When boiled down to their simplest form, many games (particularly story-driven adventures) are nothing more than intricate labyrinths disguised to create the impression that the player is truly in control. Whether we spy a particularly enticing mountain of cake or receive gruff orders from our commanding officer, developers do everything in their power to guide us down a specific hallway, or have us interact with the environment in a manner that matches their creative vision. They’re the director and we’re the actors, but instead of asking us to give a convincing performance, games are determined to craft an illusion that our role is somehow legitimate, and that we’re fully in control of your own destiny.
When we started playing these games at a young age, we created fond memories of accomplishing tasks that wouldn’t feel out of place in an ancient Greek poem. Over the years, we’ve saved princesses, defeated hordes of monsters determined to destroy earth, and even cheated death several times by crawling from the gates of hell itself. But as we play game after game, we start to see the patterns; though we may be offered the choice to burn a village or save it, we’re still following a carefully constructed script. Hollowness creeps in, and instead of seeing gorgeous sunsets or gigantic armies, we see clumps of pixels, animation riggings, glitches and the ever-pervasive invisible hand guiding us through expensive, setpiece action sequences. We see the facade shatter as we play; we’re the puppets who can see the hands that pull our strings.
The Stanley Parable is all too aware that we’ve discovered our chains, but rather than setting us free, it wants to have a conversation with us. Are we truly happy when we unquestioningly walk through the red door, or do we desire to stray from the course and take the blue door? Does the choice even matter when the designer clearly planned yet another path for us to take behind the blue door, further cementing our actions to their will? Are we finally deciding for ourselves if we just sit there and do nothing, or is our stubborn self-awareness merely delaying the inevitable?
The Parable loads us with questions, but it’s hardly interested in providing us with any de facto answers. Instead, it plops us into an empty office where an omniscient narrator (played by the wonderfully emotive Kevan Brighting) resides. Following his cues results in a fairly straightforward story that lasts for a meager 8 minutes, but even the simple act of disobedience causes an abrupt shift in demeanor. Through our decisions, streaks of humanity run through the narrator’s voice; he’ll transform into a dastardly mastermind, a sympathetic victim, a jovial companion and various other personas to suit the situation.
Taking cues from the Monty Python troupe, The Stanley Parable knows that the best way to ask its questions involves hitting us head-on with the absurdity of the situation. This is a game that anticipates every off-kilter decision we might make and rewards us for testing its limits, with a cheeky act of acknowledgement by the narrator or a closet unable to cope with our erratic behavior. I’m being vague on purpose; since actions are limited to walking around the office and touching specific objects, experiencing the sight gags and hilarious quips is the whole purpose of the game.
In the most reductive form possible, The Stanley Parable is a $15 conversation. But what a conversation it is! Through an unrivaled sense of wit and awareness, it deconstructs every single-player game ever made and asks us how we feel about the myriad illusions used to keep us entwined in its story. As we shift into a promising new generation and labyrinths are constructed anew, these questions need answering.
A review code for The Stanley Parable was provided by Galactic Cafe. The Stanley Parable retails for $15 and can be found here, but the author of this text also suggests that you play the free demo on the same page before buying the game. It gives you a taste for the full experience without spoiling anything, and has plenty of clever, unique jokes that aren’t found in the proper game.