Reviews

The Stanley Parable – Review

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Publisher: Galactic Cafe
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

This game was tested using an AMD Radeon HD 7790 graphics card kindly supplied by AMD. Click here for details on that, the Radeon HD 7790 and the test system used for all PC games.

Reviewing the Stanley Parable is not an easy task, because to explain to you why you should experience it for yourself really requires me to talk about, to describe examples of situations I found myself in and to examine every aspect of it, and yet by doing any of these things I’m invariably damaging the game. The Stanley Parable is the kind of title that you need to go into knowing almost nothing about it, because with foreknowledge it loses its impact and the joy of discovering all its little secrets for yourself.

I briefly considered pulling a Jim Sterling on this one by simply recommending it and then finishing the review right there before heading out to the pub. But that would be like a blow to myself, because I really want to talk about the Stanley Parable. It’s the kind of game worth talking about  to your friends, either in passing or in-depth. It’s designed to be talked about. So, I leave you with a choice: either stop reading now and leave with my recommendation that this game is worth your time, or read on with the knowledge that everything I say is degrading the experience you may have with it.

Still here? Awesome.

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The Stanley Parable is about a man named Stanley whose sole occupation is to push buttons on a keyboard at the behest of his superiors, whomever they may be. He does this all day until he goes home, whereupon he goes to sleep, wakes up and returns to his job. Stanley’s life is the very definition of monotony. One day he finds his co-workers have suddenly vanished, and for whatever reason a strange narrator is now talking about his every move, not that Stanley can actually voice his surprise given that he’s mute. Therefore he sets out to find out what the hell is going on.  Taking control of Stanley your primary way of interacting with the game is by simply walking around empty corridors and rooms, while the narrator comments on your every decision. On paper, things don’t sound too exciting yet, do they? But at the heart of Stanley’s parable lies choice. There are a number of ways of progressing through the game and around 17 endings (that we know of) to discover, and for everything you do the narrator is there to comment on it all, even when you think you’ve done something the developers could never have anticipated.

The first choice appears when you enter a small room and are presented with identical two doors. Before you’ve had a chance to walk through either the narrator calmly informs you that Stanley walks through the left door, putting such confidence into his voice that it comes across as not an opinion, suggestion or predication, but absolute fact. Due to the basic psychological nature of humans the likelihood is that you’ll want to rebel and stride through the door on the right. That’s quite okay, as the narrator adjusts to take your new choice, attempting to gently herd you back on track. From then on there’s many ways you can alter your journey, many paths that can be taken through the often weird and wonderful of the Stanley Parable. For almost everything you do the narrator has an answer, sometimes growing angry, often friendly,  curious or thoughtful. He may plead with you, attempt to regain your trust and prove he has your best intentions at heart, and other times he may take a sarcastic edge. At times I worked against him, and at other times he was my companion, joining me in a grand adventure of discovery. Above all else he was funny, perfectly played by the extraordinary Kevan Brighting whose performance was never once anything less than astounding. Depending on the paths you take the story changes, and many instances the narrator is perfectly aware you’re in a game, while in others he refers only to Stanley. But whatever shape the narrative takes it’s always full of humour and thoughtful. The Stanley Parable delights in satire, romping in the fields of sarcasm and weirdness, and occasionally tripping over the line of madness before pretending it totally meant to do that.

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As an example of the game’s degree of choice I’ll use a moment that you come across mere minutes into the so as to avoid spoiling too much: by defying the voice initially I stumbled across a cargo lift as the narrator helpfully announced that Stanley’s inability to follow directions which surely have gotten him sacked by now. As the lift carried me across the room I spied a gantry, and as we reached a certain point I decided to walk straight off the edge, managing to land on the walkway. For a brief second my gamer mind delighted in having “broken” the game, in having managed to subvert the designer’s intentions, but of course the gantry and open door at the end of it were programmed in and no sooner had I landed the narrator was talking about what I’d just done, unhappy that I distrusted him and eager to demonstrate that he merely wanted what was best for me. So I agreed and followed his instructions this time. It was worth it, by the way.

Regardless of the path you take or the ending you get there’s a consistent theme of poking fun at numerous aspects of video games present throughout your journey. The biggest thing that it likes to focus on is the nature of freedom and choice within games, and how it’s all essentially pointless because everything you can do has already been pre-ordained by some super-being, by which I mean the bloke or blokess in charge of coding everything. It mocks the nature of choice in games by shining a light on just how little freedom you really have and how your decisions often barely change anything around you. At one point it even goes as far to say that the only true choice you can ever make within the Stanley Parable is to press “quit” and never return.

But other things turned up as well: at one point the narrator was distressed at what he perceived to be a lack of interest on my behalf and began attempting to change and fiddle with the game to get me to like it. He presented a board full of stats such as how long I’d been playing, how many cumulative steps had been taken by players, how many choices had been made and such, and asking if having this information and my progress tracked and compared to others somehow made the game better. He then literally tacked on a third door, pondering if having more “choice” would help me enjoy the game. At certain points actually restarting the game became a part of the story, things changing when you did so or the narrator commenting on it. Another time the narrator began to wonder why I couldn’t see my feet when I looked down, and why doors magically closed behind me as soon as I had stepped through them. And then there was that time he asked if my constant attempts to open doors was because I was after an achievement, beginning a glorious little tale of achievement hunting that was hilarious. It’s not just games, either, as elements of life in general are perfect prey for the Stanley Parable’s unique brand of oddball humour.

