The Stanley Parable (2012/2013) is one of my favorite games of all time. It’s one of my favorite games because it is the perfect meta-game. It is a game about games, and it has been a long time coming. The game of the Stanley Parable describes the process of controlling a character, making decisions, choosing outcomes, and obeying or disobeying what is expected of you within the game world.
I am biased at the time of this writing because the waves of euphoria washing over me, having just spent several hours within the game, within the world, attempting to uncover every secret, are still vibrant. And you, dear reader, are probably still wondering what the game’s about.
The premise: you are Stanley. You are a worker in an office. One day you go to your computer to find no instructions for work, whatsoever, at your computer. You go to investigate the office and realize no one is in the office. And that’s the game. But more importantly, the game is about a very, very dynamic relationship: with the game’s narrator.
As a player of the game, every choice you make when seeking out your coworkers, or simply exploring other paths of the game, is dictated by a very tumultuous and emotional narrator. The first major choice you have to make in the game is the moment of the two doors (as shown above). The narrator narrates that Stanley takes the door on the left. You can choose to take the door on the left. Or the right. And from that moment on, whether you choose to follow the initial decision or go off in contrast of the narrator’s wishes, you learn lesson upon lesson of choice and freedom.
But this game isn’t just about gaming. Sure, much of the game is all about how much choice and power and control you have over the game’s story, and the narrator is heavily invested in telling you exactly what he thinks of your decisions and their impact on the game. But the game is also about choice and power and control and freedom in real life. It is a game about determinism.
What are the conditions you live under? What rules and constraints exist in your life and how do they constrict our behavior, your choices? When you make a decision in the Stanley Parable, it allows a new set of decisions to be opened up, and closes another set of decisions. The conditions for your immediate existence are dependent upon your understanding of the shift in your world at every decision point.
I say that this game is a favorite because it’s the first illustration I’m proud to use when talking about the departure from violence in games. That’s not to say there is no violence in the Stanley Parable: but it’s a mature concept like the other concepts in the game. Violence exists more as an emotion and metaphorical engineering than mindless zeros and ones (lives and nonlives). And yet the beauty of the Stanley Parable is that it plays with the idea, as did Papers Please!, of monotony in life, of monotony in decisions, and of the ultimate determined existence we live through.
The Stanley Parable has more endings than any other game I’ve played. Frankly, that’s the surface level appeal to the game. Each “path” or set of decisions you make is just one of many. Trying to “see all the endings” is part of the experience of the game. But each ending will blow your mind. And the minds of anyone you show the game to. So each ending has a certain value as an individual result to the choices you’ve made despite your skill. If you don’t like the game, you’re not going to try to find more of the endings. But each ending blows your mind because it includes a new way to look at the idea of the “game.”
Consider the game a playground of gaming ideas. It is the meta-game, as I said earlier. In one ending, Stanley starts to question reality and wonders about the repetition of rooms in his life, and slowly starts to question if he’s dreaming, but when he wakes up and sees the repetition of the office environment continue on and on, he starts screaming for help. The screen blanks out and in its place text appears saying that this game is actually the story of a woman who, on the way to work, sees a man who is screaming on the ground, and she runs away understanding she has the freedom to be “normal” or “crazy.”
In another ending of the Stanley Parable, the character follows the narrator’s instructions from start to finish, follows the story exactly how it’s supposed to end, and the player is rewarded with a very, very happy ending. But even this “perfect ending” is subject to challenges of the mystery of choice that was not followed through the game. You followed what the omnipresent, god-like narrator instructed you to do, but at what cost?
The Stanley Parable will hopefully be played by many gamers of many types, and gamers will, I hope, start to think about games and philosophy on a more comprehensive level. I honestly don’t think that a game has touched upon “gaming” and virtual environments as directly as the Stanley Parable has. Certain games have poked fun at characters who think they are in some video game, but this is the first game entirely devoted to critiquing and understanding and dissecting what a “game” can offer and what a game can limit. The question, however, becomes: how will game designers find their own paths expanded and contracted after they’ve taken the door the Stanley Parable has offered to them?