It’s with severely mixed emotions that I recall The Stanley Parable (by Galactic Cafe) here for you today. Let me start out by saying, in bold and italics just so that things are clear… SPOILERS. Maybe. I don’t actually know yet because I can’t quiet foresee the direction this post might take. I mean, I’m probably going to spoil something along the way, but maybe it won’t be a big deal considering the game. If you not played the game but want to, I’d encourage you to just go play it and formulate your own opinions about it. It’s one of those games that has a big, noticeable mission statement that can be interpreted a number of different ways. So here’s my interpretation.
First off, I’ll be horribly honest. The only reason The Stanley Parable made it onto my radar was because it was named in sooooo many of those cursed “Game of the Year” lists at the end of 2013. Much like Gone Home, hearing or reading about The Stanley Parable at the end of 2013 was nearly unavoidable. At a certain point, I kinda wanted everyone to just shut up about it. Then again, I bought it and Gone Home together, so there ya go. However, my husband played it before I did, and I’ll never forget the quizzical look on his face when, upon “completion,” he said “I finished it…I think?” The awkward conversation that followed as he tried to explain the game without spoiling it was also quite puzzling. It even ended with a brief dip into the “what is a ‘video game’?” question, which neither of us tried to answer.
With the surge of strange and unusual independent games over the past couple years, the “what is a ‘video game’?” question is as prevalent as ever. It’s not a question that I care to dive into here right now but one that’ll surely pop up in the future. Because I’m sure some would argue that The Stanley Parable is less a “video game” and more an overrated exercise in futility.
In The Stanley Parable, you play as Stanley, an office worker with a first-person outlook on life. One day Stanley decides to get up from his boring, gray desk and go exploring. His “adventures” in his abandoned place of work are narrative by an omnipresent and cheeky character who speaks ad nauseam about Stanley’s every move. It’s an interesting dynamic at first (and things become almost unsettling in moments of silence), but it grows more irritating (and maybe more motivating?) as you progress. Whereby you can make your very first choice, and perhaps the only game’s only choice(?): turn it off if you find it annoying.
As with just about any game, you, as Stanley, are asked to make choices. Take the right door or the left door? Go forward or go backward? Waste time in broom closet or sit and watch a slide show? Destroy the world or save it? It’s all up to you, or is it? In almost all cases, the narrator goes out the his way to inform you that you have a choice, and then tells you that you don’t. Because the reality is that The Stanley Parable is set up like a rat’s maze with a starting point and various paths to different types of cheese but no exit. And if you think about it, that’s really what a video game is. It’s a maze in a box. You can make the box very large, and you can add portions of new mazes to it, but it is always contained, and the choices we make within it are constrained to the maze itself. And we didn’t make the maze; someone else did, someone we presumably trust to have made it fun and enjoyable.
I mean, c’mon, we’ve all traveled to the “edges” of any game. You see a vast, open horizon, and you run toward to a point where you can’t go any further. Maybe to travel along that “edge” for a little while to see how far it goes. Maybe you don’t and you just run back in the middle of the game where things are safe and secure and populated. That’s a choice, yes?
Or maybe “choice” is just a red herring. After all, I manipulated Stanley through a number of different scenarios all the while thinking, “if I go back and make this other choice next time, maybe things will turn out differently?” Because no matter where you end up in the game, you’re always brought back to Stanley’s office. I ended up in some rather bizarre places ranging from a deceivingly lovely meadow to a pit with crying babies on fire to a metamuseum dedicated to the game itself. But no matter how strangely things “ended” for Stanley, he unfailingly ended up his office unscathed and ready to try again. Because, like I said, you just can’t not try again, taking different paths and maybe finding new secrets.
But as with any maze, you learn your paths quickly enough and easily become tired of retracing your steps. However, those secrets…those dastardly maybe-they-exist-and-maybe-they-don’t secrets are where things shine in The Stanley Parable. I had given up on the game a couple hours in thinking I had reached every possible conclusion. But then I played one more time, taking a route I had several times before, only this time a new path opened up. I’ve no idea how or why, but following it led me to the aforementioned burning babies, which sounds perfectly evil, but no infants were actually harmed during the making of this game…I think. So The Stanley Parable did hold an ace up its sleeve for me. Or maybe I just think it did.
So let’s get back to those “severely mixed emotions” I mentioned oh so many words ago. I really like The Stanley Parable. It’s well-designed, thoughtful, and funny…and I’m not just saying that because I’m a sucker for witty British narrators. The game contains some honest moments of surprise and delight, and it’s all enough to keep one well occupied in “adventuring” for a couple hours. I really hate The Stanley Parable because it made me feel a little stupid for only trying to play the game. I don’t care for that attitude in real life, and I’m certainly not going to take crap from sarcastic, computerized data. I had more than one “may I please strangle you?” moment with the game’s narrator, which truly beat the dead horse named YOU HAVE NO CHOICE into the ground.
In the end, I simply can’t not recommend this game. Thinking about its quirkiness only makes me want to play it again, which annoys me to no end. Because I have that choice — that choice to simply forget about The Stanley Parable forever. Or to remember it fondly as a fun romp through creativity in game design and theory. Or to go back find just one more secret. Or not. Or…
… … … [SIGH]
Damn The Stanley Parable for making me think!