The Stanley Parable

The Spoiler Free Part

"The Stanley Parable" is one of the best video games that I have played in a while. The person who recommended it to me had this to say about it: "I hope you took out insurance on your 4th wall" -- and ain't it the truth. The thing that is great about "Stanley" is that it is very explicitly self referential and critical of the player.

The game is hard to explain.  However, the makers of "Stanley" do a good job of explaining it in several ways.  If you go to their page on Steam, you can see some videos that embody a bit of the self referentiality as well as a standalone demo that is very much like the game in tone.

Once you're in the game, it does a good job of maintaining its affect throughout.  The first screen that you see in the game (the same one that I used as the image for this post) is an image of a computer on a desk.  And the things that you do on your computer are mirrored on that computer.  The game is about you playing a game.

Since it is hard to analyze the themes of "Stanley" and give examples without spoiling some of it, the next part will have some spoilers.  If you intend to play the game, then stop reading and buy the game right now.

The Spoilerish Part

In the game, you play as Stanley, an employee in an office whose job it is to push whatever buttons the screen tells him to.  Sound familiar?  You have a narrator saying what you do, and what you will do.  Usually, when there's a choice, he tells you which option to take.  And when you reach certain points in the game, the game ends and starts again (as the game tells you right from the start, the end is never the end).  

One of the central themes in the game is choice.  In one ending, you repeatedly do what the narrator tells you not to do.  You see a sign that says not to jump off a platform, and you jump off a platform, plummeting to your death.  The narrator makes fun of you: "But in his eagerness to prove that he is in control of the story and no one gets to tell him what to do, Stanley leapt from the platform and plunged to his death.  Good job, Stanley.  Everyone thinks you are very powerful."  Specifically, that ending is making fun of the tendency of gamers to go against the "prescribed path" -- but why?  Who are they fighting against?  What point are they proving?  The point applies similarly to someone who breaks rules of social etiquitte, school, or work for no point other than a dislike of having someone tell them rules.

The game also brings to light the notion of constrained choices, where not all available choices are respected.  In one ending, your doom is impending.  The narrator tells you that it won't end well, which you can see very well for yourself.  The narrator tells you that the only way out of it is to open the menu and quit the game.  That choice is available to the player, but what does it mean?  It isn't respected within the rules of the game.  You don't get anything for it.  

"Of course the choices you make are meaningless," you might say, "it's just a video game!"  However, the game makes it very apparent that you, the player, are the one making all of these meaningless choices.  Some people say that life is meaningful because humans have free will and make choices.  If you are playing a game where you recognize the insignificance of your choices, are you then throwing away your will and your humanity?  The game presents another theory -- that in the grand scheme of things, the universe is large, and no matter what you do, you won't have a meaningful impact, so all choice is meaningless.  The counterpoint is also available within the game -- that your actions in the game are grandly utopic or dystopic and are oh so important; the game makes you feel bad about some of the choices you make to get certain endings.  The game is fairly strong on the notion that choices in real life are often not so different.  What does it mean to freely make a choice when you're part of a system that determined the very choices that you had available to you?  And, within life, you can't escape those systems that prescribe and determine your choices.

The game does have themes other than choice.  It also makes fun of video games in general.  A lot of games nowadays will have "achievements."  An achievement is a way of gamifying games.  Games, by themselves, apparently aren't enough of games, so game makers decided to put badges and achievements in them so that players feel like they have accomplished something by playing and so that they can show all of their friends on Steam how great they are.  "Stanley" actively makes fun of this tendency.  It has one achievement called "Unachievable" with a descirption "It is impossible to get this achievement."  Another achievement requires you to play the game for an entire Tuesday.  One of the first achievements that players will likely try is "Click on door 430 five times."  You see door 430 right at the start, and an achievement hunter will surely have looked at the list of achievements at the start to make sure they don't miss any.  So, they click on door 430 five times.  Then, the narrator says, "Oh, please, are you really just doing this for the achievement?  Click a door five times?  Is that all you think an achievement is worth?"  That achievement quickly becomes one of the most pointless and, at the same time, hillariously awesome achievements I have ever gotten.  

"The Stanley Parable" also makes fun of grinding.  Grinding is doing something repetitive in a video game just to get something.  There is one ending where you have to spend hours doing something repetitive and pointless, with the narrator making fun of you all the time with tongue-in-cheek praise.  And the reward is "art" (if you played the game and didn't get this ending, just watch this 6 minute YouTube video for it:

Another part of gaming is completionism -- the attempt to do everything in a game.  One ending presents you with a choice and then berates you, telling you to restart, get to that point again, and choose the other option.  Another point in the game, you can go somewhere that is completely pointless to the story, and the narrator berates you for pointlessly doing it.

The game also makes fun of the notion of a story at the same time as making fun of the notion that it's not the destination, but the journey.  Why must there be one ending?  Why do some people describe open world games as games where there's nothing to do or no point?  Is there really a point in a game with a clear ending?  It's not as though getting to the ending makes you a better person or pays the bills.  The same goes for life itself -- it's not as though life is meaningful suddenly when you die and never before then, but neither is it meaningful simply by following some line or making supposed "choices."

Overall, this has been one of the most amazing games that I have played recently.  I highly recommend it to all gamers.