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The second thing that makes reviewing The Stanley Parable hard is that it’s pretty much impossible to talk about it without sounding pretentious, which is stupid because its a game that you’re meant to talk about, yet sadly in today’s world attempt to analyse just about anything is seen as being a douche trying to flaunt his intelligence. Mind you in today’s world having a semi-decent knowledge of the English language and using it are also seen as pretentious, so there’s that. But anyway, back on track with an example of what I mean: going back to fairly constant theme of freedom and choice in games one could certainly argue that the Stanley Parable raises a good point, but on the other hand one could also argue that while highlighting this as a “problem” the Stanley Parable is equally guilty. Like those it mocks everything you do in the Stanley Parable is pre-determined and therefore, in the game’s logic, pretty much pointless. You see, beneath the changing narrative actually lies a fairly linear game in which you enter an area with a choice, make your decision and then wander through a linear section until you arrive at the next choice. In this it’s similar to something like the Mass Effect series.  But then you could also counter this argument by saying this is deliberate, acting as a commentary on life itself and how everything we do in this government controlled world is entirely within the confines of what is deemed acceptable and normal, and that ultimately the Stanley Parable is mirroring the fact that we have little choice and are largely not in control of our own lives, hence Stanley, the most decidedly average person there is who goes through the same motions every day, for no other reason than because he is told to.

So you see what I mean? Pretentious. Although admittedly I do spent a lot of my life actually thinking about crap like this, so what the hell.

But now I’m going to offer an opinion that may not sit too well with many Stanley Parable fans who have spent many hours debating on the forums: the game isn’t that deep, nor is it exactly subtle in its messages. In fact it’s quite the opposite, everything it has to say smacking you in the face like an angry Rhino whose mama you just called fat. And that’s a good thing. The Stanley Parable is a satire and an incredibly well written one at that, dragging many gaming staples into the light, examining them and poking at them like a curious child with a pointy stick. It’s great fun, but underneath all of that there’s not much here. I don’t feel like the game’s designer had any particular message or goal in mind, instead simply aiming for some thought-provoking entertainment that messes with your head along the way, and completely succeeding at doing so. And as I mentioned above it has its fair share of problems, like doing most of the things it makes fun of, and many of the things it shines a light on and seems to suggest are problems arguably aren’t really problems, they’re just limitations we have to accept to current technology. Until we can create a game based entire on the concept of emergent gameplay with systems that can learn and think we’ll always be playing within the confines of design. And will have probably have created Skynet.

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The Stanley Parable is smart enough not to try to enter a convoluted conversation with the player by examining things too deeply and providing “solutions” of its own, layering itself with more and mire ideas, and instead simply highlights many gaming tropes, bringing them kicking and screaming in to the harsh light of reality and then entrusting the community with driving the conversation. I didn’t walk away from the Stanley Parable awestruck, my head spinning with new ways of thinking or viewing things because I’d already thought about almost everything it presented, as I’m sure most gamers have at one time or another. But I did walk away with a smile and enjoyed thinking about all the things we accept in games these days, about the limitations in storytelling and choice. The Stanley Parable is very, very good at putting you into a meta mindset, of getting you to examine and re-examine everything, and that in turn can lead to a greater appreciation of games and some of the things you might have missed in them, those little undercurrents that you perhaps didn’t pick up on because you were too busy blowing stuff up. The Stanley Parable’s changing narrative is a demonstration of what could be done with good writing and solid vision, and a fine example of where I hope to see games go in the future. It’s wonderful satire that does what satire does best: highlights problems and limitations in a fashion everyone can understand, without trying to answer those same problems and limitations itself.

But then I suppose that raises the question of exactly what constitutes “depth” in the context of a game. One could certainly put forth the argument that depth in a video game is when you’re still discovering new things hours into play, as is in the case of the best fighting games or shooters. If this is the case then yes, the Stanley Parable has depth because you’ll likely be finding new endings or secrets hours into play, and yet in this games case that doesn’t feel like depth so much as the simple fact that you can only go one way at a time. In a game like this depth to me would indicate that there’s strong subtext, things that you’d only notice if you’re really paying attention. Depth would be such powerful subtext and ideas that I literally finished playing with my mind reeling. But as we’ve covered in the Stanley Parable there’s nothing subtle about its messages. There’s no subtle meanings to found here, except in some rare instances but even in those it doesn’t feel intentional. What depth there is as discussed on forums is read into the game by the players, and that’s absolutely fine. But I don’t think it was deliberately put there. In my eyes depth to something must be intentional.

