Review

The Stanley Parable

I Choose You

Nothing you choose matters in The Stanley Parable. That’s why all of it matters.

By Joe Keiser • October 23, 2013

In the world of game making there are a few existential bugbears that seems to come up again and again. There’s the fear that the tricks used to keep people having fun are borrowed from the compulsive world of gambling. There the concern that the way people pay for games is damaging to their craft, or worse, the player’s psyche. The biggest of all is that games might boil down to rewarding someone for pushing buttons so they can enjoy something meaningless, like a mouse with a pellet-dispensing lever. The Stanley Parable is a game about that last horrifying scenario, a boogeyman that should be confronted directly.

You play as Stanley, a desk jockey who enjoys going to work every day and pushing whatever buttons he is told to push. But today he is not getting any instruction from his computer, and his fellow employees have vanished. So he sets off to explore the office, which is not particularly tricky—for the most part, all there is to do in the game is look around and push buttons, as per a typical Stanley day. His instructions soon return in the form of a heavily accented narrator, who explains what Stanley will do before he does it.

The Stanley Parable

Follow the path laid out by the narrator, and The Stanley Parable comes to an unsatisfying end in 15 minutes. Then the game restarts. There’s nothing left to do but to try disobedience, finding the points where you can diverge from your British taskmaster’s story. Some of these transgressive opportunities are obvious, like when there are two open doors and you are told to go through the left one. Some are slightly less obvious, like when you’re riding an open-air freight elevator that doesn’t have any sort of safety barrier. And still others are opaque, with the intention that you (or rather the entire internet) will poke at every last thing the game has to offer. Every time you refuse to listen, The Stanley Parable ends differently and then shunts you back to the beginning to explore anew.

It’s with the first act of disobedience that The Stanley Parable truly begins. As you head to the break room instead of the preordained destination of the meeting room, the professorial voice of the game springs to flustered life and attempts to get you back on track with an off-the-cuff narrative course correction. (He informs you that Stanley loves the break room deeply and irrationally and is drawn there even though it is so, so wrong.) Push forward with your insubordination, and the narrator responds with pleading or chiding, carrots or sticks, declarations of loyalty or war.

The Stanley Parable

Across the myriad playthroughs the game demands, your relationship with the narrator dances to and fro and becomes the game’s hilarious heart. It’s never clear whether he has anticipated your actions or not, or whether he can manipulate the game to stop you. And so you keep making choices, just to see what he will do. There will be times where he will be caught flat-footed, and victory is yours. Sometimes he becomes a partner, journeying with you into parts unknown. Other times he will catch you, and the fourth wall will shatter, and it feels like playing with an elaborate Fisher-Price Activity Center where nothing matters but the noises sure are fun.

One could dig even deeper. If nothing you do matters in The Stanley Parable because all the choices are preordained (as they must be in all narratives), why are you even participating? Why participate in any game? Maybe everything you’ve ever played is just a riff on that toy barn that moos when you open the door. The Stanley Parable made me ask what the point was. And then I started the game again, which was The Stanley Parable’s way of answering.

The Stanley Parable

It’s a comedy about choice, and it succeeded the second I asked myself “What does it all mean?” It wants you to consider your role in any game and to enter into a tug-of-war with it over control of this one. When you get an ending that approximates some form of success, it wants you to know it is letting you win. It wants you to wonder if winning is important. You’re there to ask these questions and to think about the other games you play that might just be doors that moo. Some of them are. Maybe that’s okay. But now you’re thinking about it, and that’s what The Stanley Parable wanted all along.

The Stanley Parable
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Publisher: Galactic Cafe
Platforms: PC
Price: $15
Rating: Not Rated

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  • Fluka

    Bought it, excited about it, but sadly am not reading the review because I have been told this is one of those games best gone into cold. Sorry Mr. Keiser, I’m sure your review is lovely! (Was it a positive review?)

    • boardgameguy

      It was.

      • Fluka

        Yaaaaaay!

      • Boonehams

        Uh, spoilers tag?

    • aklab

      Ah, you beat me to it! Three paragraphs in I decided this is something I want to experience completely fresh. Sounds great.

