Intermission: The Stanley Parable
by Diego Beltrami
What is The Stanley Parable? Maybe it could be best described as a deconstruction of the actual status of storytelling in games. It’s a game that simply tries to show you the puppet strings developers use when making games. It doesn’t make fun of them, but it has A LOT of fun with them. It’s genuinely funny, it’s clever and it’s quite unique while basically being nothing special to begin with.
The Stanley Parable is, at its core, a choose your own adventure book in videogame form. That alone is not much of an accomplishment, what makes it unique its how it plays with it. It knows what it is and it knows that actually every game narrative is simply that with different disguises. Videogames, when they’re not absolutely lineal, tell their stories in a branching form, much like a tree. During certain points, usually effusively signposted, the player has a choice between two (on occasion there could be more, but it’s not common) options, from that point onwards the story changes certain things. Sometimes are small details or a completely different ending (reading ending as final sequence/cutscene). Most games are quite transparent with these things, you can clearly trace back the consequences to which of your decisions caused it. Some games like The Witcher obscured this to its advantage creating a more interesting narrative, being that anything the player might be doing could have unforeseen but logical consequences later down the road.
What The Stanley Parable does is embracing this and play with the shared knowledge that both the game creators (and thus the game) and the player have of this system. It makes fun of it, it pushes it to the limit. More than that, it rewards the player for pushing it with new and different narratives, more jokes and a few hats off to the player. It shows the puppet strings, makes a few jokes about it while amiably winking at the player. Of course this can only work if the player is familiar with the system. It’s a game for gamers, other people might laugh at some jokes but will not get the fullest of the experience.
And what a experience! A game that genuinely is funny is a rare sight. Presentation is everything here, is what makes the whole narrative deconstruction works. A more serious take would’ve gotten dull fast. Here the jokes keep the player moving forward and in that the inclusion and preponderance of the narrator proved to be a fantastic decision. Not only it helps make the game about the story it also puts the player in a direct relationship with it by personifying it. And the game relishes in this relationship of love, hate, despair, suffering, joy, anger and much more. It directly confronts the player with the narrative and with this it indirectly incites a rebellious acting in the player. It most defining moment is when it tells the player to choose certain door instead of another. This leads to the first branch and if the player, knowing the tropes, chooses the wrong door against the wishes of the narrative makes its first steps into the special journey. Only that this act of rebellion is also part of the system, you’re still playing into the predetermined paths the developers set for you to play, and here lies the genius of The Stanley Parable, where even escaping the map is planned and made part of the narrative. Your rebellion against the system is part of the system.
The only winning move is not to play.
That or have fun with it. Preferably the latter.