Round Table: The Stanley Parable
Recently, it seems that nothing divides opinion more than the question of what defines a game. Whether it's the narrative-driven explorathon of Dear Esther, or the audio-driven explorathon of Proteus, experimental videogames are very much en vogue right now. And rightly so, too. With its yearly churn of marginally changing franchises thudding onto the shelves with slick regularity, the industry needs innovation more than ever.
The Stanley Parable is one such experimental title. Ostensibly an examination of choice and acceptance within the bounds of videogames, as well as an exploration of how the games themselves are constructed, it offered a myriad of discussion points and was widely praised for doing so. Since a large number of staff at The Digital Fix played it, and since we didn't actually get around to formally reviewing it, it seemed perfect fodder for our first round table discussion. We hope you enjoy it!
So team, what did you think of The Stanley Parable? I’m going to pitch my tent in the “wonderful” camp.
I got bored after I found a few 'endings', although clearly not ones the game considered an end (no Steam achievement). I mean, for the few hours I played it I found it interesting, but then it boiled down to me trying to find the alternative solutions and I wasn’t that engaged to keep doing it.
I loved every second of it, but then I can take a joke. And be assured, the joke is most certainly on us, the kind of people who spend their spare time poring over video games to find their meaning and worth.
While I thought the game was clever, witty and a nice break from the norm, I can’t help but shamefully admit that the best parts were those where it jumped into another game, be it Minecraft, Portal or whatever. After debunking the artifice of our favourite medium for a few hours, walking into ‘behind the scenes’ portions of other games felt like a step towards a Who Framed Roger Rabbit for games.
At the very least it will make you smile, at most it's a wonderful look at player agency and showing you tropes that gaming should break...while using those tropes as a means of engaging you. It’s fascinating.
So here's the thing. The Stanley Parable has the rather dubious honour of being the first, at least in my experience, to have a demo that is better than that resulting game. In the demo you are treated to a one-way ride through a theatre of comedy, backed of course by the star of the show: the Narrator. It's brilliant. Seriously - download the demo, no matter which side of the fence you sit with regards to the quality of The Stanley Parable itself.
The issue I have with the final game is its dependence on repetition to the point of delirium. The first runthroughs are magnificent, a wonderful treatise on gaming tropes, again backed up by one of the best characters created last year, the Narrator. Slowly however you begin to realise even he is a facade. A fake voice, unlocked by certain choices, repeated over and over. When you reach this point of despair, the game takes on a rather different form. You become a pet. One begging for juicy comedic treats, unlocked by performing certain tricks. Knock on a door 3 times, get a funny joke. Stand in a cupboard for 10 minutes. I'm laughing, but I'm also crying. I'm scraping this barrel dry, draining its life blood for every joke I can hunt. But it's no longer fun. I miss the Narrator of old, the one with a mind behind the curtain embraced by the wit of Wilde. Yet he never existed. Just like Stanley, he's just a character locked in a game, released whenever the game wishes.
A great perspective and I find myself wanting to say, 'that's the point.' As a character he verbally bashes you for ever straying from a seemingly planned narrative but his entire existence as a character is reliant upon you making any choice as a player.
And there were times when I actually hated this game. The apartment ending (it's been a while since I've played and might have the ending names wrong) had me verbally arguing with a video game, informing it that I do not spend my days at work waiting for someone to tell me to press a key, thank you very much, and no I will not do that now! Yes, I took a video game personally almost to the point of quitting my day job.
Another thing it made me think of was Half-Life - I forget where I read this so I can't contribute to a source, but someone pointed out that everything bad that happens is down to one choice the player makes; if they didn't push the machine into the experiment then nothing would have happened and the world would have been safe. It just wouldn't have been much of a game.
The Stanley Parable is a game where you can choose not to play... and there's an ending for that. There's even an achievement for it if you do so for five years.
There’s a walkthrough tree available online which tells you all how to see all of the endings without spoiling what happens – I found about ten or twelve without it, but some of them are quite elaborate and pretty much all are clever. YouTube for the fire-baby-puppy one though…I didn’t have the patience.
