The Stanley Parable: Choose Someone Else’s Adventure

One of the things that people enjoy about The Stanley Parable is that it surprises them as they play, so I should warn you that I’m going to spoil all of the surprises right now. If you’d rather play it yourself, you can buy it for $15 on Steam.

The Big Surprise of The Stanley Parable is very similar to the Big Surprise of The Path, another indie game that came out in 2009, where the central idea is that you should disobey the instructions the game is giving you about how to play. Oh yeah, I’m gonna spoil The Path for you, too. It is also very inexpensive, if you want to play it first.

In The Path, which is a take on Little Red Riding Hood, you’re instructed to follow the path to grandmother’s house. If you do that, it’s a long, straight, boring walk from point A to point B, and it leads you to the bad ending, in which your character dies of old age, like Grandma. After that, the game starts over again, and, if you are a human being, you immediately veer off the path into the woods, and begin a series of strange, deadly, artistic adventures illustrating the idea that, in order to lead a full life, you have to risk that something bad might happen to you.

In The Stanley Parable, you play an office drone named Stanley, who sits in front of a computer all day pushing buttons that the computer tells him to push (i.e., he plays a computer game all day). One day, the computer stops giving him instructions and Stanley steps out into the office to find that his coworkers have vanished. The narrator tells Stanley where to go and what to do in order to investigate their disappearance (although the path isn’t quite as literal and straight-forward as in The Path, it’s the same principle at work). If you follow the narrator’s instructions, you move through a very neat, very simple story about Stanley discovering the beauty of free will and choosing to leave the office behind. The story is ironic, because the player hasn’t exercised free will, but has instead continued to press the buttons the computer is telling him or her to press. After this, the game restarts again.

As with The Path, the real point of the game is that the player will instinctively swerve away from the path and try to experience something else. In The Stanley Parable, there are several pivot points in the narrative where it’s clearly possible to do the opposite of what the narrator instructs you to do, and each of those leads to a different sequence of events before the game restarts. The player’s disobedience also leads the narrator to become increasingly frustrated and increasingly catty with his commentary, which is sometimes funny and sometimes disquieting. There are several sequences, for example, where Stanley dies as a consequence of deviating from the narrator’s plan, and the narrator takes pleasure in taunting the player during Stanley’s final moments.

Where The Path was using the videogame format as a way to make a broader artistic statement about the meaning of life (by, for example, taking advantage of the fact that people generally expect to follow the instructions in a game), The Stanley Parable is making a self-reflexive statement about videogame design. Namely that player choice is always an illusion – players are never free to build their own narratives; they’re just choosing from multiple narrative branches that the game designers have built.

It’s an important question right now, for the game industry, since “open” narratives have gained more and more currency in the last several years, and players seem to prefer having a high degree of choice in how their characters behave. What’s interesting about The Stanley Parable is that it doesn’t unequivocally support an open narrative – instead, it dramatizes all of the things that can go wrong if there’s either too little player choice or too little focus on story.

As much as The Stanley Parable is making fun of game designers for being controlling and didactic (which it is), and as much as it’s fair to say that some designers sacrifice or ignore player experience for the sake of telling a linear story (some do), The Stanley Parable is also making fun of players for trying to destroy the game that somebody lovingly built for them.

Some sequences in the game can only be accessed if the player tries to cheat, or doggedly hunts for (what looks like) a glitch. There’s one sequence in which being pointlessly contrary destroys the game and, as you stand in its ruins, the narrator flies into a rage, demanding to know why, why, why you were so determined to ruin everything – because you thought it would be funny? Because you just wanted to see?

The best sequence, though, and one of the longest ones, involves The Stanley Parable Adventure Line, a tool invented by the narrator to help you get back on track with the story by, literally, following a bright yellow line painted on the floor. I’ve certainly played games before that involved little more than walking from cutscene to cutscene (Dreamfall comes to mind, as much as I liked it) and the Line is making fun of that, but the sequence surrounding the Line also makes fun of the idea that you, as player, should be able to veer off in any random direction and make up your own story. This is, in fact, what Stanley and the narrator decide to do after following the Line becomes too difficult, and the result is that they stumble around in confusion without any clear sense of purpose. In fact, every time they do obtain a sense of purpose, the Line reappears, and, in trying to avoid it, they return to random wandering.

There are videogames that don’t have a story, that are very successful and fun to play – The Sims franchise comes to mind, as well as Minecraft (which The Stanley Parable parodies at one point) – but there are also limitations as to what those games can be. When players say they want adventure and role-playing games to be more open-ended, I don’t think they mean that they want more opportunity to wander around aimlessly repeating the same basic set of actions over and over again. I think they mean that they want more narrative branching – more opportunities to make meaningful choices that steer the story in a different direction.

The problem with that is that, if you want full control of the story, as a player, the only way to do that is to make your own game. Like, when I was playing with dolls – and The Sims is like playing with dolls – I had full control over the story, because I was making it up myself. But, if you want to enjoy the advantages of experiencing a story that somebody else made up – like, you know, not having to think of everything yourself, and the delight of the unknown, and the pleasure of interacting with an entity other than you – then, you have to accept that there’s necessarily going to be some funnelling in the story. It won’t be completely open. It’s not real life; it’s a constructed thing.

What The Stanley Parable does really well – and what most self-reflexive works do well – is draw attention to the medium and point out its seams of construction. The focus of The Stanley Parable is the way we expect to interact with videogames, and, by making us hyperaware of that interaction, it draws attention to one of the most topical issues in videogame design. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s executed well and, unlike with The Path (which was smart, but deathly earnest, and more esoteric), The Stanley Parable makes it easy for players to grasp the main idea right away, and coats everything with a heavy dose of irony. You keep playing not only because you’re curious to see what you can do, but because you want to hear what the narrator has to say about it – the deep stuff about story construction and player interaction comes wrapped in a lot of good jokes.

All in all, it is terrifying, hilarious, and insightful, which is why the internet and I can’t shut up about it. And, if you want to be all videogame hipster about it, you can also play The Path. You’re welcome.

Image: The Stanley Parable; Galactic Cafe | April 25, 2014