You play Stanley, the narrator declares, a content worker drone in a nondescript office. Sitting up from your desk at work one day, you realize that everyone is gone. The narrator shepherds you towards the cafeteria, to see where everyone’s gone. On your way there, you come across a set of two doors. The narrator tells to take the one on the left, which will lead you to the cafeteria. But do you continue to follow his instructions?
So begins the Stanley Parable, a remarkable work of interactive storytelling that’s been gathering steam across the Internet on sites big and small. Wired lauds it as being “brilliant” and warns that “will mess with your head”; Kotaku praises it for “turn[ing] video game storytelling on its head”; and Ars Technica quotes one of their readers who calls it “an art-game… a work of metafiction.” But don’t be fooled by the hype, the Stanley Parable is actually a very, very small game. The total playtime for getting all of the game’s six endings clocks to under an hour, and the controls are that of a first-person shooter without any shooting (you mostly walk). Everything about the game is deceptively simple. Yet this little demo has been so well received that a remake has already been penned a month after its release. It helps that, in its current form, the game is free for download for anyone with access to Valve’s Source SDK (basically you need to have Half Life 2 or one of its derivatives).
Surrounded by so much press, the Stanley Parable has become the sudden poster child for a rich and growing sub-genre of narrative games. Better known examples of this genre include Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain or Rockstar Games’ L.A. Noire. Lesser known examples include Tale of Tales’ the Graveyard and thechineseroom’s Dear Esther. All of these games are driven by their narratives, with the gameplay playing an obviously minor and supporting role. Of course, the degree to which these are “games” varies drastically. L.A. Noire plays like a story-heavy Grand Theft Auto, whereas Dear Esther sole interactions are walking, crawling and jumping (which thechineseroom puts to surprisingly good use).
The Stanley Parable employs a similar sparsity of controls (walk, climb, flip switch), but it excels by toying with the idea of the narrative, the narrator and the illusion of free will in a video game. The game puts you in the driver’s seat in the negotiation of the relationship between player and narrator, and inadvertently offers a spirited commentary on non-linear games. The Stanley Parable‘s most outstanding feature is its six endings, all of which complement one and another while remaining markedly different. While multiple endings in games is nothing new, the Stanley Parable really nails it by drastically changing the situation and story depending on your actions. It’s not merely about making clever choices to get the “good” or “bad” ending; the Stanley Parable digs much deeper than that.
I would love to say more, but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Try it for yourself. After all, it’s free.
Article by Jason Li, August 22, 2011.