Let’s go back to when I was talking about a review of the Stanley Parable sounding pretentious. I offered up an example, citing how the game highlighted a lack of freedom and choice, but then committed that sin itself, before saying this could also be seen as a metaphor for life in general. That’s the kind of thinking the game ended up driving me toward Sounds deep, right? Well, no, because it was me that read that entire argument into the game, an argument that I don’t personally believe was intentionally put there by the designer. I think the designer just thought it would be funny to highlight how little impact we actually have in games, and didn’t consider that at times the Stanley Parable was just as guilty, or that the whole thing could be viewed by some nutter like me as a metaphor for life. Ergo in my eyes it’s not depth, but still good all the same.

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Confused? So am I. Then again, I could be completely wrong and everything I read into the game could have been very much deliberate, in which case consider my mind well and truly McFucked. Perhaps the game is so subversive that I’m sitting here debating whether or not it was deliberate. Maybe it’s gotten into my head so much that I’m now second-guessing myself all the damn time. Is the mark of depth that this review has been taken over by my ramblings over whether or not the game is deep? Is it so clever that it has fooled me?

You see why reviewing this bloody thing is so awkward?

It’s to the credit of the game’s witty and wonderfully written script that despite the fact you’re simply wandering through corridors and have little other interaction with the game I never once felt bored. I was always entranced by listening to the narrator and finding new ways for the story to change. I marvelled when the voice asked me to create a whole new story with him, laughed as he questioned why I was still playing, wandered around astonished as I ended up in two other famous games, and giggled like an idiot standing in a broom cupboard as the disembodied voice grew more irritated with my frankly dumb antics. Hell, I even committed suicide a few times, much to the chagrin of my perpetual companion.

If there’s one big problem with the Stanley Parable it’s probably that you might struggle to replay it numerous times, even though it’s designed to be. The fairly bland aesthetics and the fact that you might have to traipse through the same sections over and over again to find divergence points resulted may result in you finding it hard to muster the willpower to start over after a while.  A run through of the game can take mere minutes, as well, so you could find yourself restarting many times. Still, the fact that the game does facilitate so many restarts with different narrative progressions is pretty impressive.

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It’s also worth pointing out again, in case it wasn’t clear enough, that the Stanley Parable isn’t exactly much of a video game in the traditional sense. Sure, you can occasionally pick up and item or press a button, but your primary method of playing is simply walking around, therefore anyone who has struggled to enjoy titles with minimal player interaction in the past may wish to steer clear of the Stanley Parable. From a creation point of view in order to have a story that changes so much this low-level of player agency makes a lot of sense, otherwise extra lines of dialogue would have to be written for small actions and the inclusion of other mechanics like sprinting or jumping would make designing areas trickier.

Perhaps the thing I liked most about the game, though, isn’t its many jokes at gaming’s expense, but rather the underlying jab at humanity in general, be it intentional or not. Stanley is the perfect example of humans in the modern world: he gets up, goes to work and does his boring-ass job all day, before going home, going to sleep and repeating the never-ending pattern. He seems almost worryingly willing to do this every day of his life, quietly taking orders and accepting his lot in the universe. Your return to Stanley’s office is one of the few constants in the game: you always end up back there. Deliberate or not taken in the context of the rest of the game it seems like a pretty clear poke at practically everyone, because whether you’re happy about it or not you pretty much are Stanley. He is you, and you are him. It’s not until something strange happens that Stanley finally begins to question things.

Perhaps best of all the Stanley Parable can be played on a few different levels. You can play through the game and simply enjoy the wacky narrator and strange events that occur, marveling at how things like restarting the game are worked into the narrative. Or you can play through it and enjoy the many pokes and prods at gaming, stopping to consider the many clichés and problems that the game highlights.

In terms of writing and its tone the Stanley Parable reminds me strongly of Portal, and is frankly its equal in these regards. It’s a hilarious game that holds up video games and the industry behind them and points out exactly how stupid so many aspects of both things are. It’s perhaps to its credit that my opinions on it keep changing in small ways, mostly because I worry about my declaration that it’s not as deep as some believe because I sound completely pretentious. Who am I to say this, when so many others have said otherwise? But hey, that’s how opinions work, and ultimately the Stanley Parable that points at so-called problems and says, “Hey! Look at this problem! Isn’t that so funny? RIGHT!?”

The Stanley Parable is one of those games that’s either going to click with you completely, or you’re going to spend 15-minutes wandering around, fail to see the appeal and shut it down. Therefore I recommend you download the demo which is a masterpiece in itself thanks to having been made completely separate from the game. The demo is its own little adventure that happily mocks demos, an adventure in which the narrator tries really hard to impress you so that you’ll buy the game.  If you like the demo I can’t recommend the actual game enough: it’s truly brilliant.

And at the end of the day it’s just fun. Forget the messages, the debating and all that jazz, because the Stanley Parable is outright funny, and that’s a rare thing in video games. And that means many kinds of player’s can enjoy it, thinking about it as much or as little as they want.

The Good:
+ Witty script.
+ Perfectly cast narrator.
+ A narrative that truly does change based on your choices.
+ Rips apart games and then laughs at the pieces.

The Bad:
– Does a lot of the things it laughs at itself.
– Isn’t exactly subtle.

The Verdict: 5/5 – Awesome
You should go and play the Stanley Parable. It is as simple as that.

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