The main draw for me was that it was just such a well-written game.
Was it, though? "Hi, here's a game which lets you break the rules but actually we don't, because these rules are in the game; it's just these rules, though. So it's a different set of rules. Oh, OK then, basically no rules." I understand that it’s appreciated because of all the cool, well-written solutions and how they subvert the gaming medium BUT I got bored after a couple because the game in which these subversions were placed was, in itself, unengaging. I’d got saturated by the whole thing.
I think people reached for those endings walkthroughs too quickly; I resolved to play the crap out of it before doing that and found myself basically going through Groundhog Day. At the beginning it's all “ooh” and “ahh” and a world of possible variations, but before you know it you're screaming at strangers and taking baths with toasters. The nature of the game becomes a prison until you think you've found a bug, or a thousand boxes turn up and you gain a resigned serenity about the whole thing.
I got bored and resolved to stop playing it because Groundhog Day in The Stanley Parable wasn’t the Groundhog Day I’d choose.
For all its cleverness, the appeal of The Stanley Parable I think rests on the twin pillars of basic human response: defiance and curiosity. 'No' is one of the first words children learn; the right to assert their own will in the face of a command or request. In video games, the possibility of choice only really has taken on any significance in the past few years as games have transformed from straight entertainment into narrative-based journeys; before that, you were assumed to be complicit - you either played the game, or you didn't. Indeed, one of the endings rams home the fact that the narrator is just another character in the story, and that while the illusion of choice is apparent, the only real one you have is to quit, as everything else has been already scripted.
The majority of the other endings occur when you purposely defy the Narrator's plans, and it shouldn't be any surprise that the chance to defy and not only have it recognised but for the Narrator to become annoyed with you for doing so is a bone that many are unable to resist. I certainly was grinning like an idiot each time I got the chance to, with the Narrator tutting and fretting at my refusal to keep form.
Also, the demo is masterfully done and I would strongly recommend anyone who hasn't played the game to play it first, as its more a prequel/extension. I am a sucker for the absurd and the “eight game” had me in stitches.
Without the repetition, the impact you feel when the game does go off-piste would be thoroughly dampened - like the crazy line-following exercise, or when the game's engine breaks down and the environment starts falling to pieces. Or when the narrator keeps resetting the game. Would the game be the same without it?
No. The repetition is integral to the experience. The same, but different. The tagline to one of the trailers is even ‘Let’s Begin Again’. It doesn’t take that long to do anyway.
Like Steve said, repetition is an important part of what makes this game unique, mostly because it’s not always the same. Even two runs where you make the exact same choices won’t necessarily be identical thanks to random elements which are occasionally thrown in. They’re usually cosmetic but they definitely have an unnerving impact on proceedings. After all, it’s when ninety-nine percent of something is extremely familiar that the one percent change stands out. Thanks to the branching choices and short run time for any one ending it also has a repeat-play quality that’s not really been around since game saves became common. When Super Mario Bros. first came out, each game session started at World 1-1 so by the time you got to the last boss encounter, those early levels were basically played on muscle memory alone. The Stanley Parable manages to play on those expectations by occasionally throwing up something different just as repetition becomes the expected norm.
It needs the repetition, if for nothing else to drive home that these are the tropes we have been rehashing and replaying throughout the entirety of our game-playing lives. And I think that the sheer ability to make repetition not boring or frustrating but interesting and insightful is harder than some people seem to give The Stanley Parable credit for.
I agree with what Edd is saying around the repetition in hunting for the funnies once you've got through the main "obvious" choices. The dialogue does change during different paths (the break room being a particular highlight) but it isn't quite enough to negate the feeling of "oh, now I need to go through all of those rooms again and this time go left-right-right instead of left-right-left", with not much in the way of change...but maybe that's the point.
To address Luciano’s point - it’s a discussion about the rules. It’s meta to the point of absurdity and challenges preconceptions about what a game is, even more than things like Dear Esther or Gone Home. It’s the kind of thing I’d imagine Joss Whedon would have loved to have written, but even better. And it’s damn funny.
And if there’s no structure (rules), then there’s no space for narrative and you end up with…erm…Proteus, I guess?
