The reader of Rock, Paper, Shotgun clicked on the “Read the rest of this entry” button. No, the reader clicked on the button. The button, right below this text. It was clicked on, if anything useful was going to happen.
John: It’s the funniest game in years.
That’s not my recent-o-brain misremembering. It is, without question, the funniest videogame in… I’ve no idea how long. I think I’d go back to the 90s. Heck, forget videogames. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve experienced in a long time. And for me – for someone for whom comedy is incredibly valued and fascinating – that’s one of the highest compliments I can give. How often this game made me laugh, and how cleverly it went about it, is so important to me.
I love that I’ve played it so much, gone through it over and over, and I still see screenshots of places I don’t recognise. I love that as I play it over and over, I start to lose track of the game’s own internal unreality, start to wonder if I’m really starting again, or if I’m stuck in the game’s progressive spiral, being drawn in further and further, never knowing if a fresh start is really a fresh start, or if my choices are being restricted in some new, peculiar way. Why are the corridors suddenly covered in post-it notes this time? Is that a random thing? Or am I so much deeper in its idiotic rabbit hole than I’d realised.
There’s no question that TSP is a satire of gaming, an arch critique of multiple genres, and more to the point, of the way gamers engage with games. It’s a pastiche of ourselves, of our expectations, and how we have developed such a complex vocabulary with gaming – it knows that vocabulary intimately, and knows how to manipulate it, and indeed us. But despite all this, despite how astonishingly clever this game is, I still value its humour above it all.
One other game, yet to appear in this calendar, made me laugh harder this year. But just the one time. TSP, and let’s not forget its exquisite demo, never let my smile fall from my face, and frequently turned it into delighted laughter. God, that yellow line. That’s the funniest yellow line of all time. And that moment – you know the one – I gasped. I adored that others were in on the joke, were happy for their project to be a part of it.
The Stanley Parable is incredible. It’s gaming’s Airplane.
Jim: The first moment of the The Stanley Parable’s demo might actually have been the best joke in the entire demo and game, but at least that showed how high the bar was going to be, and also laid out the intentions of this clever little work of satire. Games have increasingly managed to be mirthful in the past few years, but it’s rare for them to also be as clever as The Stanley Parable manages to be. It’s not slapstick or offensive, it’s not overtly rude and insane, it’s simply wry, and careful. And that alone, that unique flavour, meant it was an enormous success.
I’ll concede that its structure can be infuriating. It’s the equivalent of a poorly structured Choose Your Own Adventure, funnelling you through the same few pages again and again, but I think it would take a rare brand of humourlessness to not laugh at the punchlines these led to, or to feel the pokes at gamerdom that the game makes.
If there’s something that writing about games has taught me, it’s that having a sense of humour does not mean you are not taking your subject matter seriously. It has been argued that The Stanley Parable is largely about mocking games, and gaming, and that’s essentially true. But the implication of that argument is that it doesn’t care about games, or doesn’t take games seriously as a form. Clearly the opposite is true. The jokes that The Stanley Parable makes are funny because they are true. They are funny because its creators understand and care about games. And that is the most important aspect of its achievement. The best comedians do actually care about their subject matter. They ridicule people because people matter. The Stanley Parable makes a clever farce of games because, well, games are a clever farce worth caring about. And that’s never been clearer than it is when playing this game, and when talking about it with friends.
And perhaps it’s that last bit that makes games like this so vital. For every indulgently solipsistic moment we get with games, it’s critical that we get something that we can take back out into the world and talk about. And that’s true here.
If The Stanley Parable wasn’t so damn funny it’d probably be insufferable. Follow me for a moment, as I lead you across a tattered rope bridge that would make even Indiana Jones turn his back and head home for a quiet cuppa. That rope bridge is the hideously imperfect analogy that sprang into my head fully formed last night as I was wondering what exactly I could write about The Stanley Parable that hasn’t already been written.
Here it is. The Stanley Parable is the Portal 2 of ludonarrative metabobbins. Still with me?
When people told me that a mod had been released with the sole purpose of telling me that computer games are linear and lacking in the kind of adult decision-making that I apply every morning when I choose which trousers to put on, I almost ran in the opposite direction. It sounded like the most irritating thing imaginable. I don’t need to walk down fifty identical corridors while a sad-faced mime suffers on my behalf to know that I’m definitely not going to play Call Of Duty 14.
I also don’t need to subject myself to 3d spatial awareness puzzles with set solutions. I don’t like puzzle games and when it comes to Portal’s particular brand of ‘get from A to B’, I’m impressed, but dismayed. “Don’t make me try to do that”, I’d think whenever a complex room was laid before me.
But Portal 2 made me laugh and I cared about its characters, so I stuck with it and loved almost every minute. The Stanley Parable is the same. Take away the humour and it might well be the most po-faced preacher you’ve ever encountered. I’ve played that game before – the one that proudly informs you that other games are rubbish and that it is, in some way, the solution.
The Stanley Parable is not that game. It’s a sketch show about computer games, about office life and about freedom. It’s hilarious – the funniest game I’ve played since Portal 2 – and if it has important things to say, it says them while tapdancing across a floor covered in Whoopee Cushions. It wants you to enjoy your time with it and if you accidentally have a few thoughts while you’re laughing like a hyena, that’d be great. But it’s not a meditation or a sermon.
Portal 2 was a comedic script attached to a game that would have been – at best – fine without it. Copy those rooms and solutions without the voice acting and cleverness of the narrative and you have a plodding puzzle game.
The Stanley Parable is similar. It could have been a monochrome walk down a corridor with sad violin music and a single choice that isn’t a choice, leading to the death of a loved one. Instead, it dances furiously while parping on a kazoo and reeling off gags at a ridiculous rate. It’s an entertainer.
Remember when Wheatley asked you to speak and you jumped up and down instead? Watch the video of that opening sequence again and see if, like me, you despair for a moment when you realise there are tests to be completed. The genius of the Portal games is that they tied their puzzles to their narrative, so whenever one of the two flagged, the other propped it up. But I still think that ‘say apple’ is my favourite moment in either of the two games.
The Stanley Parable is that moment, become an entire game.