Let me tell you a little story about a game reviewer who played The Stanley Parable. Having never heard of its original incarnation as a Half-Life mode released in 2011, this reviewer had absolutely no idea what to expect when picking up the brand new standalone version released just a few days ago.
All he knew was that it was very cinematic and was based on exploration and story, and, as a fan of games like Dear Esther and Heavy Rain, he decided to give it a try. What ensued were several hours of an absolutely hilarious gameplay experience that not only left him satisfied with his purchase, but also gave him faith that the world of indie game development won’t be running out of ideas soon. Now with an uplifted spirit, the reviewer decided to pass on this knowledge to you, our fair readers, in the hopes that you too will give The Stanley Parable a try.
… or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he thought he was writing a review for a tiny but growing gaming site, but his words were just being fed into a cold unfeeling computer database. Maybe some mysterious and vague government hand was controlling this database, and monitoring his every move. In fact, this reviewer spent so much time playing and reviewing The Stanley Parable, that he didn’t leave his house for days. Isn’t it possible that the world outside of his house just… ceased to exist?
If you enjoyed that slow decent into madness, then you are in luck. That’s exactly what you’ll get when you pick up The Stanley Parable.
The Stanley Parable is about Stanley, a mild mannered desk worker who spends his entire day punching in data to a computer. One day he decides to get up from his desk only to find that there appears to be no one else around. So he goes off exploring his deserted office to figure out what he is doing and why he is there, all while a polite somewhat British narrator tells us of his exploits.
Or not… You see the main gameplay mechanic of The Stanley Parable is choice through action. Whatever you do has consequences, and I mean WHATEVER YOU DO! For example, when the game begins and you are told to get up from your desk you can just... not do that. You can stay at your desk, close your door, and go on with your meaningless existence, directly defying the narrator who keeps trying to get you to go on an epic journey. The gameplay experience may end a bit prematurely as a result, but that’s half the fun and for that matter most of the point. In fact, the only real rewards there are in The Stanley Parable are its many endings.
The controls of the Stanley parable are incredibly simple. You can move around with the WASD keys or a control stick, and you have one button for interacting with the environment, and that’s it. You can’t even jump, and this actually factors in to certain choices and puzzles! You’ll find ledges that you can drop down but then can never climb back up. Choice through action! Even simply falling down a ledge will take your story off wildly different directions.
The biggest piece of interaction in The Stanley Parable is your choice to obey or not obey the only semi omniscient narrator. He may tell you to enter a door at the end of a hallway, but if you decide to fiddle around with other doors instead, he has to scramble to make the narrative fit your actions in hilarious ways. Take the right (or wrong) actions and the narrator could get frustrated, breaking the fourth wall and outright addressing Stanley and you the player! Sometimes, obeying or disobeying him is something of a puzzle, as the environment around you shifts and you find even more obscure ways to put a wrench in his plans… or not. Heck, there are even decisions you can make outside the game itself. Turning off or restarting, for example, counts as a choice as well and factors in to the way the narrator reacts. These choices of obeying, disobeying, or just going off and doing your own thing, are what eventually give you the ending you receive.
Or lead you off into full remakes of Minecraft and Portal. No, I’m not kidding. In fact, in many ways The Stanley Parable is a commentary on games in general. It, itself, isn’t really a game. It’s more like interactive fiction. You can’t really die and you can’t really fail. You can just make different choices and end up in different places, like a warped self-referential Choose Your Own Adventure novel. But as it does this, it actually provides commentary on games and game development. It brings light to the illusion of choice in games, by giving you something with a ludicrous amount of choice but no real gameplay. It even refers to itself as a game, and chastises you for your bad habits that you learned in other titles.
Or not… maybe you just stayed in your office all day. Who knows?
While it’s not a game, The Stanley Parable certainly is a fantastic… something. There’s certainly nothing else like it on the market today. You can spend hours just searching for more endings and seeing how the narrator reacts to your actions. You’ll end up asking yourself, “should I pick up this coffee cup or not,” just for fear that it might completely change the way everything else plays out. It’s weird, it’s art, it’s brilliantly designed, and it makes commentary on choice that every other game designer should pay attention to. Simply put, you should go out and get a copy of The Stanley Parable today!
… or not.
This review is based off a retail copy of The Stanley Parable for PC purchased off Steam.