      • Aaron

        But once you and @Fluka:disqus have played it, I hope you’ll come back and talk about it. And if you want to see something hilarious, read the Steam Forum thread regarding how to achieve the Unachievable achievement. The end is never the end is never

  • CrabNaga

    I rather enjoyed this; the narrator reminded me a lot of the narrator from Thomas Was Alone, and not only because they’re both flippant British people.

    [Stanley did not read past this spoiler banner]
    Something I sort of wish they did was give a bit more consistency to what the choices you made and how the narrator reacted to it. Obviously, every single path through the game except one requires you to disobey the narrator, but like the review up above said, sometimes he’s angry about it, sometimes he acts like you’re in control, and sometimes he just addresses the player. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, other than “another funny scenario that the player can see.” Interestingly enough, especially with the Broom Closet, the game and its developers seem to acknowledge this fact. I also just wish there was MORE of it, because what IS there is brilliant.

    • Aaron

      I was glad my roommate wasn’t around when the Narrator started bellowing for attention, concerned that I might be dead.

    • Boko_Fittleworth

      It’s interesting that you want the Narrator to have a stable persona across multiple iterations of play rather than assuming that playthrough 1 exists in Universe A with Narrator A, that playthrough 2 exists in Universe B with Narrator B, etc (granting that the game itself nudges us in the direction of the first interpretation). I love that the game inspires these sorts of questions.

      I was thinking of something similar during a recent replay of the Mass Effect games. There were a few cases in which I unearthed bits of info regarding character backstory during the first playthrough but not during the second. Now, I know as a factual matter that the game would tell me the same thing if I asked the same questions a second time, but in theory does the fact that that information is unspecified in the discourse of the second playthrough mean that it’s also uncertain in the story world of the second playthrough?

      I guess that’s a way of asking what the “text” of game is. Is it any given playthrough or is it the program itself, which is designed to account for all the varying branches a player might take? In this light I guess games are like a Mamet play or Bach cello suite, which can be seen as the sheet music or a given performance.

      • Boko_Fittleworth

        Also, this universe just kinda feels like a “B,” you know what I mean?

  • Cloks

    Eight.

    • SamPlays

      B+

    • Aaron

      Wrong, Raphael. That’s 8 to you.

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    I may actually pick this up and try it out this weekend. I finished Portal 2′s single player campaign last night, and was totally in love with the humor in it, so this one sounds like a good follow-up.

    I love games where the game and its mechanics are of secondary importance to the plot and characters.

    PORTAL 2 SPOILERS

    The final section, from “The Part Where He Kills You” onward, was an incredible piece of game design. The rush of escaping from his (alternately really stupid and really smart) succession of traps, the final confrontation with his stolen body, the manner of your final victory (“SPACE! I’M IN SPACE!”), GlaDOS’ goodbye, and the final post-credits scene of him floating around – all had me grinning until my face hurt. (And the companion cube! AHAHAHA!)

    END SPOILERS

    • Sam_Barsanti

      I LOVED the one-two-three punch of Wheatley saying “This is the part where I kill you!” followed by the chapter name “The Part Where He Kills You” followed by Achievement Unlocked “The Part Where He Kills You” (description: This is that part).

      One of the funniest things I’ve seen in a game.

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        And of course, this being Wheatley, it takes about five seconds to figure out a way OUT of that part! Yep…brilliant game.

        • http://mrglitchsreviews.blogspot.com/ Mr. Glitch

          “Oh, it just washes off, eh? Well that would’ve been good to know earlier.”

      • George_Liquor

        Portal 2 became a bit of a slog for me towards the end, but that last chapter completely redeemed it. Wheatley’s incompetent booby traps trashing the entire facility are both hilarious and a brilliant way to raise the stakes of the game leading up to its climax. What a weird sensation it is to be running for my life while laughing my ass off.

        • apple_mummy

          I consider that one of, if not *the*, best written games I’ve ever played. Not just the writing, but the pacing of it was so good. The story moved so briskly, yet there are portions when you go “behind the scenes” that feel a bit uneven, which, for some reason, really works for me.

