Electron Dance
24Oct/13Off

The Stanley Paradox

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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Comments (9) Trackbacks (4)
  1. Yay, I was waiting for this post! Good analysis. I think this does a good job of expanding on the idea that the game is “inviting you to dance.” I think I understand some subtle things in the game much better now that you’ve picked them out.

  2. Thanks Amanda. I felt fired up to get this done, even though it wasn’t in the Warm Up schedule. I’m not professing this was Wreden’s intention but it’s what I read from it as I was playing. I felt an Electron Dance article unfolding with every movement I made in the game =) There were some additional points in the narration that supported my interpretation but the article begins to fray at the edges when loaded up with too much baggage. There’s about 500 or so words that were deleted from this essay.

    I’d love to have talked more about the special details. Some of the videos of the Broom Closet don’t show what happens when you go back into the closet after the narrator acknowledges you as the replacement of the previous dead player (“not you as well!” and then he calls for a monkey to play the game). The Broom Closet is an microexample of how players want to “exhaust” games and eke out every dialogue branch, which is The Stanley Parable all over – it’s a game that mocks you for not exhausting it. (Compare to Lone Survivor, which is a hellish effort to revisit and dig out more of the game unless you totally love the experience.)

    And there are elements of other games lying around. I saw Payday, Papers Please and a reference to Cart Life. I’m sure I didn’t catch them all. This can be taken as a genuine shout-out to peers or, alternatively, more evidence that the game is “built” and exists in a theatrical back stage, where elements of previous productions haven’t quite been moved off stage – which relates nicely with the back stage-type sections when you’ve broken the game with a “narrative contradiction” or explore scenes from the original Stanley Parable.

    The environment is packed full of odd details – like the paperwork scattered around is actually more varied that you’d expect. I’ve got a screenshot of a sign hidden behind a board that says (possibly paraphrasing) “Warning: This sign may not contain information.”

    (I did also wonder if the narrator’s indignation at Stanley activating the Mind Control Device was a poke at any developers who have an elitist stance, who look down at “ordinary folks” making games.)

  3. I don’t know from all this highfalutin college boy fancy talk.

    I find Stanley Parable interesting from a comedy standpoint–the game is FUNNY. Well, the first one is. I don’t know about the remake.

    I guess I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll just go hide in the Broom Closet.

  4. Eric, I addressed the comedy in line 4 with the phrase “game is fun”. I felt like that was pretty much all I had to say on the matter.

    Sorry, I still have the narrator in my head.

  5. I’d never heard of this in its mod incarnation (Side note: it’s weird to me that there are still mods for Half-Life 2, and that people hear about them) and only recently discovered it on a certain aggregator’s front page. One second it sounds pretentious and cranky, the next it sounds truly interesting.

    I’ve heard there’s a demo so I guess I’ll start there.

  6. Well, someone on Twitter told me they didn’t like it. But it’s okay! I liked it. It didn’t make me laugh out loud, but I enjoyed fiddling in its corridors. The demo is great – it is like extra material and doesn’t spoil a single thing about the game.

    You can also try one of many trailers, they are all excellent. Honestly, that Davey Wreden is incredibly good at marketing.

  7. Very well observed and articulated Joel. While I too thought that the game was about the relationship between the player and the designer (there were so many sequences where the narrator pointed out or showed that we needed each other), I couldn’t glean as many different readings from that as you have. For instance, the looking over the shoulder thing or the Zending or the forced button pressing.

    I love how you’ve put your final point across with “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.” I think that’s probably the best lens to view the game through, and perhaps a lot other games too.

    The quote from Tom Bissell was apt and kind of aggravated me because, well, you can act like a douche in any game and ‘break’ it. There are limits to what a game can conceivably pre-empt (The Stanley Parable does this beautifully). I’m betting you can really screw the pooch with tabletop roleplaying if you play without any sort of code of conduct. It’s very much about how you play with the developer/game-master and how they play with you; it’s a relationship of mutual respect, and The Stanley Parable really revels in that sort of exchange as well as its limits and eventually so does the player.

    Hang on, there wasn’t a quote from Tom Bissell in this article. That’s from Stop Crying About Choice. ARTICLE CROSS CONTAMINATION. It does fold in neatly though.

    Anyway, I loved The Stanley Parable and rank it up there with Portal for its sophistication and wit. I think it’s essential reading now for any self-respecting gamer. Reading your article, I think I missed the full Broom Closet ending because I don’t recognise some of that dialogue — I did see the door boarded shut and remember thinking ‘wtf?’ when I saw the reference to an employee being locked in there on one of the whiteboards.

    I think the baby/puppy art ending had me laughing the most with the obnoxious noises, the super basic interactivity, the narrator’s gleeful satisfaction with THE ART and especially the text that was obscured by the divine art monolith. I love you.

  8. “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.”

    I’m slow; what was this joke going to be?

  9. “I’M NOT GOING GOT MAKE THIS JOKE” Basically it was opening the article with a choose joke e.g. “you can choose to read this or you can choose to go read something else. I knew the internet would be awash with choice pun-crammed reviews of The Stanley Parable. Just look at the one on RPS, for example. I couldn’t do this to you guys.

    With the Broom Closet, you have to wait in there long enough until the narrator eventually assumes “the player is dead”. What’s even better is once you leave, the narrator is sure this new player is going to be so much better- and then loses his rag if you then head straight back into the Broom Closet. It is one of the funniest moments: it is super-knowing about player response to content triggers. The narrator nails the fucking closet shut after that, which is the final joke wrung out of the sequence.

    I think you can see a lot of my touchstones coming out now Gregg – single-player games are player/developer collaborations, and that’s why the Tom Bissell thing has always irritated me too. If you set out to deliberately break games then moan that games are broken, I don’t have any sympathy for you. It’s like pulling the costumes off Disney characters – THEY’RE NOT REAL. I’M NOT IMMERSED.