See, that's my point. It's a discussion about the rules and how they're silly and you can break them, but they're not on an even more meta level. It's fine but nothing like you're making out, because it's quite frankly enjoyable with a cocky or silly message. But only for a short while. Proteus has rules, it has a structure. Whether it did or didn't is kind of irrelevant to the fact that it's just pap, though.
Cabin in the Woods was overrated too.
What could be more meta than a discussion about breaking the rules as you break them? Not only that, it's also a look at how a narrative is put together, and how most games cannot stretch beyond that narrow structure - even things like Skyrim and GTA have a core arc, and everything else is window dressing and busywork. I think people will look back in a few years' time and realise that this was an Important Game.
Cabin in the Woods was great, but a bit too smug. Still, it had Bradley Whitford in, which made it instantly win at everything.
Cabin in The Woods is overrated, purely because it gives away its premise in the first ten minutes.
The Stanley Parable isn't meta, as it was explicit. It was just a discussion. The games you mention are narrative-based games. Dark Souls is a good example of a narrative not being narrow. It's gigantic and ethereal, really. Mario is a game that's all about gaming and minimal in terms of the narrative.
Maybe they'll think it's important. I think it might get lost. Either way, it wasn't a great game IMO.
The entire definition of meta is something that is self-referential - that is exactly what The Stanley Parable is! Did you get to the ending where the female Narrator cuts in to deride the male Narrator? There are so many excellent bits in it...I'm sad that you didn't like it.
I did say most - not all - games have a narrow narrative structure...I wasn't really comparing Skyrim with Mario when I made that comment. I will play Dark Souls at some point, though. Honest.
When meta becomes too blatant it's not really meta. That's my point - it went too far. It’s a game that claims to let you break all the rules, rather than actually breaking the rules first and then perhaps starts discussing what's going on.
Had the game just had the main two endings on their own, it would probably have been worth playing, but Galactic Cafe have provided such a dense network of possibility space that it is hard not to be compelled to unravel it all, even if it means a certain amount of repetition. A mystery can't be left alone, and this game knows it. Hell, it threw in a joke ending where you have to push a button for 4 hours and people did it because some people just have to KNOW!!! People are curious beings.
The joy was in discovering what the game was about, and why it was letting you break the rules. There’s a bit where you can fall out of a window and break the game…and it comments on it. The point is that you don’t need to break the rules. You can follow it to the end, obeying all instructions, and get the “good” ending. The fact that you don’t have to do that, and that it has catered for pretty much every conceivable outcome (mainly because the game is small enough to accommodate this), is something pretty special. The commentary on the rules of narrative - let alone gameplay - and our expectations of each, as gamers, is what I find fascinating.
Here's another question - is there enough to the game's concept and content to justify the almost universal praise it received? Aside from the crazy hoop-jumping endings like the 4 hour baby game, does The Stanley Parable achieve what it set out to via the more accessible choices?
Absolutely, 100%. It’s in many ways a game wider than it is long; although you could get through all the ‘content’ in a few hours, it touches on a lot of different tropes and subjects, and some surprising tonal shifts. It contains a lot of food for thought. I love it because it expertly and wittily deconstructs a medium that has of late been undergoing a period of self-examination. We take a lot for granted in games, and that deserves to be questioned. The Stanley Parable is the perfect game for those who when given a new toy, want to take it apart, and find out what makes it tick.
I think it does what it sets out to achieve. I’d be interested to see another game attempt similar having been inspired by this. Can a dev make a game which doesn’t hammer the point home so hard from step one like here? Whilst some find the concept fascinating and done well; I equally find it fascinating, but so overt in The Stanley Parable that, frankly, it was not well done. So it shouldn’t have had universal praise. I think what it does needs applauding absolutely, but the execution can be improved, I imagine.
It definitely succeeds more than it fails and as I said earlier, to achieve that in a game based on repetition and meta analysis of video games at large, it is no mean feat. There can be a sense of the joke wearing a bit thin, especially if you wander down a route you have already been and then see it through to the end to try another path. But what it does do, and has done, is to hit a wider audience than the initial mod and in that wider audience it has expertly helped to further the discussion of what videogames are and where they are going. For that I applaud The Stanley Parable.
