The Stanley Parable
Galactic Cafe, 2013
It is extremely difficult to explain The Stanley Parable in the terms of a traditional review. It evades casual description, a problem that has vexed numerous video game critics who were struck by The Parable’s peculiar brilliance yet found themselves hard pressed to even describe it as a game. Games are typically defined as contests or challenges, things that can be beaten, solved or won. The Stanley Parable is none of these, and the game will be the first to let you in on this fact. Rather, it is an ironic (and highly effective) critique of gaming in general, first person games in particular and – above all else – the central issue of choice in gaming.
This has always been the first weapon deployed by defenders of the medium, not least myself: the claim that of all the major representational media modes, only video games incorporate anything like a robust practice of agency, the capacity to choose, to make meaningful decisions, to participate in and, most importantly, to deviate from the the authoritarian (emphasis on ‘author’) dictates of narrative and its implicit rhetorics. Prominent video game scholar Ian Bogost has written entire books premised on this claim, that games – as constitutively interactive media – are much more prone to invite the player to interrogate and argue with the game they are playing. Such claims often dovetail with others about democratic participation and ideological demystification, combining an interest in social justice with a sense of hopefulness about the power of video games to encourage just such involvement and critique.
What is wicked about The Stanley Parable is not that it bolsters this optimistic discourse. On the contrary, it consistently disrupts and destabilizes just the sense of agency in which video games put so much stock. Like BioShock it manages to foreground the question of just how meaningless agency becomes in the closed universe of a video game. Yet unlike BioShock its exploration is not limited to a plot twist which sits like an ornament atop what is an essentially unreflexive game. Bogost himself points this out in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books:
The problem is, Bioshock never really deserved the praise it received. It posed as a serious, hard science fiction take-down of the doomed hubris of technophilic selfishness, but in truth the game was just a spruced-up first-person shooter. Its engagement with morality and politics was window dressing, its apparent critique of Randian Objectivism mostly allegorical hand-waving. Narratively, Bioshock relied on a ham-fisted, fourth-wall breaking parody of a position on free will that’s become unfortunately popular in videogames: attempting to make the player’s choice to play the game in the first place pose as a gesture of complicity. A contrived deus ex machina like this might work once, but even then it’s a precious gimmick, one that hardly deserves the praise reserved for subtler methods.
Bogost’s criticism is underwritten by an understandable feeling of disappointment. For a medium with such potential, a potential Bogost has spent most of his career championing, video games have often fallen short of our high expectations. Bogost’s gripe is that video games are stuck in a state of adolescence and – while I’d pick some bones with Bogost’s comparisons, which tend to rely on the use of what is essentially contemporary literary and cinematic modernism as a measuring stick (he wants ‘Alfonso Cuarón-does-7th Guest or Sarah Waters-does-Myst,’ rather than ‘John Hughes-does-7th Guest or Judy Blume-does-Myst’) – I can’t but agree with the meat of his argument.
But even if we insist on the legacy of modernism as the basis for judgement, The Stanley Parable should invite just such comparisons. To speak in the terms of the Hollywood pitch, we might call it Italo Calvino-does-Portal or Jorge Luis Borges-does-Half Life. And this is an achievement which comes from the game exploring its own game-ness, much as the best of the contemporary modernists write books that explore their own book-ness. Medium specificity, as my art historian friend has cogently pointed out to me, is a definitive mark of a medium’s maturity.
The Stanley Parable deserves to be played in a state of innocence. In particular it benefits from a certain naiveté on the part of its player, more so if that player is already familiar with the genre conventions of the first person shooter. The first instance of The Parable was a ‘mod’ for the Source engine, the same software used to produce the second game in the legendary Half Life series. Like Half Life 2 and its innumerable kin, The Parable is played from a first person perspective its world seen through the disembodied eye of the ‘I.’ Yet – unlike the vast majority of its fellows – The Parable lacks even the gun which is usually the main trigger of action in such games. No- this is not that kind of game, as the narrator makes clear from the moment you press ‘start’:
Stanley is an office drone, leading an unexamined life of button-pushing and slavish satisfaction. The moment his routine is disrupted by the cessation of his usual orders and the mysterious disappearance of his co-workers, The Parable-proper begins, and the player assumes control over Stanley. The narration then prompts us to step outside of Stanley’s cramped room and into the abandoned office space, a prompt one has little problem following, as it seems that the only way forward is out. Curiosity, as well as the conventions of almost any narrative, push the player into the world of the game, and even if the player tarries in the empty office instead of heading to the meeting room as is suggested, the Narrator will urge the player along, his scathing remarks aided by perfectly dry British diction.
