The Stanley Parable is very difficult to talk about. You can beat it in less than five minutes, but by the time you’re done with it, three hours will have passed. Then in discussing any part of it, you destroy the effect of the game’s actions, though not any part of its intent. And any meaningful diminishing of The Stanley Parable is doing it a disservice, because this is an essential game on so many levels.
If you don’t recall it from years past, The Stanley Parable is a first-person narrative, uh, puzzle game that serves to be more commentary than game, though being a game is part of the commentary. It started out as a Half-Life 2 mod back in July of 2011 by Davey Wreden, though many more people have contributed to the project in its most recent and likely final incarnation. Most of the framework remains unchanged from its days as a mod, but its polish adds a lot to the game.
It adds a lot to an already substantial game. Not necessarily substantial in how much time it takes, but it lampoons, addresses, questions, pokes, and gently ribs so much you hold dear with how stories and video games work. It takes a little chunk of your time to tell you the story of a man named Stanley who works in an office doing nothing more than receiving commands and then input those commands into a keyboard. Every. Single. Day.
(From here on out, there will be minor spoilers for the game because it’s pretty much impossible to discuss the point of The Stanley Parable without bringing up its content, nearly all of which is specific and particular. If you have any inkling of playing this game—and you should—then stop reading and go play it. Otherwise, I guess you can keep going. Or do whatever you want. The Stanley Parable taught me better than to try to control someone.)
But one day, his coworkers disappear. And a delightfully British narrator voiced by the absolutely stellar and game-making Kevan Brighting steps in to give personality to the otherwise voiceless proceedings. Or more accurately, a narrator steps in to direct you where to go to find out what happened on this strange, empty day. You don’t pick up collectibles or even jump; you just go about Stanley’s life.
If you follow all of his implicit instructions (think of the narrator from Bastion, where sometimes he describes your actions and other times he describes the action around you), you can finish the game rather quickly. The speedrun achievement, in fact, is for a completion time of 4:22, and you will find an interesting story that comments on the pointless nature of office life and working at a job you don’t love.
As a guy who used to work in a giant corporate office housing one of the biggest fast food companies in the world, this landed so close to home, I had to wonder if my name was actually Stanley. I’ve had countless attempts trying to subtly influence my friends to pursue their passions in lieu of job security and daily indignation (which has so far produced a man quitting his 9-to-5 to drive around New Mexico and sleep in a camper). This is the first point at which the game becomes essential.
But when you start to deviate from the script, then the game begins to show its true colors. You will end up playing through the game multiple times, each time ending up in a different predicament, but each one as poignant as the last. One ending, which you can bring about with startling efficiency, addresses the cowardice of ignoring the world beyond your grasp. Another makes you question what it means to exist in a life of predetermined paths. Though it will often have you chuckling at its words, the game will also make you think.
It will make you think about the philosophical implications of choice and existence, yes, but it also will make you question what that means inside a video game…while playing a video game. The design of the game is very linear, but its serves a purpose: its own blueprint of player interaction has been so finely tuned that when it comments on the nature of player agency and curiosity, you accept that the developer knows what he’s talking about. (It makes me wonder, though, if people less versed in video game tropes will find it equally fascinating.)
Nearly all of your actions have been considered. You will face a choice—left or right—over and over again, and this choice will come to affect the way you view all other choices both literally through the game and through your mental considerations. And your choices will lead you down so many varying paths of defiance and acceptance. This, more than anything, is a game about free will.
Thematically speaking, The Stanley Parable is about you accepting that your choices are ultimately meaningless. It directly addresses it in one particular (and small, confined) instance, but it spreads what could have otherwise been a rote dissection of game design out into a side quest, a pulse-pounding action sequence, a parodic wink/nudge of the industry’s so-called standards, and so much more. As soon as you step away from the straight line leading you from A to B, you reject all the virtual impetus inherent in the medium, but to get anywhere, you have to accept them once more. Do you have control, or does the designer? Is that the true parable here?
It would be heartbreaking of the game wasn’t so entertaining. Of course, the moment following playing The Stanley Parable will probably be some of the most somber of your gaming career, but it’s an important experience. It’s why it’s important to read dissenting opinions of both game reviews and Supreme Court decisions. It’s why satire is just as vital to discourse as is genuine opinion. It’s why you should play The Stanley Parable.
+ The narrator is damn near close to perfect
+ Metaphysical commentary on choice presented in a medium based on choice is brilliant
+ There are moments where the game is truly beautiful, psychologically and graphically
+ Inspirational mainline about getting out of a drone job
+ Sobering realization that choices and life in games are meaningless
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: The Stanley Parable
Release: October 17, 2013
Genre: First-person narrative
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Available Platforms: PC