The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) was released last week and I ploughed through it over two nights, reaching a number of the game’s “endings”. I only dabbled with the original Half-Life 2 mod incarnation once, during IndieCade East earlier this year. But rather than fire up the mod as soon as I returned to Electron Dance HQ, I elected to wait for the remake.
There’s no doubt that the game is fun and you can almost smell the sweat and passion that’s been invested in its development. It might be best referred to, as Amanda Lange put it, “a work of absurdist surrealism”.
Okay, all good. But what does The Stanley Parable mean?
If you’re ready for spoilers, read on. If not, then you can choose to– oh GOD I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE THIS JOKE.
The opening narration is a good place to start as it feeds us enough to grasp what Parable is “about”.
This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was Employee 427. Employee 427's job was simple. He sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what employee 427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others might have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy.
If you’ve checked out other work by the designer of Parable, Davey Wreden, you’ll have noticed his fascination with fourth-wall breaking vandalism and making art about making art. Take a look at “A Film by Davey Wreden” as well as the more recent collaboration “This film does not have Nicholas Cage in it”. Parable fits right in because “Stanley” is you, a player of games, happy to follow whatever instructions a game offers you. Soon enough it becomes obvious that the omnipresent, nameless “narrator” represents a game designer.
The magic of the opening is to project an illusion of new found free will. Stanley’s game has dried up and left him with something open and uncertain, just as the player is thrown into the game with no idea what to do. Parable frames it as a mystery to solve: the computer is no longer issuing instructions and Stanley’s office colleagues have all disappeared. Why? What is going on?
After leaving Stanley’s office, the player will encounter the first instance of The Decision, the staple “mechanic” of Parable. The game presents two doors and the narrator tells the story as if the player's decision were pre-determined. The player must choose between exercising free will or carrying out the wishes of the narrator.
In this way, the game initially reads as a meditation on the problem of choice in games, of the awkward tussle between game designer and player. Designers in story-driven games use all sorts of tricks to herd players into making the choices the designers want, from visual cues that make players look up just in time to see some glimpsed thing sprint into the distance, to a well-timed tunnel collapse that eliminates an exit they were approaching, so as to make it clear they should explore the disused mine some more. Parable pretends it’s not going to deceive the player. There's no design psychology at work here, just the decision to accept or reject what the designer desires: it is your choice.
Parable sets the player and narrator against each together in an antagonistic relationship. The player wishes to assert their will and the designer plans to control the player. When you choose “badly”, the narrator tries to shepherd you back to the “right” path. This is also a method of modern design; if the player seems to be going the wrong way, give them another chance or two and bombard them with signals and nudges until the deafening roar of the designer’s voice is all they hear. Parable’s narrator berates the player, hoping to cajole you into doing the right thing but, if tested, he will take direct action.
If the player disobeys the instructions to climb the stairs to the boss’ office and heads down instead they’ll end up with the madness ending. Essentially, the narrator kills the player on a whim, demonstrating a cheap way in which designers herd players back to the path. Even an experimental title like Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) will kill the player if they try to swim out into the sea. You’re not supposed to do that. Come back.
If the player follows a particular sequence of consistent disobedience, the narrator gives up and delivers them to the apartment ending. Stanley is trapped in a tiny claustrophobic room in which the narrator forces the player to press particular keys to progress the story. He talks down to the player and eventually commands them to die. With all games, there’s only so much disobedience a designer can build for.
On the other hand, doing precisely what the narrator asks will produce the freedom ending. The player reaches the “Mind Control Device” – in other words, the game itself – and the narrator expects them to turn it off. If the player complies, Stanley is freed – via a cutscene. The game takes control of Stanley, who walks forward and, in a moment of superb knife-twisting, makes Stanley look around a little. The one thing a player wants to do is look behind to see where they’ve come out from. By following the narrator’s instructions, the player has completely abdicated responsibility for their avatar. This “freedom” is just desserts because why even bother giving you agency if you’re just going to follow orders?
What emerges is a game based on a simple decision tree, with most decisions being so obvious they might as well be posted on a Times Square billboard. THIS IS A DECISION, STANLEY, the game sniggers. Even though the narrator tries to shoo the player towards a particular choice, he has no control over you whatsoever despite his tone and smirk. The choice is always yours.
