This is a review of a video game called The Stanley Parable. But what is The Stanley Parable? What does it represent? Does it challenge your preconceptions and subvert your expectations? The answer is as difficult to elucidate as it is difficult to communicate. Perhaps more simply, what does it contain? The Stanley Parable contains rooms, doors, corridors, halls, warehouses, larger more circular rooms, elevators and offices which you can walk through and listen to dialogue within. This much, we know. The Stanley Parable also purportedly contains player choice, but by the end of the game you’ll be left wondering if you actually made any choices at all. Suffice to say, then, that The Stanley Parable is a singular video gaming experience unlike any other and you owe it to yourself and to posterity to witness it first-hand.
The Stanley Parable does have a premise, even if it doesn’t contain a definitive narrative thread. You, the player, are ostensibly Stanley; a dull, sedentary office worker who discovers one morning that his workplace is deserted and no orders have arrived for him to follow. From here you take control of Stanley on his quest to discover the truth. That is, if you want to discover the truth. The Narrator, the omnipresent, omniscient voice-over that follows you throughout the game, has a story that he wants to tell, but whether you will let him tell it is another question.
After leaving his office, Stanley is faced with two open doors. The Narrator says you walk through the left one, but what if you go right? What if you do go left? The choice is yours. Only, it isn’t, because the game wants you to make each choice and has planned for practically every eventuality. From here, the game supports many branching narratives that go to many surreal and wonderful places, and I will refrain from spoiling any of them in this review.
After finishing one “story” the game will deposit you right back at the beginning in Stanley’s office, ready to start over. Thus, you get into a Groundhog Day-like sequence where you try something different each time, leading to a new path and the joy of witnessing how things pan out. The game has approximately a dozen or so endings and it will take you a couple of hours to see them all. Add into that the additional secrets, Easter eggs and funny dialogue you can trigger if you go out of your way to look for them, and The Stanley Parable will keep you entertained for a fair while. Graphically the game uses the Source Engine and will look very familiar to anyone who’s played Portal 2, since it uses the same lighting technology and borrows one or two assets. It isn’t gorgeous but it has a good style, especially in the dull office areas which will be instantly familiar for millions of people every day.
Much credit must go to both designer Davey Wreden’s excellent writing and Kevan Brighting’s superb delivery as the voice of The Narrator, who manages to be ominous and nervous, melodramatic and highly amusing in equal measure. The amount of unique dialogue is impressive, as are some of the randomized elements, so that at the beginning of the game the walk through the early office sections can be very different as the layout changes. The game succeeds in making you feel both clever and stupid, by rewarding you for your ingenuity with some funny dialogue whilst reminding you the designer planned for such an eventuality, and so actually any ingenuity on your part was planned from the beginning. There is also an amazing free demo, which is definitely worth playing, containing a completely unique and separate experience from the main game.
The Stanley Parable doesn’t like the fourth wall. If The Stanley Parable were a machine it would be a bulldozer, casually and consistently shattering the fourth wall at regular intervals. The Narrator will constantly make meta-referential statements that you’re playing a game, and there is even a museum dedicated to explaining the development of the game you’re in the process of playing, which is highly self-referential. The comedy feels almost like Douglas Adams on occasions, especially some of The Narrator’s pseduo-intellectual rants.
On a purely mechanical basis, The Stanley Parable is the latest in a series of “walk-‘em-ups” that have arrived over the last year, including the likes of Dear Esther, Gone Home and Proteus. There isn’t much in the way of actual gameplay besides hitting some buttons and entering a code or two, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve come to the game for the experience and feeling it gives you more than what you physically do.
At face value, The Stanley Parable is a brief but funny experience. But deeper down, it’s actually quite philosophical. It investigates the true nature of freedom in games and whether it is ever possible for the player to be truly free. The Stanley Parable pins its colours to the mast by declaring that as it currently stands, freedom is impossible and that pure determinism exists in 99% of video game experiences. Perhaps one day, with the help of quantum computers we will escape the thrall of the developer and the clutches of The Narrator. But for now, as The Stanley Parable reminds us, at least we still control when to turn the game off.