Stanley Parable is the "Lost in the Funhouse" of video games.
Not all of the narrator's suggestions are subtle.
The Stanley Parable is the best game since the last game I played but – and this is a caveat the size of a small island nation – the last game I played was finally getting around to installing Terraria and, oh no, where did the weekend go. All I have to show for it is a glinting tree-house fortress built out of glass I smelted myself, from sand I dug out of a desert crawling with nasty buzzards and flying earwigs called "eaters of soul." Eesh. Stanley Parable, on the other hand, is the kind of game you'll rush to show your non-gamer friends, instead of concealing the magnitude of the time you spend on it, afraid that if everyone knew the truth, you'd be cast out of polite society (already on the edge there) or politely introduced to Dr. Perkins, who is a very nice man, and please won't you come with us, we'd liked to have a quick chat with you. There you go. That wasn't so hard, was it?
But back to the sharp-witted, medium-legitimizing matter at hand. Please note that the rest of this post will contain about as many spoilers as commas. If you are, for some reason, not going to play The Stanley Parable, then, please, read on. If you have yet to take this gem out for a test drive, please bookmark this terribly insightful post (there, that's a good reader) and come back later. Or you can watch the launch trailer at the bottom.
A drafty, unfinished portion of the game. Note the placeholder images.
Stanley Parable started out as a Half-Life 2 mod, and the HD remake/expansion in Valve's Source engine plays, in some ways, like the best Valve game of the year, though this meta-yarn of office life and video game development comes from small studio Galactic Cafe. Source, though starting to show its age, still has a wonderful facility with light and making plain materials pop to life, which is a bonus, as "Stanley" begins at the character's nondescript desk and wanders out into the deserted halls of his office building, where all his fellow drones have mysteriously disappeared. Controlling from first-person perspective, the player begins to receive cues from a narrator, and may disregard them, as I did at first, to investigate each room in detail. Games – especially adventure games, as Stanley Parable probably is – have conditioned us to sweep across rooms like evidence collection technicians. Hide a box of shotgun shells under a desk, we'll find it. Is that hammer resting on a table a collectible object or a static part of the scenery? Knowing to check is gaming 101.
Stanley Parable, however, pokes fun at you for dawdling and hitting the action button ("E") in front of everything. I wandered off course and into the office's break room, and the narrator started to badger me over my affection for such a drab space. It was then that I realized this relationship between player and narrator wasn't always going to be pleasant. I controlled the player – and I controlled the story, in a way – but he appeared to have some control over the environment, however limited. His greatest power lay in knowing what was around the next corner, which I didn't (at first). If I wandered off course, took door B instead of door A, he would wheedle, excoriate, implore, plead, threaten, do just about anything to wrest back control. He became very frustrated. Was this a sandbox game? No! The narrator had an entire sequence of events, locations and challenges planned out, and here I was wandering all over the place like a buffoon.
I unplugged this phone. The jerky narrator wanted me to answer it.
Hardcore fans (often of console games) make hobbies out of exploiting tricks and glitches to reach otherwise unexplorable sections of game worlds, often finding unfinished rooms or placeholder textures – conceptual static. Stanley Parable, with one exception, makes an entire game out of this sort of thing and has tremendous fun with it along the way. If you follow one rabbit hole far enough, and stroke the narrator's ego just enough, he'll start to develop a new game for you on the fly. As it turns out, he's been working on a totally crap game that requires the player to push a giant red button, to prevent a cardboard cutout of a baby from sliding helplessly into a fire, which is hilarious. But also unsettling.
If the narrator is the game's auteur – and also sort of crap at designing video games, as the baby-game suggests – then what am I doing playing Stanley Parable at all? At the level of Stanley's character, he can't get out. Every time he dies or reaches one of several of the game's endings, he's restarted at the beginning, like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." Minor alterations crop up along the way, but not many. A clock appears on the wall, or does it. Is the narrator's patience wearing thin? He's certainly capable of deep insecurities and self-interest – no narrator at all, once he's pushed. Follow his directions to the letter, however, and you're delivered to a happy ending (and immediately re-deposited in Stanley's office). The end is never the end, unless you close the program.
The Stanley Parable also includes a sprawling museum about The Stanley
Thankfully, this isn't all about Stanley actually being crazy, etc. Aren't games crazy anyway? A voice in your head, giant guns, carnivorous ant lions, in game-space, anything goes. Stanley Parable's trick is suggesting you've stepped out of game-space and into some nether-space, not unlike Portal, to which it pays homage. The feminine, pacifying narrator in Valve's first person puzzler also breaks conventions and lures you deeper into manipulation and ultimate betrayal. In Galactic Cafe's game, my favorite wing in the crazy-hotel is the forgotten, half-finished fifth floor, which lies at the end of a particularly long rabbit hole. It's one of the few places where the narrator's witty, fearful gibbering fades away completely – until the screen goes black, that is, and Mr. British Accent is back, talking about you in third person.
Parable. Seriously, it's right there in the game.
The end is never the end. (And in that spirit, see the trailer below.)
The enigmatic Fifth Floor.
Stanley Parable can be found on Steam for $11.99 until a 20 percent discount runs out on Oct. 23. Then you'll have to pay $14.99.
Does the plight of Employee 427 (Stanley) at all resemble the habits of dedicated
gamers? You be the judge.