Choice in video games. Or not. Also, The Stanley Parable.

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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! 

10 thoughts on “Choice in video games. Or not. Also, The Stanley Parable.”

  1. A philosophy I’ve recently adopted regarding narratives in video games is that the best ones use the medium in a clever way to treat the audience to a unique experience. The problem with telling a video game story primarily through non-interactive cutscenes is that there is often a jarring discrepancy between the narrative and the gameplay, resulting in them not supporting each other. The creator of The Stanley Parable certainly has the right idea because the story actually needs the player’s input in order to advance. However, I think he falls a bit short because it feels like the postmodernism was implemented for its own sake, making the experience feel too gimmicky. The game is interesting at first, but because that one good idea is the only thing going for it, it loses its appeal very quickly and the lack of actual gameplay really hurts its replay value. Even if there are multiple endings, most of them take less than thirty minutes to get. I give the creator credit for thinking outside of the box, but I think he has a long way to go before he truly lives up to his potential.

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    1. I agree with you there. I can see why it got such praise among so many larger titles of 2013 — it really did stand out as something unique. And I’m always down for something different…even if turns out to be a thinly- veiled exercise in controlled madness.

      I haven’t gone back to play the game since writing this. Part of me really does if only to see if there’s anything hiding behind the gimmick. But the other part of me wants to beat some sense into that first part for being so stupid. I guess there’s something to be said for a game that both does and doesn’t make one want to play. Tis a paradox.

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      1. Funnily enough, paradoxical is a word I’ve used in the past to describe this game. Its storytelling is legitimately great, but it’s surprisingly one-dimensional because the developer relied too heavily on his one good idea. Again, great thinking, but it falls somewhat short.

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  2. I really loved The Stanley Parable and like you I wanted to keep finding secrets. Really good read, I am actually considering popping on again to see what I can find!

    Oh and we are currently in the process of developing our own Indie Game 🙂

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    1. Is that so? (About developing a game.) I shall have to follow as I am quite curious now.

      As for The Stanley Parable, I too have been wanting to go back for another round of torture…er, exploring. 😉 From what I can see there are still more achievements to be had!

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  3. I’ve never played The Stanley Parable but your post throws up similar questions to ones I’ve been obsessing over with Another Code: R on the Wii, specifically this thing about the illusion of choice and game design. To me it’s frustrating, because in Code: R it gives you various options in the conversation, but anything you pick produces the same outcome. It wouldn’t be bad necessarily but it’s totally obvious that your choices make no difference whatsoever and you’re that squirrel in front of a hurtling train squeaking “stop, stop!”, hopelessly trying to stop or divert this story from travelling on the only track it can travel on. When a character in the game asks you to do something, you say “no” but your main character does it anyway, the game acting as if you just said yes.

    There are some games that use that concept as a joke – do you remember in Ocarina of Time when Princess Zelda asks for Link’s help, and you have the option to say no? And you can keep going in circles forever – “No.” “Aww, come on Link, pleaseeee…?” “No.” “Aww, come on Link” etc etc. You might call the Zelda example bad design, but it’s obviously not at all indicative of the game as a whole: there are so many other things going on which do give you a satisfying sense of freedom and choice. I think a good game design means being able to accommodate and reward a variety of play-styles. That’s why you find looking for secrets compelling, it’s something you didn’t need to find, but because you’re that sort of player you want to, and (probably) you went out of your way to look with the hopes of being rewarded.

    I think it’s natural, really, and very human, the idea of wanting to explore and test the limits of what something can do and be. It’s not every player who will just sit back and let themselves be guided by whatever/wherever the game wants them to do/go. How the game reacts to a rebellious player is interesting, and while most games will just put in an invisible wall or a recurring text prompt (“I shouldn’t go down here, I have to…”) to stop you, it sounds like The Stanley Parable has something like a Silent Hill-esque desire to mess with you, by making every corridor lead as if by magic to the same place – the place the game wanted you to go to in the first place. If that’s the case then perhaps the way to play rebelliously and test the game is to only travel down one single route and never explore…

    Anyway sorry for the very rambly, navel-gazing comment. Stanley Parable sounds interesting but also maybe too knowing, even pretentious? Perhaps it’s just the whole indie-darling label that rubs me up the wrong way 😛

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    1. Actually, “pretentious” is a pretty good word to use when describing The Stanley Parable. I haven’t watched enough about the game’s development to know that for certain (the developers, as I recall, had been and still are quite open about the game, having placed a number of behind-the-scenes videos online), but there are numerous points in the game where the narrator gleefully berates you (Stanley) for being so inquisitive, or will call you stupid outright for making this or that choice. I got annoyed enough after awhile, but the derisive commentary only made me want to tell the narrator to f-off and let me explore. Like you said, it’s a natural inclination, and we do it all the time in games! Or I do, at least. I retread paths in games all the time hoping to find some new treasure, and most of the time, there’s nothing to find. I end up feeling stupid anyway for wasting time on nothing. Trying to put a good spin on that, that’s The Stanley Parable in a nutshell.

      I’m afraid I don’t recall that specific conversational instance in Ocarina of Time, nor have I heard of Another Code: R (sounds rightly interesting, though, despite the flaws.) I know there are plenty of moments in games where you think you have a choice, but you really don’t. Of course, examples escape me at the moment…but now I’m wondering about games where choice is done well. Or rather, where the illusion of choice is fully maintained throughout the course of the game … … I kinda thing the Fable games were on the right track with their good vs evil tracks. Hmmm, I’m going to need some coffee if I’m to ponder this more. 🙂

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