          The fact that the story takes an oddly longwinded (relative to the rest of the game, anyway) detour underneath Aperture made it seem like I was more involved in what was happening, rather than lurching from one story point to another. When you fell down there, it only makes sense that you’d have to spend a good deal of time and effort to actually escape.

    • DrZaloski

      Yeah, I think Portal 2 should be purely loved for its fantastic writing. Honestly, there’s not that much gameplay to care about, the only reason why I put up with “find the white spot game #274″ is because I always want to hear either Wheatley’s or GLaDOS’ narration.

      • Aaron

        I wonder. Will you be willing to put up with the baby game in “The Stanley Parable,” simply to hear the narration? Or will you just YouTube it?

        • DrZaloski

          The thing about The Stanley Parable is that it actually engages the viewer, more so than even Portal. In Portal there are just a series of simple puzzles that mostly boil down to “I Spy,” while The Stanley Parable constantly throws choices at you. You gotta work for that narrative, and it actively reflects and mocks what you attempt. I find “make a choice that reflects you as a gamer to hear witty, humorous commentary and attempt to decipher the game’s cleverness” a lot more fun than “Find the white spot and click a few times to hear someone say something funny.”

  • inglorious bastard

    This really is more like an interactive storytelling toy than a game. With that said, it is fantastic and really offers something that is rare in games these days, it makes you think. Games like this and Portal 2 are really the direction that games should head if they truly want to be taken seriously as art.

    I don’t really mean that other games can’t be art as well, but this one has clear, thoughtful and well-explored themes.

    • NakedSnake

      Yea, that’s a good point about The Stanley Parable seeming more like a visual book than a game. As you said, though, it sounds like it escapes this trap by having a clearly articulated “hook” (or theme). In a funny kind of way, I feel like one of the elemental characteristics of a game is that it has a hook. Game designers always say that you have to boil your game down to a few basic gameplay “themes”. Mario is about jumping, COD is about playing soldier, and The Walking Dead is about moral choice. It’s funny how the philosophy of thematic “tightness” seems to be represented in what we think about games like this. If you take a free-form exploration game like Dear Esther or Gone Home, it will raise a lot more hackles about “is this a game or not” than similar games who are strongly directed towards giving the player a certain experience, like The Walking Dead or like The Stanley Parable (it sounds like – I haven’t played it).

    • Aaron

      Is it almost like “The Stanley Parable” is more of a, say, parable than a game? If only they’d been more forthright about that.

    • Aaron

      Incidentally, on a more serious note, this is the best game I’ve played all year since Antichamber, which is more of an outright “game” (in the context that we’re familiar with). I urge everyone to rush out and buy it.

      • dreadguacamole

        I’d highly recommend trying the demo first, to get a taste for the its humor and style. If you enjoy it at all, get the game!
        My wife has forbidden me from playing it without her.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    I enjoyed the initial, free version of this game. It was a clever, slight exploration of interactive narrative and choice in games. It’s nice to hear that this version extends the scope of that vision without it suffering. I’ll likely give this a shot when I’ve got a bit more time and dosh to spare.

  • signsofrain

    I was in love with the free Half-Life 2 mod version of this, but the Greenlight version is definitely worth the 11-12 bucks, they’ve taken the essentials of the mod and just built SO MUCH onto it. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to play, think about, and discuss the minutia of games then you’re in for a treat.

    If you love listening to voice actors give great performances, this is going to be a treat. I’m not even gonna get into some of the stuff that absolutely blew my mind because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Suffice it to say, the game rewards patience and careful exploration in a big way.

    Also I keep hearing Dear Esther mentioned in the same sentences as “Gone Home” and “The Stanley Parable” I guess I better snag myself a copy.

    Btw y’all, I sometimes stream the things I’m watching and playing on my twitch channel. Haven’t streamed in awhile but tonight around 11:30-Midnight EST you’re probably gonna see some Stanley Parable followed by some Wind Waker (on Gamecube) If any of you are on twitch let’s follow each other. I’d love to see what you guys are up to on your screens.

  • Annabelle

    When you’ve finished the game, watch a few “let’s plays”. Seeing people do the confusion ending is delightful.

  • Eco1970

    Terrible review. No spoilers. Joe’s more interested in letting us all know what deep insights he learned. No need ti buy this now :(

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