Eventually, inevitably, Stanley arrives at two open doors: a moment of choice, that most sacred of video game capacities. But it is not one made in a vacuum. For as soon as Stanley and his player are presented with this choice, the Narrator provides another clear prompt: ‘When Stanley arrived at two open doors, he took the one on his left.’ Only the door on Stanley’s right also remains resolutely open, enticing as only rebellious choices can be.
In the six or so times I’ve seen The Parable played by someone for the first time, only one of those players ever conceded to the Narrator’s prompt. Confronted with the thrill of decision, something about direct disobedience proves overwhelmingly appealing. This initial divergence – or rather its possibility, because the player is in no way required to disobey the narrative prompt – inaugurates the struggle between Stanley and Narrator, player and game, one that demonstrates interdependence as much as antagonism. As more paths open up – past the right door is another fork, one path to get you ‘back on track’, another getting you even further ‘off course’, only the ‘back on track’ option itself contains a second chance at divergence, and then later a third, and so on – we learn more of the Narrator’s opinions, his desires, his intentions for Stanley.
I myself took the righthand path, resisting the narrative imperative at every turn. This lead to the Narrator addressing me directly as I boarded a cargo lift somewhere in the building that was definitely not the conference room towards which I was ‘supposed’ to be heading. “Look Stanley,” the Narrator says, “I think perhaps we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here. I’m not your enemy, really I’m not.” And, indeed, the Narrator repeatedly insists that he is trying to ‘show [Stanley] something’- something ‘beautiful’, something ‘important’. The Narrator simply wants to see Stanley free and happy, and to this end he wishes to tell Stanley the story that will liberate him from that very story, from the endless nesting of decisions and endings that is the game itself.
Yet this seeming kindliness is underwritten by a persistent hostility, one that emerges as a result of Stanley’s (or rather the player’s) very exercise of the game’s seeming freedom. The delight of disobedience, combined with the desire to explore the game’s many darkly humorous divergences, leads the player – and thus Stanley – to repeatedly confound the Narrator’s intentions. What are those intentions? Compiled, the Narrator’s dilemma appears God-like. He loves us, and wants us to be free – but hates us when we ‘misuse’ that freedom. “You’re only still playing instead of watching a cutscene,” he snarls in the ‘Countdown Ending’, “because I want to watch you for every moment that you’re powerless, to see you made humble.”
But the Narrator is no God, any more than the Author ever was. It’s a more Sartrean ambivalence that drives The Parable’s narrative involutions. Perhaps the darkest turn occurs in the ‘Space Ending’, where the Narrator lays his cards on the table, making a direct appeal: “Don’t you see that it’s killing us, Stanley? I just… I want it to stop. I would- we would both be so much happier if we just… stopped.” He then offers a solution: a single room containing a luminous starscape, whose serenely empty aesthetics are reminiscent of a screen saver. The Narrator loves it here. “If we stay right here, in this moment, with this place… Stanley, I think I feel… happy. I actually feel happy.” And he can remain so, just as long as the player remains still; that is to say, as long as the player doesn’t actually play.
Of course this gets boring. There are no more witty jokes, no more self-referential gestures, no more game – because there are no more choices. Restlessness drives you to scour the space, revealing one exit, a door leading into a hallway of unfinished concrete. Beyond this passage is a towering concrete space with a single tall stairway leading up to a platform. “Oh, no!” the Narrator exclaims, “stay away from those stairs! If you hurt yourself, if you die, the game will reset! We’ll lose all of this!”
