Am I the player? Or am I Stanley? Am I playing a game, or is the game playing me?

My contribution to the Dear Esther discussion we had a while back ended with a statement of optimistic curiosity. I remarked that relegating the concept of the minimally interactive story to the status of a mere gimmick would be a travesty, given that it opened up many interesting avenues for methods of conveying a story to an audience. Since then, a steady trickle of titles have appeared that either embrace Dear Esther’s technique entirely (Gone Home, Among the Sleep), or reduce the scope to that of a pure ’walking simulator’ (Proteus), in which no distinct narrative is implied.

Generally, two characteristics stand out in the collection of narrative titles: the focus on horror as a literary technique, and the relative lack of player-based contributions to the plot. While most require the input of a player to proceed (as is common in any story), the player is afforded little choice in the ultimate outcome of the story.

This minimalistic take on story input is rather surprising, given that an inherent property of games over mediums such as film or books is that a player can control the action beyond simply pausing or slotting in a bookmark. It’s even more surprising when one considers that books have already created an alternate avenue for reader input with the ’choose your own adventure’ format. As such, The Stanley Parable comes as a welcome twist of the single-path narrative, as it heavily relies on the player following (or not following, as it were) the voice of the narrator, whose whims fluctuate depending on the choices the player makes throughout. With the added presence of multiple endings, the player is given the allure of freedom and choice within an otherwise tightly controlled environment.

The Stanley Parable is a delightfully twisted, postmodern interpretation of the video game as a medium, delivered with Monty Python-esque wit and humour. Players control Stanley, an office drone experiencing a situation in which, against its usual routine, the office is completely devoid of people. At numerous junctions, the player is presented with, at the very least, a binary choice, the result of which affects the path the story progresses upon.

The initial point of divergence is not implicitly offered to the player as a dedicated choice. Stanley enters a room and is presented with two open doors. As he enters this room, the narrator, speaking in past tense, states that Stanley entered the door on the left. The doors are completely identical: same colour, same lighting and the same small stretch of hallway beyond that offers no possible clue about how the story will progress. The game offers the player an unimpeded moment to make their own decision: to either listen and mirror the narrator’s story or ignore it completely.

The first choice given to the player and the subsequent results.

From this point onwards, the game veers wildly, expanding exponentially in ridiculousness and playfulness. It constantly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the player’s action (or inaction) and makes pointed references to the fact that the experience is a video game (as well as playing with gaming’s operational tropes, as the narrator ‘restarts’ the game over and over). The game itself is given a form of sentience as it, along with the player at times, belittles and ignores the will of the narrator. As a result, it constantly subverts the player’s expectations, leaving a highly enjoyable labyrinth to repeatedly play through.

The Stanley Parable is a deeply fascinating game, one unlike any other. As a player, it becomes an unintentional quest to metaphysically break free of its trappings and trip it up – to expose its logic and do something within the game that it is not able to predict. Yet the game is seemingly always one-step ahead: be it in the way the narrator exasperatedly comments upon Stanley’s diversion from its plot or makes reference to gaming tropes, the player is constantly rewarded (or punished, depending on your viewpoint) for their input. It’s an experience that is maddeningly satisfying, torturously pleasurable, or any other combination of opposing adjectives. Control and freedom are seemingly given to the player and then immediately questioned by making the player aware that the game is a constructed experience and, therefore, all decisions made within are predicted.

If Dear Esther offered merely a glimmer into what could be done with a story in the medium of games as opposed to film or book, then The Stanley Parable opens Pandora’s box and dives in earnestly. This style of experience goes far beyond the rudimentary choices afforded to the reader in a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, as the player is consistently given feedback on the choices they do or don’t make in a richly dynamic and varied fashion. It is truly a showcase for the power of interactivity to create something deeper than a physical manifestation of imagination or fantasy, to which all mediums generally rely upon as a technique. To lose yourself within a story and to simultaneously ignore and embrace the conventions and machinations of playing a video game is an utterly remarkable sight to behold, much like the rather splendid employee lounge that our dear Stanley happens across.

The Stanley Parable is available on Steam.