As usual I always have my finger on the pulse, so I’ve just gotten round to playing a game released over a year ago. Perusing the Steam holiday sale I came across The Stanley Parable, and having heard goods things about it, I figured I couldn’t really go wrong at £2.99.
The Stanley Parable actually began life as a Half-Life 2 mod released back in July 2011 by amateur game developer Davey Wreden. In response to the mod’s popularity, Wreden teamed up with William Pugh to create an expanded standalone version built using Valve’s Source engine and published in October 2013 through Steam’s Greenlight service.
And I have to say, it’s one of the most bizarre and original games I’ve ever played.
Press “U” to question nothing
It’s hard to describe The Stanley Parable without actually spoiling the game for those who’ve never played it, but I’ll try. Stanley works in room 427 of a big building. His job is to sit in his office all day and push buttons on his computer as instructed by his monitor. And apparently he loves it. But one day the orders stop coming through and Stanley leaves his office to discover that all his co-workers have mysteriously vanished.
From here on you take control of Stanley, but as you explore the building looking for answers it’s obvious that something is not quite right. Not to mention that everything you do is commented on, often sarcastically or mockingly, by the narrator (brilliantly voiced by Kevan Brighting).
The Stanley Parable is more like an interactive art installation than an actual game. Humorous, silly, surreal, atmospheric, cryptic, self-referential and philosophical, it’s a Kafkaesque world of non-sequiturs, labyrinths, infinity loops and multiple permutations. It explores the nature of choice, the drudgery of everyday life, the desire for escapism and the seemingly inconsequentialness of existence. It sounds pretentious, but it never takes itself too seriously – it’s all very light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek.
A far cry
But perhaps the strongest theme is the nature of video games themselves. The Stanley Parable cleverly parodies FPS narrative/structural tropes (it’s hard not to see an influence from games like Half-Life and Portal). It directs and manipulates you; it predicts everything you end up doing and then taunts you for it. It examines the way in which we use video games as a means of escapism and to facilitate our fantasies of freedom and our urge to explore new worlds. But is the freedom of choice in video games mostly an illusion?
For good measure, the creators even throw in some piss-take achievements such as “Welcome back!” (quit the game and then start it again), “Click on door 430 five times”, and “Go outside” (don’t play The Stanley Parable for five years).
In fact it’s the game that Far Cry 3 (FC3) wished it was. Back in 2012, the game’s developers as well as countless reviewers told us how clever FC3 is because it mocks FPS clichés. Yet for all for its attempts to be ironic, satirical and self-aware, FC3 is just another formulaic semi-open world shooter (with a few minigames thrown in for distraction) that is entirely reliant as a game on the very tropes it supposedly parodies. In contrast, The Stanley Parable exists independently of those tropes. It constantly defies and plays with your expectations, whereas FC3 simply reinforces them.
The Stanley Parable is a unique, entertaining, thought-provoking and genuinely funny game. That said, it’s not something you will get countless hours of gameplay out of and the replayability factor is pretty low once you’ve discovered most of the pathways and Easter eggs. But I guess that’s not really the intention – it’s more an experience than a game. Long live the indie scene!