As a relatively fledgling medium, video games are often seen as outsiders to the world of creative story telling. Complex and thought provoking narration is often a tertiary aspect behind presentation and gameplay. Unlike movies and static art, though, video games share a certain kinship with traditional books. Like books, video games require user engagement and change according to the whim of the reader or player. Video games can be seen as three-dimensional books, in which readers can navigate a predetermined world created by an author. Although a game’s author—or developer—“writes” games and intends to deliver a certain experience, the experience is ultimately subject to the perspective of the player. Galactic Café’s, The Stanley Parable, stands apart as a game that breaks the established paradigms of its medium and challenges the potential games have as story-telling mechanisms.
Davey Wreden first conceptualized The Stanley Parable as an interactive fiction game modification of Valve Corporation’s Half Life 2 and its corresponding Source engine. Later—with the help of Source engineer, William Pugh—the game received a stand-alone treatment, and Davey and Pugh released a polished version of The Stanley Parable in its current digitally distributed form in late 2013 for Windows and OS X. At its core, The Stanley Parable is a satirical and self-referential interactive novel in the guise of a traditional video game.
The opening narrative is a simple one: the player begins as Stanley—from the first person perspective—who works at an office where he is tasked to repeat the commands his desk computer tells him. If the computer indicates “press 0,” he presses “0.” The player takes over during a day when things seem amiss. Specifically, all of Stanley’s coworkers have mysteriously disappeared. The framework narrative of the game merely acts as a means to persuade the player to move forward through an abandoned office building, which becomes eerily maze-like the further the player takes Stanley. Central to the game’s narrative is the narrator, voiced by Kevan Brighting. The narrator haunts Stanley’s every move, often saying things he’ll (you’ll) do, before he (you do) does them. If Stanley comes upon two open doors, the narrator suggests taking the door on the left. If Stanley happens to disobey the narration, he gets annoyed and adjusts his story telling.
As a game, The Stanley Parable plays with little consequence. There are no lives, enemies, life-bars, or power-ups, and the player can only more using the W,A,S, and D keys while interacting with objects, like doors, with the E key. The player simply is tasked with navigating Stanley through the depths of his mysterious workplace as the narrator comments of his every move. It is the game’s stripped nature of the gameplay and ever-suggestive narrator that reveal the its true message; do you dare challenge the status quo?
The Stanley Parable turns just about every trope, cliché, and preconception about video games—and as an analog, life—on its head and toward center-stage. Stanley’s office itself is with cliché’s and satirical elements. From the inspirational company posters to the slideshows about “interpersonal conflict,” The Stanley Parable leaves no stone unturned in offering snide commentary about the formulaic endeavors of everyday life. When the game turns the mirror on itself, it lets the player know with eagerness and a tongue planted in its cheek. If a player happens to spend too much time in a place of little consequence—such as a broom closet or an employee lounge—the narrator sarcastically quips about how marvelous the inconsequential space is or suggests that perhaps the player died at the controls. Every one of the game’s multiple endings—triggered by the player’s decisions throughout—offer a thought provoking observation on not only how the player played the game, but how people make choices in everyday life and whether or not they truly have agency in the choices they make. The end result is a thought provoking text that could only be as potent as it is because it is a game and the player is making the “decisions.” The Stanley Parable, perhaps through simply curiosity, manages to elicit the player to explore every cubicle, office, broom closet, employee lounge, and ultimately, page, of this thought-provoking tale to ask who is really in control.
Richard Sena was a student of Dr. Lisa Swanstrom for a course in Science Fiction & Simulation taught at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring term of 2014.