Have you ever felt stuck in a dead-end job where you feel as though you’re simply going through the motions, yearning for a bit more freedom? If so, then The Stanley Parable feels your pain… and mocks you with it.
Having originally started life as a mod for Half-Life 2, Galactic Games has taken its popular title and rebuilt it from the ground up with more options, more dialogue and more British humor than you can shake a stick at. The Stanley Parable feels like something Monty Python’s Flying Circus would have come up with, had they been formed a few decades later and concerned themselves with the games industry.
Players take the role of Stanley. Stanley works in an anonymous office building and spends his time responding to orders relayed over a speaker telling him which buttons to press on a keyboard. He is, effectively, a glorified data-entry worker – a role that he inexplicably relishes. One day, Stanley goes into work and the orders don’t arrive. In fact, nothing has arrived – the office is empty and it’s your job, as Stanley, to try and find out what the hell is going on.
The first thing you notice about The Stanley Parable is its dry sense of humor. Every action you take in the game is accompanied by commentary from an omniscient narrator and its here where the bulk of the game’s appeal lies. The narrator attempts to tell a linear tale of your progress through the game, but it’s up to the player whether or not to adhere to the story or attempt to subvert it. For instance, upon entering a room with two doors, the narrator may say “Stanley entered the door on his left”, but as Stanley, you could choose to enter the door on the right instead.
Where the game delights is in how adaptive the narrator is to your choices; Galactic Games has second-guessed seemingly every last action that you could possibly undertake. If you loiter in the staff room, an ongoing commentary about how much you clearly admire its atmosphere and surroundings will play over the speakers. If you hide in a broom closet and stay there, the narrator will eventually assume that you’re dead, and call out for another player to take over control of the keyboard. This level of self-awareness never lets up and it’s a frequent source of delight and surprise how the developer always seems one step ahead.
In one section, you’re repeatedly told which door to go through. Go through the other door several times in a row and the narrator increasingly chastises you before removing the alternative door altogether and surrounding the correct one with glowing neon arrow signs. In another possible occurrence, you’ll be asked to follow a yellow line; again, if you repeatedly deviate from the defined path then eventually you’ll restart the game and the line will be all over the place, trailing up walls, going in circles, etc – all accompanied by the humorous and acerbic wit of your omniscient overseer. The Stanley Parable is a game that endlessly plays with the established conventions of linearity in games, exposing the limitations of player freedom within the medium whilst challenging you to attempt to circumvent them. But for every choice you make, the game is ready with a witty riposte and no small degree of sarcasm.
As a result of all of these different narrative branches, the game contains a large number of alternate endings – some easily found, others increasingly obscure. All of them, however, are delightful – and much of the pleasure derived from the game is in your attempt to uncover these various endings and tease a reaction out of the narrator. Follow his instructions to the letter, and he’ll mock you for not having an independent bone in your body. Go off the beaten track repeatedly, and he’ll mock you for being unable to follow basic instructions. It’s consistently impressive how the gameworld adapts to your every move: every single possible action you can undertake has already been thought of well in advance of you making it and the result is that not only do you feel somewhat powerless, but you start to examine how other games handle player freedom, examining the limitations of so-called open-world games or linear titles such as Call of Duty.
The Stanley Parable is a game that doesn’t just understand the importance of player freedom, but also openly mocks the pretensions of other games which claim to do the same. It’s a game that will have you in stitches of laughter on a frequent basis, but will also make you question player limitations in every game you play afterwards. In an industry where increasing amounts of developers and publishers are claiming to give the player freedom to do as they see fit, a game like The Stanley Parable is important to expose just how limited those so-called freedoms are.
If you care about games in the slightest, you owe it to yourself to play this game. Or does the game play you? It’s hard to tell. Either way, it’s an experience that should not be passed up.