I don’t normally preface a review with a recommendation to buy, but that’s the case with The Stanley Parable. It’s a neat little experimental game that explores aspects of game design and player interaction with games, and it says some interesting things about them in funny, entertaining ways. If you want to have a few laughs and unintentionally ask yourself some questions about the games you play, it’s a worthwhile purchase. That being said, my telling you anything about how the game plays or what you’re expected to do, even on a small scale, can wreck the first experience you have with the game. It’s very good, and if you’re on the fence about it you should go try the demo. So, limited spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
There is something incredibly appealing about doing something in a game you think you’re not supposed to. When I played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game at a sleepover back in the second grade, we came across a woman skateboarding across the level. She wasn’t a Foot Soldier and clearly didn’t want any trouble, but you best believe that me and my friend darted over and took a swing at her as she passed by. We burst out laughing when she screamed and ducked down, and I felt this insane sense that I’d just done something wrong and gotten away with it. It’s funny, because I hadn’t done anything bad or even unexpected, as the developers had programmed for that specific instance to happen. I still get that same thrill today, mainly gotten by aiming my gun at NPCs and trying to pull the trigger or by throwing grenades at children in Fallout 3. I’m always pushing at my boundaries and trying to do the ‘wrong’ thing, never really realizing that my bad behavior is not only predictable, but has also been prepared for me in advance.
This is where The Stanley Parable comes in. It’s a strange game to describe, as there’s really not much gameplay there to talk about. Your whole job is to go around the game and interact with things. Maybe you’ll go interact with things like you’re supposed to. Maybe you’ll go out of your way to interact with the wrong things, but then come to the realization that they can’t be the wrong things or else they wouldn’t be programmed to do anything, would they? The game simply presents you with a series of choices in an abandoned office building, and then just rolls with whatever you want to do. That’s all there is to it.
It seems deceptively simple, but there are a surprising amount of small choices you can make in the game that alter what happens next. Depending on which hallways you go down and which items you fiddle with, the game will adapt and alter your path in various ways, always leading to a widely different ending for your trouble. It’s interesting to see just how many things you can alter just by changing a few turns in the halls, but things can and will shift in extremely different ways. I’ve been killed in an underground facility, entered some sort of fake museum for the game’s assets, been booted out of the game, and had the game pretend to glitch out and kick me back to the start.
Once those credits roll (Assuming they actually do. I’ve only ever seen the credits once), you’ll be right back at the beginning of the game. The game remembers what you’ve done before at times, though, and rushing ahead to do something may make the narrator react to what you’ve done on previous play throughs. I’d repeated one section that required me to open a lock a few times, and on my third try the narrator cut most of his regular lines out and opened the door for me. At other times, the game showed repeat effects that the narrator told me it was trying to get rid of in the last run, and he sounded frustrated about them still being there. The game seems like it was looping back to the beginning when it reset, but I was never actually sure if I was still seeing the repercussions of my decisions from past runs or not. You really don’t know what the game is going to do next, or what changes have come about during that short loading screen that says “The End is Never” (Something that only seems more appropriate the more you play).
I’ve said that I love pushing against what the game wants me to do, finding myself incapable of doing what I’m told or what is ‘right’ by the game’s logic. Instead of focusing my efforts on killing foot soldiers in TMNT and mutants in Fallout 3, I’ve always got to pick on the things I’m not supposed to be attacking. In The Stanley Parable, that meant doing the opposite of whatever the narrator wanted me to do. So, if he said that Stanley turned left, I couldn’t help but make myself turn right. When he asked me to turn back, I pushed ahead. When he gave me a second chance to do everything over again, I still turned on him. Every time I ignored the narrator, he would grow more and more frustrated with his delivery, directly chastising me for what I’d done. His anger was delicious to me, and I just kept right on pushing him.
The narrator is pretty funny. There’s just something about Kevan Brighting’s stuffy British delivery of increasingly exhausted annoyance at my little rebellions that made the game more fun. Having him make fun of me multiple times while I hid in a broom closet or when I purposely dove off the side of something made those moments much more entertaining. In his voice I could hear the tone of every exasperated developer asking why players would even bother buying their games if they were just going to screw around in them. Why bother programming a living, breathing world in Fallout 3 if all people wanted to do was pile up books until they could clamber over them and get outside the game’s parameters? Why are gamers never satisfied just playing the game properly?
What if they do play the game properly? What joy is there in following a set series of instructions through to a set conclusion? If games are supposed to be different from books and movies, what defines them as such? Shouldn’t the act of choice, the very ability of control that makes games what they are, be an important factor? Well, what if none of your choices matter all that much, as they’ve all been designed to only lead down a single path to a scripted conclusion? Does that even count as choice at all, or is that just an illusion? You can follow the narrator down that path if you like and see where that leads you, something that became more and more appealing as I started coming to a realization about the game, and even games in general.
The little breaks I’m always poking around for? My ways of feeling like I’m playing the game in a way that I’m not supposed to? Well, most of them are planned or just dealt with. Really, if there is narration for a specific event, even if it’s something that I feel is counter to what the game wants me to do, then that means the devs expected me to do it. They’ve prepared for it. I may get a twinge of excitement at my rebellion against what the game wants, but am I really rebelling if I’m doing something the game is prepared for? Aren’t I just doing something the devs secretly wanted me to try, since they put in something interesting to find once I reached it? I was beyond happy when I got a tool that let me walk outside of the game’s parameters in Anodyne, but that was a tool the devs gave me. I wasn’t actually going outside of the game space, but rather traveling into another area the devs had prepared and stabilized for me. It’s the illusion that I’m tricking the game, and something my brain seems to fall for each time despite my knowing better.
I never really thought of it before The Stanley Parable, though, which is pretty much the beauty of the game. This isn’t Rex Ronan or Captain Novolin; the game isn’t going out of its way to hammer knowledge into your head in the most dull, straightforward way possible. Instead, the game just presents you with a situation and tries to have some fun with it. Through its surreal, silly nature, the game subtly asks you to think about why you’re taking the actions that you are. As I pressed my way through varied play throughs, alternating between agitating the narrator and following his orders, I questioned how things were going. Why did I feel so strongly like I was being railroaded through a series of set pieces when I followed my instructions like a good little soldier? Why did ignoring my orders still feel like I was following a different set of instructions, and that I was being railroaded using my desire not to follow the spoken instruction?
The Stanley Parable is quite short on each play through; enough so that I got to experience various play types and endings very quickly. It all happens so fast that you get a very succinct look at the sort of stuff that would normally be spread over an entire game, such as finding a secret underground facility from your work and then destroying it. That takes place in less than five minutes, and it really made it clear that this is what many games strive to do with their orders and narrow corridors, only cut down to the point where I noticed it more. It shows how often games are just a series of set pieces made to make me feel like I was on an amazing journey, but that same journey feels flat when I notice that there was really no deviation from it. That control I should feel from games, the kind that is absent from books or movies, was just an illusion. In The Stanley Parable, I was still just following one hallway, albeit one that branched many ways, to the game’s scripted conclusion.
That The Stanley Parable can take subjects like choice in game design and make them interesting, to the point where it coaxed me to think about them when I didn’t mean to or want to, is a pretty big compliment for how well-made and interesting it is. For someone looking for traditional gameplay you’ll still get a solid game that plays out like the funniest “Choose Your Own Adventure” book you’ve ever read, but if you’re willing to work your brain a bit, this game has some interesting things to show you. Even if you’re not, the game just might trick you into putting a little thought into all those corridors you’ve been shooting guys in.
The Stanley Parable is available for $14.99 on Steam.