We love choice in video games. Whether they’re dialogue options, decisions that will effect character relationships, where we go, and what actions we perform, we love having the illusion of control over our games and the fake universes they put us in.
But how much do our choices really matter? Are we really free to choose, or merely convinced by this fabrication that game creators have set up for us?
Such a question is but one of many that The Stanley Parable explores on varying levels.
In The Stanley Parable, players take on the role of Stanley (a.k.a. Employee 427), a man who loves his corporate job where he is required to sit at a desk and press buttons all day long. His is a humdrum and conventional existence, and he loves it.
Then one day, Stanley turns up to work only to learn that there are no more commands coming through his computer, no sounds outside his door, and not a soul in the office. Where have they gone? What sort of horrible fate has befallen them? And why is a British gentleman sounding like one of the cast members of Downtown Abbey narrating his every move?
Once this happens, you’ll be pitched head first into a first-person exploration-based game that directs Stanley where to go and what to do as he tries to solve the mystery. That is, if you decide to follow all of the narrator’s directions.
If you follow all directions and go straight through to the end on the main path, you’ll beat the game in under five minutes and learn the horrible truth that has been controlling you for so long. Or do you? Those who choose to stray from the path and explore the myriad other corridors at Stanley’s work will find all manner of other endings, ideas, and developments, all while being chastised and asking whether or not they’re truly in control the entire way.
The most interesting part of The Stanley Parable is the fact that it serves as a commentary on everything and nothing at the same time. Truly, there will be people who play the game and see it as nothing more than a boring foray into an office the likes of which they’ve probably seen a thousand times. Many will insist on following each of the directions and consider the story to be a freeing one that comments on the zombification of the modern desk worker. And then, there will be people who play the game and see its meta themes not only about control and consequence in video games, but also questions about sanity, normalcy, and meaning in real life. The exact meaning is a completely personal one, and inspires enough conversation and pondering to help you through half a bottle of Advil as you process it.
Really, it’s whatever you want it to be, which is what makes it a fascinating experience.
The narration is well-delivered and devilishly entertaining, all while being somewhat reminiscent of GLaDOS from the Portal series. The Narrator will mock you, educate you, comfort you, and tear you down through multiple entertaining lines of dialogue, all while serving as your sole companion during your exploration of this abandoned building.
The Stanley Parable is almost like a choose-your-own adventure story in the sense that each of your choices can (and most likely will) lead to a certain ending, only to pitch you back to the beginning again so you can either follow directions or explore a new area you haven’t seen yet. It often asks more questions than it answers, leaving you wanting to explore and see what other alternate routes you might encounter along the way.
I could easily drone on about the presentation and construction of the game, but to be honest, I find the idea to be completely unnecessary and not at all pertinent to this overall review. This isn’t a game hellbent on delivering the most outstanding and lifelike graphics imaginable on the PC, the gameplay itself is nothing revolutionary, and the soundtrack isn’t likely to get a Grammy nomination. But that doesn’t matter, because The Stanley Parable is an intriguing and evocative experience that offers you a wide range of choices and consequences, each with their own meanings, purposes, and intentions.
Or does it?