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.
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.
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.
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.