The Narrator should know better; he should never tell a player what or what not to do. But this time, our rebellion can’t be merely flippant; it takes three consecutive dives from the platform to do the job. This horrifies the Narrator. “My God,” he asks, “is this really how much you dislike my game? That you’ll throw yourself from this platform over and over to be rid of it?” The Narrator abandons the tones of parental tyranny. If the Narrator is still being parental, he has firmly adopted the diction of the guilt trip: “Or maybe you’re just getting a kick out of it. I don’t know any more. I just wanted us to get along, but I guess that was too much to ask.” At first the Narrator implores you to stop, then finally resigns himself, wearily, to your decision: “It looks like you wanted to make a choice after all. Well, this one is yours.” And then you plunge to your death, as per your choice. No one bosses you around.
Yet we should remember the lesson, however brief and superficial, from BioShock: the experience of choice in games is to a large extent illusory. The player willingly embraces death because death is the only way to keep playing, and because death in such a world is demonstrably meaningless – it is a choice without real consequence and thus no choice at all. The game itself says as much explicitly in one of its most illuminating sections, what is often referred to as the ‘Museum Ending’. After yet another confrontation with the Narrator, Stanley finds himself inevitably drawn towards the gnashing teeth of what resembles nothing so much as a trash compactor. A split instant before Stanley is pulverized, the game pauses; a woman’s voice speaks, taking it upon herself to become the Narrator’s narrator: “‘Farewell, Stanley,” cried the Narrator, as Stanley was led helplessly into the enormous metal jaws. … And yet it would be just a few minutes before Stanley would restart the game, back in his office, as alive as ever. What exactly did the Narrator think he was going to accomplish?”
The game then opens into a luminous museum space, the ‘white box’ style that dominates contemporary art museums. Inside we find the game reduced to its membra disjecta: a display for Stanley’s computer, a display for doors, a display for buttons, a display for filing cabinets. The player is free to wander among these exhibits, catching glimpses of endings as yet unattained, as well as endings that were cut during development, features that never made it into the finished product. The destruction of the fourth wall is total in this ‘ending’; it is also where the game articulates the troubled relationship between Narrator and Stanley, designer and player, author and reader: “Oh, look at these two,” the Narrator’s narrator says, chuckling. “How they wish to destroy one another, how they wish to control one another, how they both wish to be free.”
Is freedom possible, then? Not, this ending suggests, within the space of the game. The fact that the player willingly, even offhandedly, confronts death in order to attain the ‘Museum Ending’ is proof positive of this fact – one must ignore the Narrator’s warnings about imminent, violent death in order to attain it. Why would a player be willing to ignore these warnings? Because they know better than to think of death as anything real or consequential within the space of a game. “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same-” the Narrator’s narrator explains, “do you see? Do you see that Stanley was already dead from the moment he hit start?”
This is a parable, after all, and there must be some ‘instructive lesson or principle.’ While it is highly entertaining, the purpose of The Stanley Parable is not simply to entertain: it is to both befuddle and edify, as do so many of the best texts. But what is the game trying to teach us? And just who, exactly, is Stanley supposed to represent? In his dual role as character-in-story as well as player-avatar, he simultaneously signifies a number of figures. He is a literal representation of a corporate drone, slavishly pressing buttons, a mostly-passive component in a malevolent mechanism far beyond his ken. He is, however, also a video game character who has been granted sentience. Before the player’s intervention, before the game begins, Stanley happily obeys the orders he receives, unreflexively; this much the Narrator tells us. The day the spell is broken – the day Stanley steps outside of his office and begins his journey – is the day that the player steps in and provides the possibility of choice. This, after all, is the promise of video games.
