The Stanley Parable Review: The Choice Isn’t Yours

While it’s effective as satire, it’s also consistently funny. At one point, ridiculing your desire for more action and interaction with objects within the narrative, the narrator presents you with a simple game consisting of a cardboard baby on a conveyor belt headed towards a fire. Once you tire of pressing the button that resets the baby and saves it from the fire — and you will — the narrator bursts into a harangue about your cruelty and your finicky tastes. Later, he opts to dump you into entirely different games to keep you interested, and I couldn’t help myself from laughing once I discovered which worlds I was wandering around in and heard his commentary on these beloved titles. At times, he simply becomes so frustrated that he resets the entire game.

Fable III, anyone?

This happens often. Earlier I said that I was still trying to find how deep the rabbit hole goes, but the truth is that I was exploring different branches that snake away from the same entry point. The Stanley Parable features so many resets to the start of the game that it’s reminiscent of the earliest Mega Man games, but here the focus isn’t on learning through repetition. Such repetition is boring, The Stanley Parable seems to want to say, and it’s astonishing just how much variance Wreden managed to cram in with the new content generated for this stand-alone release. The narrator’s lines almost always differ from one reset to the next, and in one playthrough he attempts to improve the experience by slapping an all-too-obvious yellow line of adventure on the floor. It doesn’t always hold up, however; no matter how many times you loiter too long in the lounge, for instance, the narrator’s snarky commentary remains the same. It’s a genuine design failing, but in its own weird way it, too, reinforces the central premise.

Good thing, then, that replay value is here in abundance; each new foray down a different path unlocks wildly different endings and actions, many of which have little or nothing to do with the original path of the story. There’s even what I believe is an “official” end of sorts in the form of a museum cataloguing the different stages of the development, but a careful walkthrough reveals that even it leads down into an even deeper path of trenchant games criticism and witty lines. It all works because Wreden manages to keep up the tension for so long, and the narrator’s slow descent into irritable madness occurs at a believable rate.

The Stanley Parable even manages to attain a touch of the creepy. Around my fourth or fifth playthrough, I found myself warily looking around to find enemies that never appeared, or even (as a nod to the game’s Half-Life 2 origins) G-Man peering at me from beyond a distant window. But no, from what I can tell, the Stanley experience keeps us firmly alone, and that in itself is a poignant reminder that non-multiplayer games involve little more than co-dependency on the part of the developer and the player. Endings abound that result in timed missions, the warping of reality, and even the narrator’s existentialist explorations of the constraints of his own free will, but they all involve breaking away from that tacit marriage. Would that college psychology and philosophy courses could teach as effectively as this.

Keep in mind that The Stanley Parable springs from an old engine for an old game. You can sense some of the Source engine’s age in the simple textures and the way text phrases like “Who farted?” and “I hate Mondays” blur on in-game coffee mugs even on the highest settings, but just like Gordon Freeman’s adventure that spawned it, the environmental detail in The Stanley Parable at times exceeds the technical. In the drab office where most of the action takes place, scuff marks mar the walls and coffee stains tarnish the floors. Handwritten letters scattered on the lounge floor almost attain legibility, and the boxy monitors of the abandoned computers recall the era the code was designed for.

In fact, the Stanley Parable captures the drudgery of office life so well that it’s easy to believe that Davey Wreden has spent all too much time in these environs before.

Hey, it's Cookie Clicker! Kind of.

The narrator’s jabs and self-abasement are correct, of course; left on its own, the core Stanley Parable experience is almost laughably bad. Early on, listening to the narrator’s self-deprecating commentary on the unwillingness of the player to play along feels like watching the “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ take on an exceptionally bad game. Environmental interaction is limited to pressing a few buttons and switching computers on and off, and the only real music beyond the first few moments appears as a joke (and a funny one, at that).

In fact, the Stanley Parable captures the drudgery of office life so well that it’s easy to believe that Davey Wreden has spent all too much time in these environs before.

At its basest, The Stanley Parable is Half-Life 2 stripped of the combat, the physics, and the story, and the stark bleakness serves as a blunt reminder of just how much games rely on steady action. Indeed, in its finest moments, it proves that so many games bear too much in common with the dullest of jobs.

And that’s why you shouldn’t miss it. The narrator’s thwarted desire to lead me down paths of his choosing at times moved me more than the big-budget “proper” narratives I’ve seen this year, and Wreden’s work here is such that all game developers would do well to play it and heed its lessons. But make no mistake — so much of this deconstructive experiment consists of wandering aimlessly while trying to goad a disheartened tour guide, stopping only to tinker with this or that keypad or experiment with suicidal jumps off stairways to nowhere.

This is a thought experiment of sorts, and in comparison to some of its hordes of first-person peers, it may even be said that there’s not much of an actual point to the gameplay. But keep in mind that if that’s your conclusion, there’s a strong danger that you’re exactly the type of complacent player The Stanley Parable’s criticisms are aimed at.

Is that a bad thing? The Stanley Parable never really answers in the affirmative, and by doing so it prompts conversation rather than offense. That’s commendable, in my book.

Pros:

  • Effective, thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between developer and player
  • Excellent voice acting by Kevan Brighting
  • Experience usually differs greatly with each playthrough
  • Not-so-subtle nods to other games are amusing

Cons:

  • Actual gameplay limited to very occasionally clicking on items
  • Short (but effective)

Final Score: 90/100


Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.

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2 Comments on The Stanley Parable Review: The Choice Isn’t Yours

ghui

On October 23, 2013 at 8:38 pm

game of the year!!

beerpatzer

On October 25, 2013 at 10:54 pm

I’ve heard there are (at least) 14 endings (not counting the Broom Closet or the Whiteboard room), but 1 is unachievable without cheating.