The Stanley Parable: What We Think
I was first exposed to David Wreden‘s “The Stanley Parable” – when it was still a Half-Life 2 mod available through moddb – at IndieCade 2012 alongside such games as Guacamelee and Botanicula, before it went on to receive the Special Recognition Award. The award is given to a game that “…exemplifies a true work of passion, contributing to the cultivation of artistry in games. This award honors the finalist that uses the medium of games in a way that elicits the elusive, yet universal, experience often associated any work of true art.”[source]
At the time, I noticed the game – narrated by UK voice actor Kevan Brighting – evoked a lot of comparisons to anti-establishmentarian, paranoia-driving and avant-garde films from the late 1980’s through to the end of the 90’s like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. It began with a simple guy working a simple, dull job, in a simple dull office, and then shook the bubble of reality around him to see how the snowflakes fell. All of those films begin the same way before leading to a tumultuous ontological exploration challenging ennui, bureaucracy, and ambition.
Break’s Over. Back to Work
A year and a half later, The Stanley Parable was showing up on the radar again, like it had just dropped for the first time in some capsule from Krypton; the game was getting a release on Valve’s Steam marketplace. I assumed it was the same game with a few patches and updates so I smugly observed as others discovered it for the first time and let it rest.
Then a colleague started nudging me to play it and when I told them I was already familiar they pointed out that it had undergone substantial polish and expansion, so I decided to purchase a copy and see what had changed.
First off, the new version featured a collaboration with Saxxy Award-winner William Pugh – a Stanley fan who came onboard to help Wreden out with further development and updates to the game for an HD remake. Now working collectively under the developer name Galactic Cafe, they rebuilt the game using Valve’s Source engine directly. The new version featured many more endings and a different approach to how the player would be nudged along the various labyrinthine corridors of the mysteriously abandoned corporate building.
But its mind-bending essence was still there, and if anything, pushed even further as the new team squeezed even more juice out of the engine. Wreden was 22 years old when the first version of Stanley was released on moddb. He had been observing games like Bioshock and wanted to create something that questioned the relationship between gamer and game. The concept began to expand from there into wider considerations about our relationship to larger social mechanics.
In the Stanley Parable you awaken in your dark corner office, set within a corporate building filled with cubicles, and in some way already on the wrong side of some event that has led to everyone in the building being absent but you. In a contemporary version of Kafka’s The Trial (if it were directed by Mike Judge,) you have no idea why you are the person of interest or what the charges may be against you.
The bemused narrator who at first seems to provide some sense of context and comfort in the uneasy scene, quickly breaks the fourth wall and in short order finds no shortage of wonder and delight at your miserable outlook. As you wander down one corridor with the narrator seemingly directing your next move, you discover that you actually have alternatives to what he is saying, and like, any good gamer, will likely try the opposite choice, just because. Suddenly the ruse is over and the narrator reveals himself to be rather not working in your best interests.
I remember also thinking of a little browser based title from our top games of 2011 by Alexander Ocias called “Loved” (our review) wherein you are warned and punished for going against the narrator’s questionable instructions.
Team Building Exercise
Yet as you hit the reset button, you may begin to feel as through you and he are inexorably intertwined in an infinite loop of co-dependence. He has that slightly indifferent tone that might also be hired to voice The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, speaking on galactic calamities with a wan passing interest. One may even suspect that it is the narrator speaking about himself like some bloodless AI lost in the caverns of its own mind just after it sparked consciousness. But this of course will all be left to conjecture. Because what it is a startling and remorseless treatise on the existential awakening to being enslaved to this mortal coil.
Vacillating between whimsy and terror, the game never fails to present a novel way to meet your demise as it coaxes and goads you onward like a lab rat, commenting on your every move like GladOS’s twin brother. What makes this somewhat less morbid is that this same omniscient presence is quite sure that you will immediately resurrect and repeat your dash through the experiment; the island compelling Desmond Hume to keep pushing his godforsaken button.
My Music At Work
This game is punk rock in the most late 90’s sentiment in its dark curiosity and self-conscious nihilism. That is a good thing. It has nothing to do with videogames from the late 90’s so much as it does Don DeLillo’s White Noise” and Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”. In one room you can see in the ultimate po-mo fashion the game’s various iterations, cordoned off behind red velvet ropes (literally), outtakes by the narrator, development notes, even the game’ credits floating on a wall, well before any semblance of an ending has been presented to you. OK, another movie reference – Charlie Kaufman‘s Synecdoche, New York
For someone with a psychological disorders like persistent anxiety, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, this game might create a feedback loop, perhaps even a relatively safe place to examine these (not that I am recommending it in that light nor remotely as a form of therapy, in fact it may lead you to require it). For curious about such disorders it is a good insight into what it may feel like.
It is also of course a metaphor for our times – those times wherein we surrender information about ourselves but how much do we get in return, for all the button pushing?
The game, by Wreden’s own admission was to “Mess with the player’s head in every way possible, throwing them off-guard, or pretending there’s an answer and then kinda whisking it away from in front of them.”[source=WIRED, via Wikipedia]
So I have now referenced this concept in films and books, but how about music? Because I am trying to avoid any spoilage, I can safely say that if this game was a music video it would be Radiohead‘s video for the song “Just”:
But most importantly, The Stanley Parable, while not exactly sailing through uncharted waters, (as the sampling of my above cultural references demonstrate) does successfully port that dialogue into the gamespace very successfully, and reveals that the gamespace may be perhaps the most ideal medium yet in this form of self-examination. And we are only just beginning to explore it in earnest.
* Also, since Wreden originally intended Stanley Parable to examine video game narratives, read D.B. Weiss’ Lucky Wander Boy [affiliate link to Amazon store].