Yet that choice is still an illusion. During the apartment ending, the narrator says of Stanley, “It barely even mattered what lay behind each door. The mere thought that his decisions would mean something was almost too wonderful to behold!” The players aren’t making real decisions because no player will use the structure as a way to express themselves, to demonstrate their ability to choose. Every player will play again and again, feeling out the borders of this micro-cosmos, until they have exhausted all the possibilities.
There are a few scenarios where the narrator develops a more positive, less domineering relationship with the player. The most notable is the confusion ending, when the player finds a glitch which causes the game to slowly unravel – and the narrator loses control. The narrator attempts to repair the game, plotting “The Stanley Parable Adventure Line” to carve out a safe path through the game as choice seems to have broken it. The narrator and player embark on this journey together but the narrator is shocked to discover he is part of this clockwork machine too. The narrator is not a god; he is subject to a higher authority still.
In another scenario, the narrator realises that the player distrusts him and wants to make amends. This leads to the Zending where the narrator shares a colourful light show with the player and is especially enamoured with his own work. Every time the player makes to leave, the narrator is upset: why don’t you love this thing I made? But there’s nothing for the player to “do” other than commit suicide and when the player finally does this, the narrator is heartbroken. His perfect moment means nothing to the player, his audience. Designers want to be appreciated, whether its through over-laboured cutscenes, pretty graphics or purple prose, but sometimes they are too dazzled by their own achievements to realise a player might just want to skip ahead and get on with “the game”.
There’s also a lesson for players, too. Tom Bissell was upset that he could drive a car directly into a crowd in L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, 2011) and not experience any repercussions, despite the fact he was supposed to be playing a cop in the game. As I wrote two years ago, sometimes we don’t do well in the roles games expect us to play and although we might find something of interest by rejecting expectations, a game can come away damaged from such an encounter. In one Parable scenario, the player breaks the game with a “narrative contradiction” and the narrator is at a loss to understand this act of wilful destruction: “Why? For what? What did you get out of that? What did you think was so special about seeing the game undone?”
But what is the meaning of the parable? That choice in games is merely a convincing illusion? That, by and large, players are subservient to the author when trying to assert themselves in games? Is that it?
The narrator is at his most belligerent when the player chooses to turn on the Mind Control Device instead of shutting it down, because this is an act of outright revolution. The player throws away the narrator's intended ending and tries to take control, to author his own story. But the narrator tells it like it is: “I applaud your effort, I really do, but you need to understand; there's only so much that machine can do.” There are limitations to games and just snatching control away from the designer is not necessarily going to fix anything.
What, then, is the solution?
During the apartment ending, the narrator says,
But I don't make the rules, I simply play to my intended purpose, the same as Stanley. We're not so different, I suppose.
And during the escape ending, a second narrator takes over:
How they wish to destroy one another. How they wish to control one another. How they both wish to be free. Can you see? Can you see how much they need one another?
Playing a game forges a relationship between player and designer and the experience of play is a conversation between them. I’ve previously noted that “all games are multiplayer” and this has been covered elsewhere: there's a whole chapter dedicated to “dialogic game design” in Douglas Wilson’s PhD thesis and a recent GDC presentation by Matthias Worch “Talking To The Player: How Cultural Currents Shape Game and Level Design” (featured in Marginalia earlier this week) also hits similar notes. When the player and designer fight one other, a poor experience is the result. But if players accept a certain level of illusion and designers work to make that illusion comfortable – the result is a conversation where both parties have something interesting to say.
Wreden has made a game in which this theoretical conversation becomes a real one. The narrator is the voice of a narcissistic designer, who thinks the player is there to experience the wonder of his creation. Parable warns against punishing players and I could easily see the game being used on game design courses to spark discussions about the relationship between the designer and player.
Yet the paradox is that Parable is also a shining example of a conversation made good. It is a game in which players recognise free will is limited and their genuine choices few. It is a game that recognises exactly what its players will get up to and knows to react in a way which will amuse them. It is a game in which the narrator assumes the player is dead in the real world because they spent too much time in the Broom Closet. It is a game which feels like playing spot-the-difference as subtle changes take place between sessions. It is a game in which a player is rewarded for pressing buttons with a room that is full of buttons. It is a game in which players enjoy receiving abuse. It is the ultimate Mind Control Device yet also has the utmost respect for the player.
And that is what The Stanley Parable is. It is both warning and example.