Stanley had a simple job: he sat at his desk and pushed buttons on a keyboard as instructed, and he repeated this day in, day out. That was at least until something peculiar happened … so the story begins. This is not a game, it’s an experiment with existentialism and a satirical commentary upon the illusionary notions of agency and choice that form the foundations of all interactive narratives.
The Stanley Parable consists of a series of short plots, guided by the pervasive omnipresence of a disembodied narrator. Through Stanley’s first-person perspective you’re guided through the winding corridors of his office, finding that all of his co-workers have seemingly disappeared. You’re presented with a path that forks out into a labyrinth of crossroads, mostly through the form of a set of doors. Each of these represents a decision that leads you down a different route and an alternate outcome. The narrator instructs you, commenting upon your every action. He tells you which door Stanley takes, though you’re free to defy him. These choices lull you into a false sense of comfort and control, but ultimately they don’t matter anyway, since ‘this story has no end, this is a game you cannot win.’
The entertainment value of the “game” lies in the interplay between the creator and the player. You’re pitted against the narrator to undermine his storyline. However every attempt you make to subvert the course of its inflexible narrative is inconsequential, because any action that you make exists within predetermined parameters. It’s essentially an elaborate flow chart. The confines of linear level design are used as more than just set pieces, they form the basis for a sarcastic caricature of the impossibility of real sandbox gaming.
There seems to be a growing niche in the indie scene towards subversive, experimental forms of entertainment such as The Stanley Parable, led by the likes of Papers Please and Dear Esther. While this is a refreshing change of pace, there are reasonable doubts about its potential as anything more than passing fad. This mixed bag of experience-based ‘art games’ is hit and miss, relying entirely on limited degrees of interactivity and abstract anecdotes rather than any worthwhile gameplay. While they strive to engross us with something different, highbrow ideas run the risk of falling flat upon deaf ears. But should they be judged upon gameplay value in the first place?
I don’t see how ‘art games’ can be appreciated on the same terms as conventional games. These aren’t games as we know them to be. They’re conceptual novelties that are expressed through the language of gaming, so there’s a fundamental difference between the nature of the entertainment values between them.
The thought-provoking quality of The Stanley Parable is certainly out of the ordinary. It’s a perfect example of how the medium of gaming can be used for something truly provocative and artistic, however nonsensical that may be.