The Stanley Parable: Choice in Games

The Stanley Parable is a 2013 game by Galactic Cafe, and everything I have to say about it constitutes as a spoiler. No article will ever do experiencing this game justice. Do yourself a favor and download it from Steam, right now, and play through it a couple times before you read on wards. Knowing anything at all will only taint the first experience of it and that would be a severe injustice. The Stanley Parable was both a gift and a delight to play, each time I have picked it up. 

Though I feel that discussing it with those who have not played it would be only a detriment to those who haven't experienced it yet, the game does open up a discussion about the nature of choice in games that I think is worth having. 

I played through the Stanley Parable with a big, stupid grin plastered to my face the entire time. The comforting voice in my ear, slowly starting to lose patience with me and really form a repartee with my silent protagonist, was something quiet magical. Remember those I mentioned spoilers? Consider this the point of no return. The two doors, if you will. The door on your left and the door on your right. The whole of the game can be boiled down into the choices presented by the narrator, whom has set up Stanley, the player character, as someone who always follows orders. So, if the narrator says, "Stanley walked through the door on the left," then it can be reasonably assumed by reasonable people that Stanely will... 

... do as the player chooses 

The first path I chose was to follow the voice's instructions. Hey, what can I say, I wanted to see what happened if I played as myself, which translates out to playing as someone afraid of conflict. Yes, even with the invisible man in the sky telling me where to go. The second play through was purposefully contrite, jumping off of platforms and interrupting him, and it was quite a different narrator. He went from coddling and perhaps benevolent, to snarky and sarcastic and exasperated. He took me into Minecraft and then out of Minecraft after bemoaning how open ended it all was. He took me into Portal and laughed his best Glad0s laugh. I then proceeded to play bits of Portal, with another invisible antagonist insulting me. I cannot think of another game -- another form of media -- where I was spirited back into a different experience, a different game and story that I remembered fondly, and have it be part of the new game. The game I was playing was jumping from game to game like some cartoon might when doing a genre mash-up episode! It spoke to the little, excitable child in me, while the adult was too busy grinning through it to truly think until the experience was mostly through. 

This second play through was more eye opening than the first, where the narrator berates Stanley (the player character) for having so many ideas about the perfect video game, contending that he doesn't need "your" advice or "your" ratings, as a very pointed dig at the video gaming audience. The main character is introduced as a man whose only job is to push buttons. The monitor in front of him told him when to push buttons, for how long, and the game says that though this sounds quite boring, Stanley never questions it. I, meanwhile, needed no tutorial to know that WASD would move Stanley and that moving the mouse would cause him to look around. I am Stanley, and Stanley is me. 

The game brings to light some interesting questions of designing and writing a video game around player actions. What is it that we know about players? Well, number one, is that generally they tend to want to touch everything, want to explore everything, want to push boundaries in what the game is allowing them to do. The Stanley Parable embraces this as few games do by making it a key design feature. Even in the hunt for achievements, a hallmark of modern gaming, the developers are poking fun at their audience to great effect. Everyone I know who has played the game has done so with a similar reaction to mine: with a big, stupid grin splitting our faces. 

To steal a quote, "The Stanley Parable is smart, truly funny and loves to wrongfoot its players." By presenting choice in such an engaging and, yes, funny manner (Portal I think proved quite well that having a funny platform for your otherwise serious themed game was an A+ strategy), the Stanley Parable serves as a neat little box of what many major gaming studios are more ineptly trying to explore. The concept of choice is quickly becoming ever present in video games, from moral choice systems in everything from sprawling fantasy epics to first person shooters, to the resurgence of a choose-your-own-adventure sub-genre of gaming. It's a popular system and it is not hard to see why. Video games are uniquely equipped to handle to concept of choice. Books, movies, television, comics, and other media struggle to impart the simple choice so effortlessly presented by the Stanley Parable: which door do you choose? 

One of the most interesting discussions of choices in games was given by Extra Credits, which I have linked below. The stress in the video is a question of choice vs consequence, for example how and when does the player make the decision and get the result. The Stanley Parable uses the narrator to help guide the player in these choices, to help the player see through Stanley what we can find out about ourselves in these choices that we make. Do we immediately rebel in the game world against a voice telling us what to do? Is that a commentary on us as people or on the video games we have been raised on, teaching us that if we do not fully explore we may never get a chance to backtrack? What is it about us that makes us yearn for some completionist trophy, to compulsively seek out every possible ending? Video games, like the Stanley Parable, offer us a truly unique and interactive way to explore these questions and more, in a way that has not been possible before in traditional media. It is one of the most exciting things to watch for in the industry, I believe, and I look forwards to seeing what video games are able to do with the simple tool of choice in the future.