by Andrew “Boter” Bugenis
This is a story about a man named Stanley.
Or rather, this is a story, about a story about a man named Stanley.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this is a review about The Stanley Parable, a video game that purports to be a story about a man named Stanley.
Of course, The Stanley Parable purports to be a video game…
“Whoa, whoa whoa whoa whoa. Hang on. That got a bit weird, back there? Well I’d like to apologize. Not sure where I was going with all that.” The Narrator
Okay, so. From the top. The Stanley Parable started its life as a mod for Half-Life 2, and eventually found its way into a standalone version on Steam. In it, the player (usually) controls Stanley, a man perfectly content with a meaningless job in a big office building until one day he realizes he’d been given no orders, and all of his coworkers were gone.
The Stanley Parable is very much a story-driven game. There are precisely six things that the player can do to directly affect the world around them, and four are moving forward, backward, left and right. Crouching is yet another action that falls under “personal movement”, and from there the only thing left is an action button. (Not even a jump button my muscle memory continually pounded on the space bar, only to be rewarded after a while with an achievement titled “You can’t jump”.)
So, taking place in the first person, the game falls under the wry genre of “walking simulator”. It’s certainly not a shooter. All that you can do is really move around and press buttons. But this restraint - simplicity, really - of the gameplay allows the narrative to be the centerpiece of the game, and the Narrator’s story takes precedence.
Or does it?
From the very first line spoken in the opening cutscene - This is a story about a man named Stanley. - to the first line once you have control over Stanley - All of his coworkers were gone. What could it mean? - all the way through to… whatever, The Narrator is your constant, and usually solitary, companion through the story. Voiced perfectly by Kevan Brighting, The Narrator is the author of the story of The Stanley Parable. The problem, and incidentally core gameplay mechanic, is that you can disrupt the story that The Narrator wishes to tell. Perhaps this is a masterful metaphor for writers who say that their characters end up writing the story themselves, and here The Narrator is too narrowly focused on his own “correct” story that he gets upset at Stanley and the player (not always the same entity) for disrupting it. Or perhaps it’s just a meta commentary on the need for players to break a game, to seek out its crevasses and dig deep, to do wonderful and emergent things with a game that were never intended. Or less civilly, players are jerks who break your stuff, and The Narrator calls you out accordingly for it.
Here I am and I haven’t even said anything about the mechanics of the game, how you do these things in actual applied ways. It’s a tough game (or, commentary on games; or…) to talk about because there is so much going on from the first time you enter the Two Doors Room.
“Coming to a set of two open doors, Stanley entered the door on his left.” The Narrator
The Two Doors Room was present in the original mod and is present again in the Steam release. It is the first thing that shows the player what the game is really about. The Narrator urges you to enter the door on the left, but both are open. And sure, you can continue to the left, as he says… and then continue up some stairs, and so on and so forth, and tell The Narrator’s story. And it’s a nice little story, a story of a grand conspiracy and of freedom. But it’s not necessarily the most fun story.
The Stanley Parable is, perhaps, a game best thought of as a collection of Endings. The Freedom Ending is the safe way to go, with The Narrator holding your hand. But there are over a dozen different endings to the game. When you complete an ending, you are reset right back to Stanley’s office, and you have the opportunity to do it all over again… or to see where else you can go. Take the right door. Step off the lift The Narrator wants you to ride on. Try to break the game - there are, off the top of my head, three Endings that require you to step “outside of the map” or glitch doors that are nonetheless full-fledged Endings, narrated and with things to do. And then of course there are other full story Endings - maybe not what the Narrator wanted to tell but still Endings with plot to them. There’s even an Ending which literally “breaks the game” - assets start to clip through each other and The Narrator scolds the player for having no respect for games, for stories, for logic itself.
And this is all encouraged. Sure, The Narrator doesn’t want you to go off the rails, but doing so seems to be precisely what this game is about. You’re rewarded with fun and new stories… and some real mindbenders along the way. (To those that have played the game: Confusion Ending. I spent nearly the entire time uttering variations on, “Whaaaaaat?” Still grinning, of course.) At one point The Narrator even muses what would have happened if you had clicked the other button…
“Oh - now - think about it. Would it be worth it for you to restart and then come back here just to do the other option? Clearly this whole gag takes some time. What if the other option is even longer?” The Narrator
I played through The Stanley Parable in one night, discovering perhaps two-thirds of the endings myself. I consulted a guide to find how to get to more, but tried not to read about them in-depth before experiencing them because I didn’t want to spoil the joy of discovery.
And that, I finally think, is what this game is truly about. Joy. Because as I was playing it, I think that I had the biggest grin on my face. Or I was too busy laughing. The format of many endings, most lasting no longer than ten minutes, creates a perfect format for experiencing the joy of the game. There aren’t puzzles that distract from the humor and story (which isn’t to say that’s necessarily a bad thing - Portal - but it’s not what this game wants to do). There aren’t enemies to fight (though it was in the works, as can be found in a Museum Ending along the line somewhere). There’s just you and The Narrator, wandering around the building, him talkative and you mobile. Sometimes at odds and sometimes the unlikeliest of partners, it’s the two of you on that journey to joy.
“And Stanley… was happy.” The Narrator
If The Stanley Parable sounds interesting - if you want to experience that peculiar mix of joy with a sprinkle of incredulity - then I highly recommend getting the game. And if you’re not yet sold on it, download the demo. The demo, mind you, isn’t what we normally think of as a demo, but is instead a very meta commentary on game demos and no, no, you know what, I’m going to stop there.
I think you see where this is going.[/reset]
This is a story about a man named Stanley…
The Stanley Parable
Platform: Windows/Mac (Steam)
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Publisher: Galactic Cafe
Release Date: October 17, 2013
Editor’s Note: As an added bonus, watch “Boter Plays The Stanley Parable: Episode One” right here, before he shares it with the world!
Andrew “Boter” Bugenis
Boter is a gamer and a filmmaker, and to combine the two, a Let’s Player. Say “science fiction” and his ears perk up, but don’t say “Star Wars” unless you have nothing else to do that day. You can check out his series “Boter Plays Something” and more on his YouTube channel and elsewhere.