Review: The Stanley Parable
When I first booted up The Stanley Parable and got to the main menu, I saw an image of a computer monitor; on that monitor was that same image repeated endlessly, like a hall of mirrors. The point here, of course, is that the player is also looking into a monitor in real life, which is also showing that same image. This kind of self-aware meta narrative is indicative of the experience that The Stanley Parable offers throughout. The game simultaneously criticises and questions video game narrative cliches and ‘tropes’, such as the notion of free will inside a predefined and finite virtual space, or whether there’s any real difference between victory and defeat inside a game, when each outcome has been predefined and calculated by the designers anyway.
While these points are certainly interesting in their own right, does The Stanley Parable manage to work them into a fun, interactive narrative? I’d say the answer is a resounding “mostly”. The game begins with a brief cutscene, showing the protagonist Stanley working away at his dull desk, in his dull office. We’re told that Stanley follows his orders day in and day out, but then one day the orders stop coming. Worse, all of Stanleys co-workers have disappeared. It’s here that the player takes control, and with the guidance of an incredibly well-voiced narrator, must get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the office building Stanley works in.
The game plays in first person view, with only two buttons – interact, and crouch. In my time with the game, I didn’t actually find a use for the crouch button, but the interact button is used consistently throughout. The aforementioned narrator is the players guiding force – with no interface or heads up display, the player must rely entirely on the world around them and the narrator for clues as to what to do and where to go. The Stanley Parable is not a puzzle game, nor an adventure game – rather, I’d define it simply as an interactive narrative. It’s a game about games, and tells a story that can only truly be told through this medium. In that sense, I believe it’s an incredible success – however, I’m not sure it’s necessarily ‘fun’.
There are several routes that can be taken through the office building and beyond, with each path leading to another branching route, eventually taking the player to one of the many different endings on offer. Each ending can be reached in a matter of minutes, but there are so many that the average player can be expected to spend a few hours on this game at least. This brings up the best thing about the game – the narration. On a repeat play through, I was following a path I’d taken previously. Since I’d experienced it all before, I was rushing ahead of the narrator’s directions. At a point, he stopped his usual narration and berated me for trying to rush through the game – playing classical music in an attempt to ‘calm me down’, while the door I needed to pass through stayed locked until the music ended.
The narrator in The Stanley Parable owes its success not only to the incredible voice work of Kevan Brighting, but due to the way it weaves into the players actions. At the beginning of the game, you’re told to continue through the office building and solve the mystery of your missing colleagues. Since I’d already kicked into my typical gamer mentally, I spent the first few minutes trying to open every door and interacting with everything around me, which caused the narrator to say that “Stanley spent the first several minutes fiddling with everything, for no apparent reason”.
It’s here that The Stanley Parable finds great success – the game is quite literally an interactive narrative. Early in the game, the player is presented with two doors. “Stanley walked through the door on the left”, the narrator calmly proclaims. Of course, as a player, you’re free to choose to do what you wish – meaning that if you’re anything like me, you took the door on the right. This causes the narrator to question Stanley’s listening capabilities, but continue to try and direct him to the correct path, which (of course) can be ignored again and again.
Inaction is a perfectly reasonable decision as well, with its own set of outcomes. The point that The Stanley Parable seems to be making is that no matter how clever the player thinks they are, no matter what decisions they make, they’re still well and truly trapped inside a finite and carefully designed world. There is no real victory and no real defeat – each is just another path designed to be experienced. Each rewards the player with new content and narration, with no path feeling as if it’s worse or better than any other.
The narration is usually hilarious and extremely witty, which really helps sell the cleverness of the game. I laughed out loud more than once while playing, and I expect I will when I go back to it. The simple controls make the game extremely easy to pick up even for people completely new to video games – however, that leads me to one of my major criticisms.
Put simply, people who don’t play many video games just won’t get it. They won’t understand what’s going on, and there’s a good chance that a lot of the narrative will be lost on them. If you’re not a big video game fan, try the demo – it’s different from the main game, so try it either way.
Otherwise, there’s no real gameplay to be had here, though I felt the fantastic narration and thought provoking questions more than made up for this. At times, the game was much too dark for me – I had to adjust the brightness on my monitor just to see where I was going, which often still wasn’t enough (something unique to this game, so far).
Still, I enjoyed my time with The Stanley Parable and I think other video game enthusiasts will as well. If you have only a passing interest in games, maybe give the demo a spin – this may not be right for you.