As a game, The Stanley Parable is a remarkably simple thing. It fits best within the suddenly burgeoning first-person walker genre (not to be confused with the less-populated first-person (John) Walker genre), sat on the same bus as the likes of Dear Esther and Gone Home. No guns, no violence, no real action to speak of. Heck, there’s not even a jump key. But while the aforementioned sultans of stroll tell their tales with serious faces and an eye for immersion, Stanley Parable winks and giggles and points and laughs at you from behind the screen. It never lets you forget that you are experiencing a story, a contrivance, a wild flight of fancy. The short version? It’s really, really meta.
But it’s not simply meta for the sake of being meta. The smirking acknowledgement that You Are Playing A Videogame is often a crutch for crummy mechanics or tropes (see: the Postal series, portions of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon), but Stanley Parable deftly dodges that ugly, lazy abyss. Don’t get me wrong: there are mountains of jokes, and they hit far more often than they miss. This is one of the best-written games I’ve played in ages, and a brilliantly voiced narrator delivers each and every line with conviction. You will almost certainly laugh. A lot.
But it’s the sudden, jarring transitions from off-the-rails, I-see-what-you-did-there hilarity to smart (if perhaps not always profound) points about modern games and even life that make Stanley Parable truly special. I giggled endlessly, sure, but I also felt my beard grow one or two sprigs of wizened white. The world and story constantly dared me to wander off what seemed to be the beaten path. To push at outer limits and contemplate why. To break the rules just to see what might happen.
You know that impulse you always have at the start of, say, a first-person shooter level to turn around and go the wrong way, just to see if anything’s there? Stanley Parable almost always rewards you for that mentality instead of slamming on the breaks or blocking your path with the world’s most insurmountable one-foot-tall pile of rubble. It makes a game out of discovery, pure and naked and white. Mechanics are not secondary; they are so far down on the priority list that they’re not even on the priority list’s priority list. The Stanley Parable is about plucking narrative threads and following them to their often entirely absurd ends. And exploring? Well, it’s as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, isn’t it?
The payoff, though, is magnificent. Again, in large part we have the narrator to thank for that. In essence, the game is a giant choose-your-own-adventure book – with various tiny choices and level secrets branching off into new endings – but the narrator stitches it all together. He plays countless roles, sometimes omniscient conductor of whatever ride you’re on, sometimes prankster, sometimes villain, sometimes victim. He’s not so much a singular character as a multitude. Moreover, he always knows just when to chime in. This is one of those games that’ll make you think, “Wow, they really thought of everything” to the point that it seriously stands out when the narrator doesn’t respond to one of your ill-considered “What if…?” shoves against the fourth wall. In keeping spoilers to a minimum, however, I’ll leave it at this: he’s the best disembodied, constantly chattering (and often berating) game companion since GLaDOS. He’ll make you smile. He’ll make you feel pity, awe, rage, sadness, and everything in between. Occasionally, he’ll even make you think.
The game is clever, sometimes very much so. Other times, however, it tries a bit too hard, at which point it wanders into the lonely pits of pretension. Or overreaching ideas, or overwrought moments of melodrama, or obvious points dressed up in faux-profundity. It’s a game that wants you to feel smart after playing it, but some of its messages aren’t nearly as groundbreaking as they aspire to be, especially after initial “DUN DUN DUN” reveal shock wears off. It’s a lightweight snack for thought more often than it is a filling, slowly digested meal, but it’s almost always amusing regardless. That said, there are also a good many moments where your jaw will drop, as though entirely unhinged from your skull. Stanley Parable’s high points are really damn high. It can, however, get a bit repetitive searching around for new story branches once you’ve already played through the big ones. But then, on as vague of terms as possible, here’s the thing: you might begin to think you’re close to having seen all Stanley Parable has to offer. You aren’t.
Beyond that, potential flaws are subjective. Stanley Parable revels in dagger-force pokes and prods at a multitude of game, narrative, and media tropes, but you could also argue that – in being so simple and direct – it succumbs to many of them itself. But then, perhaps that’s the entire point. You could certainly make a case for that viewpoint based on a number of plot digressions, and regardless, the end result is wickedly well-written and entertaining. Really, that’s what it all comes down to: yes, Stanley Parable is a series of thinly veiled roller coasters – like, er, Call of Duty, except far more subdued, intelligent, and self-aware – but it pulls them off with wonderful panache, free of irritating, arbitrary action mechanics that might get in the way. And before you can hop aboard a ride, you have to discover its starting point for yourself. That last bit, believe it or not, makes all the difference in the world. You can’t just go on autopilot. Thought is required, and ownership of the experience follows quite naturally.
The Stanley Parable has a lot to say, and it says much of it incredibly well. It is what you make of it, but it also stands alone. It’s relatively short and it doesn’t lend itself particularly well to replays (well, aside from… ah well, you’ll see), but some bits will stick with you for months. It’s witty and clever, except when it’s not. It’s a series of contradictions. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve played this year. Go. Go play it.
Duh. Obviously. That’s always how this review was going to end. Probably. Unless it wasn’t.