Originally released as a Source engine mod in 2011, The Stanley Parable is a game with a novel concept behind its narrative. It was conceived by Davey Wreden and the game seeks to deconstruct the very nature of gameplay and choice in video games. After catching the attention of a player named William Pugh, who had experience designing content in the Source engine, he helped design an HD version of the game. This new version includes more story and dialogue while making it a standalone game. The HD version was released in 2013 and is currently available on Steam, the game distribution service owned by the people who created the Source engine.
Playing the Game
Controls in The Stanley Parable are what you would expect from a game with a first-person perspective, with free look (or mouselook) and W, A, S, and D controlling movement. I’ve played games in the past such as Planescape: Torment and The Last of Us where the gameplay was minimalistic and clearly not the main focus. The Stanley Parable takes that idea to its logical extreme; it has no real gameplay to speak of. It can loosely be described as a first-person Choose Your Own Adventure. The only interactivity is exploring Stanley’s office building and occasionally using objects to advance the plot. That’s all there is to it; even someone who has never played a computer game in their life could make it through The Stanley Parable with no problems whatsoever.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: I try to write these reviews while keeping spoilers to a minimum, but this is a case where I can’t really talk about any part of the narrative without giving something away. If you want to experience this game blind, this is your last chance to do so.
There is a story and there isn’t a story. Supposedly, the story of The Stanley Parable is centered on an office worker named Stanley. His life is completely ordinary in every way, but he doesn’t mind. One day, he stepped out of his office only to realize that all of his coworkers were missing. You’re left to discover the rest on your own.
The Stanley Parable begins innocently enough; you travel down a linear corridor while a mysterious voice narrates your actions. Things get interesting when you reach this room.
“When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left,” says the narrator.
Yet the narrator says this before you actually enter the door on your left and there is nothing stopping you from entering the door on your right. This is when this game’s true nature reveals itself – The Stanley Parable has an entirely postmodern narrative. Every time you’re presented with a choice, the narrator will continue with the story, either speaking normally if you obey the predetermined path or growing increasingly frustrated if you choose to disobey him to the point where he snaps at the player directly.
It is for these reasons that many people consider The Stanley Parable to be a very thought-provoking game. The game questions the validity of narrative structure in video games while unabashedly having a plot that could only work in an interactive medium. The writing in this game reminds me of Portal and is equally quotable. The Stanley Parable makes a profound statement, using the narrator, Stanley, and the player to effectively deliver it. Even though the narrator is allegedly in control of his world, he is powerless to stop you from wandering off the path. At the same time, the player is presented with choices that, even when rebelling against the narrator, ultimately mean nothing. No matter what you do, you’re conforming to standards, even if they aren’t the narrator’s. The narrative is both well-written and delivered beautifully by its primary voice actor. It’s also quite remarkable how there’s narration for almost every single thing you could do – my favorite bits of dialogue are the ones that result from annoying the narrator by sticking around in certain rooms for too long.
While many good things could be said about The Stanley Parable, there are a few issues that damper the experience. Although the postmodern approach to creating a narrative in a video game is a valid idea, I think The Stanley Parable relies too heavily on this concept. Because players will invariably learn of this game’s true nature within the first few minutes of playing, it starts to lose its appeal very quickly. Personally, I think postmodernism is difficult to pull off in any medium as it’s an ambitious idea where any number of things could go wrong, and if they do, the author will look like they have no idea what they’re doing. I don’t think there’s a specific right way to implement it, but I feel that video games, with their interactivity requiring human feedback, makes them the prime medium to set up an amazing plot twist that involves a postmodern element. The problem with The Stanley Parable is that the postmodern element is not a twist, but rather the forefront of the narrative, making the experience feel overly gimmicky.
There are multiple endings in this game, encouraging the player to search every nook and cranny to find the many paths the narrative could take. Unfortunately, none of the endings, with one notable exception, require a lot of effort to achieve – most of them take less than thirty minutes. As a result, savvy players will breeze through the experience rather quickly. Some endings are a bit trickier to discover, but a cursory glance on the internet reveals how many endings there are and how to get them. Due to there being no real gameplay, The Stanley Parable has very little replay value, as once one has uncovered all of the dialogue, there’s no reason to continue. To me, The Stanley Parable is on the same level as a clever online Flash game or one of those strange horror games made in RPG Maker. The experience is interesting while it lasts, but because of all of these problems, I found it didn’t really leave a lasting impact on me (other than inspiring me to write this review, so there’s that).
Drawing a Conclusion
I maintain that the best video game stories take full advantage of the medium they’re on to deliver a unique experience. However, it felt like the creator of The Stanley Parable only just grasped this concept and decided to implement it for its own sake rather than flesh out an entire game with that idea in mind. Consequently, The Stanley Parable can be described as paradoxically one-dimensional. While I see what Mr. Wreden was trying to do and his work certainly makes for an interesting conversation piece, there are other games out there that have also indulged in postmodernism, the creators of which I thought implemented the idea more successfully either because there was actual gameplay to go along with the story or because the narrative incorporated actual characters. As creative as The Stanley Parable is, Mr. Wreden did not realize his potential with his debut effort.
Final Score: 3/10