The Stanley Parable
published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
if you enjoyed this game, play another game by one of the developers - Dr.Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist
The stereotype of a video game is pretty well etched by society. A platformer to collect coins, escape monsters, rescue princesses. Or race a car in increasingly realistic visuals. Or maybe engage in violent or gory killing of other players online in game series that iterate based on the same formula every year. You get the idea. Then there are lesser known titles, something called indie which stands for independent games. They are whacky, different, and usually not up to everyone's tastes. Rarely, something comes out of this creative pit that shakes up everyone's minds and they become legends in their own right. The Stanley Parable is one such game, and even amongst the weird games, it manages to pull itself apart in the most clever of ways. You know the line, it isn't something one can explain, it has to be experienced? The Stanley Parable first that to a T.
Consider the premise of the game - you are Stanley, a model employee that finds one day that everyone in your office has disappeared. You set out to find what happened, listening all the while to a voice in your head - the narrator. While this could be a cliché starting to almost any game, what sets this one apart is the one thing that makes up all experiences in all other video games - the illusion of choice. Video games follow a well-trodden path of taking you to places that have been carefully planned and thought about. There is never ever a path that has not been thought about. A player follows exactly what was planned - just like watching a film that has already been shot. Most of the time, we enjoy this leading, unaware about it or choosing to ignore it for the most part. In The Stanley Parable, we are confronted with this choice and it makes it completely absurd.
The idea of a meta game isn't new. But there is something almost philosophical about this game that sets it apart. It starts with a simple choice - there are two doors, and while the narrator says, "...and Stanley takes the door to the left", it is up to the player to actually choose which door they want to go through. Every choice has a consequence. And finding all of them is the real exercise. Replayability is not just for achievements, each choice you make actually is a hidden essay in to the psyche of the game itself. Some are dead ends, some pretend to be dead ends. The game is so meta that sometimes you feel it has restarted itself in-game while it feels like it is just another regular restart. Things change during such events - as if your visiting the same choice twice, or choosing another door after the previous one makes an interesting different. It is almost (and probably is) psychological.
If you are the sort of person who reads something or engages in conversations because there's a different idea there, or watches films that promise a new viewpoint, or just walk into an art gallery for the experience or think about stuff people never seem to talk about, or are just imaginative in the sense of the word - you should play this game. Even if you do not identify yourself with any of those, play it. Like a good mystery, it deserves to be dissected and discussed with your friends. Use it like your own Rorschach Test.
Like one of the endings in the game reveals - all paths have been per-calculated, which is another way of saying that while there is an illusion of choice, none of it actually matters. Playing the game feels like an exercise as the narrator tries to influence you in ways that range from being helpful to sinister to outright creepy. There are scenarios thrown at you that do not make sense in the game, or feel like it is being clever. But once you start peeling the little layers of the narration, it reveals quite a surprising depth.
There are countless interpretations of the game. Some make more sense while others seem quite unlikely. My favorite one is where the narrator is most likely running tests on a person - I do not even think that they are actually Stanley - and are testing the response based on what choices we make. This is why I made the parallel with the Rorschach test; the game feels like an elaborate virtual test at you - the player.
There are things like artwork representing the making of the game - belying the reality of the game and exposing its construct. There are outrageous scenarios such as pretending Stanley has a wife only to be goaded at by the narrator as he tells you that she never existed. There are clues - such as when the game has been played enough times (in-game) - the narrator does not even bother to repeat things such as keypad codes, musing instead that "you know this by now". There are end of the world scenarios, there are creepy your boss is stalking everyone scenarios. There are various endings that go from paranoia to psychedelic. There is a place where Stanley goes mad and the game restarts. It all makes the discovery a journey of evoking emotions that feel artificial - just like in a clinical trial.
The game has a lot of depth; but it is not of the kind where one can get to all endings in a weekend. There is no appreciation of completing it that way. Instead, I want to come to each ending in due time, having contemplated everything as I move along the paths in a slow but thoughtful way. I plan to discuss each ending here as I progress.