I don’t think The Stanley Parable is without fault. As a concept it’s a breath of fresh air but the joke is soon worn thin. Repetition is indeed an inherent part of the joke – without it there’d be no payoff – but for players like myself (i.e. pretty darn OCD with stuff like this) it soon became infuriating not knowing if I’d mined it clean of content. As expected, this inability to ‘complete’ the game soon meant I gave up, knowing that there’d be a Wiki of each ending eventually. Of course if you search the internet the Easter Eggs and multiple endings are there – God save the 4-hour button game chap – and in a way I feel I’ve cheated myself. But the other half of me says that exploring the game any further beyond the five hours it took to get most of the main endings would’ve been futile.
I guess in that way The Stanley Parable essentially throws a mirror up to you and shows what type of gamer you are. Those who appreciate grinding will spend hours of repetition for a small payoff. Gamers with a degree of awareness of the genre are rewarded with nods and winks while anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ games (bro-tastic gamers, older generations) have no point of reference and therefore nothing imbued in playing.
In that way The Stanley Parable is at its cleverest. Rather than ask someone what their favourite game is, you could almost ask ‘What ending did you get?’ and you’ll be 80% of the way to understanding their gaming preference.
I think James’ position is similar to my own but far better communicated!
I think there’s more to it than just laughs though. While the humour is a big part of it, there are more sombre moments when, as James says, the game holds a mirror up to the player and asks ‘why are you doing this?’, much as Spec Ops: The Line did for shooters. Satire has always been a good jumping-off point for serious discussion, and The Stanley Parable has it in spades. You could absolutely go on YouTube and see everything the game has to offer in a playthrough, but that’s the point it’s trying to make - that although some games insist we are free to make our own choices, in fact we have no freedom at all. Did you ever read a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’-type book when you were younger, suffer some grisly fate, and then decide to just turn back the page and keep reading, even though you weren’t supposed to? The Stanley Parable is like that, except it fights back, and mocks you for trying.
I’d also like to mention how brilliant the audio design is in The Stanley Parable. The score is unobtrusive but completely appropriate and at times mildly unsettling, and Kevan Brighting just owns it as The Narrator. I really hope this won’t be his one and only foray in video games.
Oh, and I hope everyone has seen the Raphael trailer. Raphael wasn’t a fan.
The Stanley Parable is not a perfect game, mostly because it’s barely a game at all. It an experience that takes your expectations of video games and gives it an existential deconstruction that asks questions about the nature of choice and free will. It says, "would you kindly pick the left door" but gives you two doors to choose from. But since every choice you can make has been considered and programmed in advance we’re really talking about the illusion of freedom anyway.
I have certain go-to examples when people ask me why I like my geeky things. If you ask me why I still read comics I’ll give you Y: The Last Man, and now when people ask me if videogames are still just for kids I can sit them down with this one.
That said, I'm pretty much done with it now. I've gone through my Groundhog Day - now I'm at War Games; the only way to win The Stanley Parable is not to play the game... so I'm not. And in five years I’ll get an achievement for it, so does that still count as my final defiant choice if the developers also took it into account?
It would do, or you could change your PC clock to 2019 and unlock it like I did. Given the tone of the game it didn’t feel like cheating… more like another anticipated rule that I foolishly barged through.
Now, about that impossible achievement…
It’s clear that the variety of opinions The Stanley Parable has elicited from the TDF team shows that the game, whilst not divisive, certainly stokes different emotional fires. Funny, sombre, intelligent, repetitive, meta, too overt... people have taken plenty away from it, and whilst some may consider it a brilliant satire on the nature of choice, game development and player agency, others could see it as an exercise in repetition, ironically mocking the player for trying to evade the very tropes the game is trying to deconstruct. Time will tell whether The Stanley Parable’s importance will serve as a benchmark for a future breed of self-aware games, or merely end up as a curious footnote in experimental storytelling. Either way, Galactic Cafe should at least be praised for creating something so novel and worthy of discussion.