The Stanley Parable subverts the notion of choice in video game narratives. For all the freedom developers allow, the player must obey certain principles, operate according to a game’s finite procedures. When making decisions, you simply select from a list of preferable predetermined outcomes – the crux of The Stanley Parable and its comedic focus. For every action there is an unequal, hilarious reaction, with running commentary provided by an omniscient British narrator.
The narrator (voiced by actor Kevan Brighting) does his job well, both befriending and guiding Stanley – a blank face in a generic cubicle of an ordinary office complex – after his coworkers vanish one day, leaving his place of employment barren. What could bring about such a catastrophe? Alien abduction? Food poisoning? Bad hair day? Wait, why are there voices in Stanley’s head? Why can he not see his feet? All these questions and more … will not be answered. The Stanley Parable does contain a true ending of sorts, but to get the full satiric experience, a little mutiny is in order.
Welcome to Stanley's computer, where he absentmindedly pushes buttons for a living.
The narrator dictates what should happen next, but deviance remains a viable option, too. The first example involves two doors. Will Stanley pass through the door on the left, like your all-knowing storyteller directed, or ignore the intended destination and dash down the hall on the right? The outcome aside, the narrator judges your revolt or conformity – happiness for compliance, irritation for disobedience, exasperation for impatience – in ways that establish him as someone you want to please or infuriate.
You may also refrain from action or behave indecisively, just to find the developer’s wit has you matched. Are you Stanley? Is Stanley you? The Stanley Parable blurs the distinction between the character and player during a detour into an unoccupied broom closet, though I never expected to build a house in Minecraft, discover a fake Aurora Borealis, meet Stanley’s wife, or initiate a global thermonuclear meltdown amid my three-hour playtime, either.
The levels alter slightly with each playthrough, scattering papers on the floor or adding/subtracting extra hallways.
Intrigued yet? The humor and its context – arguably half of the allure here – should not be ruined, but because playthroughs rarely last 20 minutes, uncovering new snippets of dialogue became my primary goal. The narrator speaks in a sarcastic, matter-of-fact tone similar to Portal 2’s Wheatley and Cave Johnson; I had to hear (and see) it all. Ignore the critical path one too many times, the narrator teleports you; walk off a freight elevator mid-diatribe, he becomes flabbergasted; attempt suicide repeatedly, he begs you to reconsider.
Exploring every branching plotline will invariably expunge The Stanley Parable of replay value, yet every one of those replays (about a dozen total) violates your mind. Each rebellious act has been considered and accounted for, and documents the futility of escaping the rote existence that governs Stanley's imagination and personal life. It is equal parts disturbing and (for those of you intimidated by choice) freeing, really.
It pains me to be so coy about Galactic Cafe's creation, but to say anything of the story anomalies or running gags that left a cynical pessimist (i.e., me) laughing like an idiot would be discourteous. You do not rush The Stanley Parable. You meditate upon each alternative, wondering what could be done differently once the game reboots itself. Let the commentary on player control, achievements, and review scores (I thought your addition of a leaderboard to the door encounter devoid of artistic soul, narrator) warp your brain in this omniscient player-driven paradox as well, and pray you still look at video games the same way again.
Publisher: Galactic Cafe
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Release Date: October 17, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)