What You Shouldn’t Know about The Stanley Parable

I kept thinking about Antichamber (yes, again) while playing The Stanley Parable—and more specifically, while deciding what the hell I was going to write about The Stanley Parable.

True, the version that’s out today contains a far greater quantity of disorienting Escher-inflected, non-Euclidian, generally Antichamberish spaces than the original Half-Life 2 mod did, but it’s more than that: I kept thinking, man, here’s another game that can actually be spoiled by spoilers. It’s Antichamber crossed with Gone Home in that aspect, with its loving attention to meaningful environmental detail on the one hand, and its richly frayed reality on the other. Both are better when they’re discovered rather than described.

As the description for the old mod puts it:

You will make a choice that does not matter
You will follow a story that has no end
You will play a game you cannot win
…it’s actually best if you don’t know anything about it before you play it : D

True enough. So I won’t spoil any of the game’s specific surprises. I was lucky enough to get to play it before release, and was thereby saved the siren song of FAQs and forum posts. Looking at the list of achievements (which included instructions like “Don’t play The Stanley Parable for five years,” and “It is impossible to get this achievement”) only raised further questions.

I was on my own. That is, until I had some people join me in playing. Then we were on our own, calling out suggestions to whoever was at the keyboard and laughing out loud more than we had at any game since Portal 2.

Let me start again.

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The Stanley Parable tells an entirely linear story, if you allow it to. As with any good parable, its events require some rumination. There’s a lesson, but that lesson isn’t straightforward. Revisit it and you’ll be rewarded with greater understanding. All that parable stuff.

But this particular parable explicitly and constantly needs your cooperation to proceed. A narrator’s voice says that “Stanley took the door on the left,” and you, as Stanley, have to decide whether or not you’re going to go ahead and take the door on the left. You don’t have to, after all. You could take the door on the right instead, for several possible reasons:

    1. You think what’s behind the door on the right might be more interesting.
    2. You want to assert your freedom to choose, regardless of the choice itself.
    3. You want to goof off and be a jerk.

Whether or not those are actually distinct motivations is kind of debatable, now that I think about it.

But the point is, The Stanley Parable is non-linear in the way that every game is non-linear (I as a player can do something other than what I’m supposed to do), and also, utterly linear in the way that every game is utterly, infuriatingly linear (I as a player can only do what the designers have accounted for).

The Stanley Parable tries to account for everything you as a player could do other than what the story says you’re supposed to do. If you take the door on the right, or if you stay completely still, or if you run around touching every object in the room, the narrator will adjust his narration accordingly.

You truly feel like you’re being watched, and judged, and thwarted—like you’re repeatedly failing to outsmart your unseen, possibly unknowable adversary. Maybe he’s not even your adversary. He’s just this hilarious, frightening, predictable, unpredictable, deceitful, earnest, fatherly, impotent, omnipotent sociopathic maybe-human. The game refuses to pin him down to any single motivation. In that sense he’s much more GLaDOS in Portal than GLaDOS in Portal 2.

Let me try this one more time.

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The Stanley Parable is a closed system daring you to push against its edges and see just how closed it is. The game stays one step ahead of your attempts at rebellion largely by keeping its verbs limited: You walk, you look, you frob doors and buttons and switches. That’s pretty much it.

But of course, that’s all the interactive latitude that a player needs to throw a plot into considerable chaos—and the more boldly/petulantly you mess with the tale being spun, the weirder the proceedings get. Again, no spoilers, but The Stanley Parable is even more dense with genuine surprises than this year’s other exemplar of not-going-where-you-think-it-will, Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please.

Every branching path in The Stanley Parable has its own narrative flavor and its own special way of screwing with you. It’s a thing of admirable construction and lunatic beauty. If you’re at all interested in how games tell their stories, then you owe it to yourself to at least play the demo, a standalone experience that manages to explain where the game is coming from without ultimately explaining much of anything, kind of like I’ve been trying to do here. I’d recommend that over playing the original mod, if you’re looking to dip a toe.

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Look. I’m being vague about this game for the same reason I might be vague about, say, Frog Fractions. Which is to say that The Stanley Parable deserves to be passed around like an urban legend. It deserves the opportunity to confound you, and to show you things that you didn’t even remotely expect (not to mention trippy mutations of things that you almost certainly did expect).

I can promise that you’ve never played anything quite like this. And yes, to a certain degree, that’s true even if you’ve already played the mod. Even then. Though to quote some good advice I once read:

…it’s actually best if you don’t know anything about it before you play it : D

Hard to argue with that.

4 comments

    • Thanks very much for reading, and for the kind words (and also for the de facto link to your own blog :D ).

  1. Just wanted to reassure you that I appreciate your intentional mimicry of the Narrator’s mannerisms for the sake of adding another layer of recursion to the game (in the guise of a review). Like the game itself, perhaps you were content just to create such a piece, without wondering whether anyone would notice the fine details and witty structure. But it is always encouraging when someone does pick up on it. I’m sure I’m not the first who has.

    • Aww, shucks.

      You’re not the first to notice, but you’re one of the few who’s taken the time to comment—so thanks very much for that!

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