That's not down to lethargy, far from it. It'd be easy to write an entire essay on the different ideas present in The Stanley Parable. The fact is, the less you know about the game going in, the better. I don't want to spoil any of it for you.
Having said all that I still need to tell you something, but even though its presentation is simple, and its duration short, there's so much going on in this first-person experience that it's difficult to know where to start. Perhaps the best place is the very beginning.
The Stanley Parable has been around since 2011. Originally a mod made using Valve's Source engine, it built up a significant following in the months and years that followed. So much so that when a handful of cryptic screens were posted up on Steam Greenlight, it was very quickly approved by the community. The mod's original creator, Davey Wreden, has since been building on the foundations laid down in those early days, and the version of the game that was released on Steam last month is the fruit of his studio Galactic Cafe's labour.
The Stanley Parable plays out in the first-person. The player assumes the role of Stanley. A man, unspectacular and nondescript, pushing buttons in an office from dawn to dusk. Our protagonist is accompanied by a narrator, who comments on Stanley's actions throughout, guiding the narrative along via his running commentary. This hook is wonderfully simple, and thoroughly entertaining; the guidance offered by the narrator is there to be ignored. You start the game alone in an empty room in an office bereft of colleagues, and from there are offered a series of different choices. The narrative of the story is formed around your individual decisions, not by a singular pre-prescribed path. Of course you're free to do as you're told, but you don't have to. If you want you're able to wander around the office block, interacting with the environment where possible and soaking up the atmosphere as you go, following any one of the several potential paths through to an eventual conclusion. As soon as the dust settles on one pass, you'll find yourself restarting the game, going back to the beginning to see what else is waiting to be discovered in the corridors of Stanley's place of work.
The majority of the experience can be consumed in just a few hours. There's no great amount of length to The Stanley Parable, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for with depth. The game has a multitude of different endings. I experienced more than ten (though in truth I wasn't counting after a while), each achieved by exploring a different path through the game. The different endings vary in their level of impact, but the majority of them are brilliantly executed. The branching paths taken on the way to each conclusion are just as interesting; the pleasure you'll derive from the journey is equal to the payoff that comes with each ending.
One thing I can tell you about without really spoiling the experience, is the game's constant exploration of the tropes of the first-person genre. It's here that The Stanley Parable dips its toe into parody. Galactic Cafe pokes gentle fun at the genre throughout, regularly pausing to examine a particular facet or idea made institutional by the top tier games that dominate the market. The game is imbued with a wonderful sense of irony; it holds up a mirror to the player and, in a stroke, reduces certain staples of the genre to the punchline of a joke.
Since the close of World War II, writers like Samuel Beckett have been doing much the same thing, confronting their audiences with the absurdity of their own behaviour. Crafting masterpieces of entertainment that masqueraded as comedies, but where the audience was, in reality, laughing at themselves, nervously chuckling away at the ridiculousness of their own actions.
The Stanley Parable walks with a similar gait, all the time asking us to analyse the way we act in the virtual space, urging us to consider the absurdity of the things we do when we engage with games. We're forced to think about how we carry out the actions that we've been programmed to accept through years of conditioning. Yes we might laugh as the game highlights a mechanic that we've grown accustomed to over time, but are we laughing because it's a funny joke, or are we laughing at our own past willingness to submit to these conventions without a second thought?
Another parallel we can draw between this and the writing of Beckett is how The Stanley Parable is a marriage between presentation and content. This is a game about games, about what it is to play them, and what it is to be a gamer. Everything from the different endings and the branching pathways, down to the achievements and hidden secrets, has been assembled in such a way that it all folds into the wider themes that are being highlighted. It also asks the player to consider philosophical questions that extend beyond the remit of gaming. It's probably one of the cleverest, most thought provoking games that I have ever played. Every little thing has been introduced to elicit a response, to provoke a reaction.
One of the standout features of the game is the narration. While it may be Stanley's name on the game, the star of the show is most certainly the script. Kevan Brighting's delivery as the narrator is pitch perfect. His rambling monologues are characterful and rich. He darts between elation and rage. His disappointment is almost palpable when you ignore his directions and cut a different path through the story. Though for all his disappointment, the truth is that all of the decisions you make - even the ones you're told not to - are already set in stone. There's irony in the fact that a game that examines player agency involves so little. Every step has been anticipated before you've made it, every consequence is pre-ordained before the action has even been played out.
In short, it's a modern masterpiece. The only things holding it back from the very highest praise are the rough edges of some of the textures (if I'm being picky), and the brevity of the experience. After a few short hours, most of what the game has to offer will have been seen. But don't let that put you off. It's an utterly unique experience. Thought provoking, insightful, savage and funny, all in equal measure. The Stanley Parable joins the likes of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V as a candidate for Game of the Year. It may not win the accolades it deserves, but then this game isn't about winning, so at the end of the day that's probably quite fitting. The fact that it exists is victory enough.
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