Of course, being controlled by a player is hardly freedom for Stanley, and it is telling is that, in the ‘Freedom Ending’ – the ending the Narrator intends for Stanley – Stanley is deemed ‘free’ and ‘happy’ the very moment he leaves the player’s control. And this peculiar non-identity between Stanley and the player also invites comparison between Stanley and the player, and in turn with gamers writ large. What analogizes gamers better than an individual that sits in front of their screen and presses buttons more or less on command? It is an activity that would, indeed, seem ‘soul rending’ for some, but is evidently bliss for others. All that makes Stanley seem different from the gamer is that illusion of agency, one the game systematically dismantles.
Stanley serves as an ironic double to the typical first person protagonist and the fantasies of power and agency that come along with the role. A pallid, office wimp, Stanley hardly appears powerful within his game-world. His in-game abilities consist of limited mobility in a three-dimensional environment (Stanley cannot jump), and his sole means of interacting with his environment consists of a simple one-mouse-button-click that only really functions on a spare few features of the environment. At first, then, he seems radically different from the standard FPS protagonist – someone like Halo’s super-soldier Master Chief, or even Half Life’s unlikely action hero Gordon Freeman – who have arrays of weapons and are imbued with messianic importance as they blast their way through waves of foes. Yet, formally speaking, Stanley is not so different from any other first person shooter character: he, too, is more or less mute; he, too, has a narrow range of things he can actually do in the world (how different is one kind of virtual gun from another, at the end of the day?); he, too, is trapped in the illusion of an open world that is, in reality, little more than a series of amusement park tracks. It is simply that his limitations are not masked as empowerment, and his messianic role – that of the last man in the world – is lampooned for the solipsistic fantasy it is.
Davey Wrenden is the mind behind The Stanley Parable, an individual whose intellect and personality clearly make him someone to watch. The website for his company, Galactic Cafe, sports a series of text banners with a truly postmodern cadence: some are quotes from films, movies or books, others are digressive rambles, others surprisingly frank confessionals. Some others, however, provide insight into his design sensibility. One such banner reads: ‘I don’t think that great games are really “created.” To me, any great game is about discovery both for the player and designer. When I’m designing I want to feel like I’m discovering some truth about the world. Unraveling content over the course of the game is not about making players “earn” it, it’s about them discovering it the same way you did while designing it…’ But just what ‘truth’ does Mr. Wrenden aim to convey? What is the lesson intended by his tale?
The Stanley Parable may explain itself most succinctly in its treatment of achievements – the meta-game trophies that typically serve as an additional layer of incentives to play and replay a game. One is a standard ‘You Won’ achievement, gained by following the Narrator’s prompts more or less to the tee. Another, however, is called ‘Click on door 430 five times’, but when you set about to do just that, the Narrator interjects that it is too easy to attain, and assigns you a plethora of other minutia, so as to augment the player’s feelings of achievement though, of course, it undermines any such feelings. Yet another – ‘Commitment’ – requires the player spend the entirety of a Tuesday playing The Parable. A fourth – ‘Unattainable’ – is precisely as it sounds, though at least 1.6% of the player base has changed the code of the game directly so as to circumvent this limitation. One achievement in particular, however, demonstrates the core paradox of The Parable and its wishes. To earn it you must not play The Stanley Parable for five years. It’s called ‘Go Outside’.
‘Go outside’ – this may be The Parable’s final request, after it has kept you in your seat, in front of your computer, pressing buttons for well over an hour. For [……] if choice within video games is an illusion, than the only real choice would be not to play in the first place or – if you’ve already started – to stop playing. Nothing less can set both Narrator and player/character free. As the Narrator’s narrator articulates, in urgent tones:
‘…listen to me, you can still save these two. You can stop the program before they both fail. Press ‘escape,’ and press ‘quit’. There’s no other way to beat this game. As long as you move foreword, you’ll be walking someone else’s path. Stop now, and it will be your only true choice.’
So urged, I pressed ‘escape’ and then ‘quit’ and, in so doing, did exactly as I was told; the irony was not lost on me. But such an irony is necessary for the maturation of the medium. We must recognize that choice, as we imagine and celebrate it in games, is a far more elusive beast than we’d like to think, and that the task of making and playing games in a way that may actually augment individual agency – let alone promote a democratic program – is only just beginning.
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.