Summary Judgment: The Stanley Parable

            Once upon a time, I thought I had a pretty good idea what video games were.  You’d get a guy on screen, you’d get some bad guys and an end goal, and you’d move a guy to the end goal and try not to make a horrible mess of it along the way.  Simple.  Easy.  Nice.

Boring.

Fortunately in times since then I’ve been proven wrong more times than I’m capable of admitting.  Through entirely story-oriented games like Dear Esther, heavily choice influenced character games like Planescape: Torment or The Witcher, and games like Papers, Please that blew away the boundary between story and gameplay, I’ve started to learn that the secret to understanding the medium is to stop wasting so much time trying to understand the medium. With Galactic Café’s The Stanley Parable, trying to understand the medium is like trying to yank your fingers out of a Chinese finger-trap: self defeating and potentially embarrassing.

Image

Sorry.

When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he…

            The Stanley Parable is nothing if not a mirror.  This became extremely evident to me upon playing the demo, which serves as more an introduction to the tone and style of the game than as an actual preview of direct elements from the game itself.  The entire game was set in front of me, with a cheeky narrator sitting up in the heavens with a “Well, go on” expression, gently nudging me to do something, anything, and just see what happens.

The mechanics of the game are extremely simple.  You are Stanley, or at any rate, a player who is playing Stanley.  You move around an office in first person, interacting with objects and selecting pathways.  As you interact with the world, an intelligent sounding British narrator describes your actions and speaks to you about them.  All of them.

I felt like a cat who looked pointedly at his owner while he knocked something off a shelf, curious only about the reaction and the attention, not the action.  The narrator and I, we had a thing going.  He’d tell me to do something, I’d do the opposite, and then he’d get exasperated and I’d laugh.  Eventually I started to get into self-sabotaging layers of this, seeing how long I could follow his narrative before screwing something up on purpose. The game felt like a trolling simulator; how could I ruin this poor guy’s story this time?

But really, the narrator and the player are in this together the entire time.  The game knows you want to hear all of the things the narrator has to say, because he’s delightful and no one knows that better than the developer.  And along the way, both of you get wound up in some of the most mindbending insanity to grace a game, taking things beyond your simple trolling and into a world where you start to wonder just what the developers haven’t thought of.

The End Is Never The End Is Never The End Is….

            All of this spins out into a seemingly endless sea of endings, each one more ludicrous and hysterical than the last.  The game always restarts after you complete an ending (and sometimes before that), so the sense of progress or forward movement towards a goal is rather lost; you never know when The Stanley Parable is done with you.  I still don’t. Sometimes things change in the level, inexplicable small things, and you’re not sure if it changed for the sake of changing or if it’s a new string to pull to unravel yet another of the narrator’s precious tapestries.

The Stanley Parable is a triumphant achievement in developing a rapport between player and game.  There may not be tangible goals or a huge amount of gameplay variance, but the experience is so unique and compelling that it’s hard to fault the game for its choices.  The Stanley Parable is a masterpiece of thought and writing, and a testament to the idea that gameplay can be mental as much as physical.

            The Stanley Parable is available on Steam for $14.99.  There is a free, self contained demo as well, which is recommended before playing the game regardless of whether you intend to purchase the full version or not.

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