The Stanley Parable touches on something that’s been on my mind a lot in the last couple of years, and I suspect I’m not alone in it. Why do we care so much? Why were there protests about Mass Effect 3’s ending? Why did picking different lines of dialogue, calling up some different but still prescribed response from the game’s database, in Orc-Basher XII make us feel like we were doing something meaningful? Why are we so able and willing to mentally transform walking down corridors, following instructions and being taken aback by flashing pixels feel like a power trip?
Why do we game, when it’s not for competition or discernible improvements to hand-eye co-ordination? We singleplayers, what are we in this for?
That’s the question The Stanley Parable poses, and for all the impeccably well-written, frequently hilarious sneering and snarling at game tropes, its creator seems to be suffering from the same low-key existential crisis as I am. But its greatest trick, its greatest triumph is that provides answers – the mockery conceals an earnest belief in games and what they can do, the simple but overwhelming power of being in that situation, virtual or not, rather than merely observing it.
The scene where you’re presented with the illusion of a happy domestic life away from the office, only to have it gradually broken down, its delights removed and undone one by one, the inescapable orders to follow even when you want so desperately to resist… The taking away of choice, even when it goes out of the way to point out that what it’s taking away was never real, is absolutely brutal – as if not more harrowing than, for instance, choosing a dialogue option that saves one friend at the expense of an entire planet (or vice-versa). In this dread moment of absolute loss, the importance of game choice, and perhaps real-life choice, is revealed: we need to feel like we matter, like we can affect things, like we can impose our will (benign or malign) on the world around us. When we cannot – well, it’s deathly, isn’t it?
It’s that moment which stays with me the most from The Stanley Parable, much as I spent so much of the game hooting and guffawing and clapping at sights both unexpected and sadistic.
The runner-up is the same moment John referenced, and I shall similarly avoid spoilers. It is, however, the other answer The Stanley Parable offers to its central question – we play these things because they present us with wonderful, impossible places. It doesn’t matter that it could be said to be pointless: we are transported Elsewhere, and as participants rather than observers. Beautiful.