Let me be perfectly clear: The Stanley Parable is not a game. It is an experience.
A tragic-comical, mind-bending, soul-crushing, sly-winking experience.
Originally developed as a Source engine mod by a gamer named Davey Wredren, The Stanley Parable has since become a proper high-defintion game released through the Valve Corporation. Its story is minimal at best and farcical at most.
You play Stanley, a man working in an office. With the help of the Narrator, you navigate away from your job of pushing buttons on a computer and wander the abandoned office. From a pair of doors, you can either go on the “correct” path and have a short and heroic triumph against a faceless enemy in control of your life… or take the other door and see what kind of havoc you can wreak.
Never before have I played a game that made me feel so self-conscious. Every choice matters here because the developers have thought of everything a player might do. Activate cheats? The Narrator will call you out on it and put you in the Serious Room. Try to escape the “correct” ending after choosing the right door? Then prepare for a violent death every time. Keep restarting the game? Even the office layout will change on you, giving new options to screw around with the Narrator’s abused script and see what else lies in store. And so many random events you can trigger, just by restarting the game over and over. Phones ring out of nowhere, asking you about groceries and cardboard boxes. And the worst jump scare of all: when you glance out a window in the second office at a purely random playthrough… and see yourself walking by.
This game wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if not for the fine voice acting of the Narrator, as played by Kevan Brighting. His dry British accent starts off as cold and detached, but it’s so much fun to mess around with the game, seeing what new emotions and confused reactions you can unlock with each new action. He’ll run the gamut from confused to upset to vengeful to ecstatic to sad and terrified. As much as you want to play around with the game and see what new textures or locations you can unlock, half the fun is trying to see what dialogue the developers thought to include with every single option—and there are dozens upon dozens of options.
One could argue that the Narrator in The Stanley Parable is simply a male version of GLaDOS, exerting control over the environment and taunting the player toward the appropriate actions. However, there are some clear differences. While GLaDOS is only interested in running tests for Science™, the Narrator is far more humanized. He has dreams and hopes—all of which the player usually finds a way to dash by testing every little quirk the game has to offer. He’s both an ally and an antagonist, depending on how you play.
Around the third or fourth hour of gameplay, it occurred to me just how meta the whole experience was. My character, Stanley, spent his whole career sitting at a desk, pushing buttons based on an endless series of computer prompts. And while I’m trying to “outwit” the Narrator and do my own thing… all I’m doing in real-life is sitting at a desk, pushing buttons based on an endless series of computer prompts. In any other game, staring at a screen and sitting motionless would be considered a waste of time, but only in this game does it make sense. Because, after all, if you wait long enough, you just might get the super special extra secret ending that you read about on all the forums.
As a matter of fact, at the time of this writing, I’ve completed nearly every single possible ending for the game (I think the “Museum” and “Secret Disco” endings are my favorites). The only one I haven’t finished is the “Art” ending, because it requires you spend exactly four hours doing nothing but pushing the same two buttons over and over again. No scene changes, all in real-time, going through enough Narrator jokes before you reach the end. I suppose I could say I’m already spending hours pushing the same buttons for the sake of this game, but at least in all the other endings, I’m moving the game in new directions with every minute and not staring at the same image for hours on end, risking my health and the chance of total insanity for one last gag.
This is the best kind of commentary on video game culture I can think of. It’s not trying to be a self-referential FPS game, with big glowing arrows to mark “This is the Hero and This is the Villain!” It turns a camera right into the player’s face and asks “So why are you playing this game? What do you actually get out of this experience? Why not just hit ‘Esc’ and be done with it—?”
Bibliography: The Stanley Parable. Developed by Galactic Cafe. Original mod by Davey Wredren. Microsoft Windows, OS X. Original mod release date: July 27, 2011. Remake release dates: October 17, 2013; December 19, 2013.