The Stanley Parable Review: The Choice Isn’t Yours
I’m about five hours into the Stanley Parable, and I’m still not sure how far down the rabbit hole goes. Just when I thought I’d explored every shadow of every corner and heard each nuance of the exasperated narrator’s lines, I’d find myself walking through doors I’d never noticed before and creeping down dark hallways that bore the promise of new surprises. It’s compelling stuff, and even now I’m tempted to set aside my work and go dig for more.
Not bad for a game that started life back in 2011 as a mod for the increasingly dated Half-Life 2, and the material added by creator Davey Wreden for this standalone release renders it all the more memorable. You are Stanley, an office drone condemned to an eternity of mashing buttons through prompts dictated by an unseen boss, and yet, the poor sap nevertheless claims to enjoy his job despite the simplicity of its experience. That premise (and all of the game surrounding it) stands as a harsh critique of modern game design, specifically ridiculing our submission to the absence of real choice and our willingness to press buttons when developers tell us to do so. But one day the prompts stop, and Stanley ventures out into the cheaply carpeted environment beyond to find himself utterly alone.
The Stanley Parable
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Publisher: Galactic Cafe
Released: Oct. 17, 2013
Fittingly for The Stanley Parable’s origins, there’s a touch of GLaDOS in the way Kevan Brighting’s accomplished voice work attempts to herd you through the game’s generic complex.
Alone, that is, save for a British narrator who initially speaks with kindly, reassuring tones that faintly recall Dr. Edgemar comforting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. Break away from his carefully crafted narrative, however, and he smashes through the fourth wall with all the cheekiness of the Kool-Aid man. Fittingly for The Stanley Parable’s origins, there’s a touch of GLaDOS in the way Kevan Brighting’s accomplished voice work attempts to herd you through the game’s generic complex, and much as with the mistress of Aperture, subtle hints of malice creep into his voice as you attempt to wander down paths of your own choosing.
But this isn’t some slavish homage that merely recasts a familiar story. Wreden’s work here succeeds precisely because the narrator wants to treat Stanley as a person rather than a simple test subject, and when Stanley deviates from his intended path to pursue his own paths, the narrator sounds genuinely wounded.
Naturally, the best pleasures of The Stanley Parable spring from disobeying the narrator, much as they often do in Skyrim when you explore nearby caves that have little to do with the primary story arc. Follow the narrator to the T, and you’ll wander your way to a syrupy happy ending that takes maybe five to 10 minutes to reach. It’s painfully dull, it’s lazy, and as the narrator himself admits, it leaves far too many questions unanswered. (It’s also worth noting that it’s the only truly happy ending.)
In challenging the narrator by pursuing our own paths, the game says, we challenge game designers to create more memorable experiences despite their assumed objections that we’re not playing “the right way.” And The Stanley Parable handles such issues beautifully. Wander down too many wrong doors and you’ll discover unfinished rooms and glitchy textures that the imagined developers never meant for you to see. Jump off a moving cargo lift onto a gangway below, and the narrator mocks you for trying new experiences. As befits a game that scorns the absence of choice, illusions of choice abound here around almost every corner, despite outward appearances.