already considered.
The narrator knows everything you’re doing as you’re doing it. When you jump out of the window and land outside, it’s a known outcome. When you fall to your death on the lift, the developer already had that planned. Clicking everything in the office, closing your office door, etc. All of it—all of it—was put there deliberately. No matter how clever you think you’re being, you’re walking a line that’s already been drawn.
It’s the illusion of free will. By offering you two doors, you think that going right is defying expectations. By choosing to turn on the mind control device, you think that you are retaining power. The Stanley Parable makes you question the merits of office life, it makes you think about whether operating inside of video game design tropes is good or bad, but it most importantly makes you think about whether your choices matter. Because they just might not mean a god damn thing.