What did I even just see?
That was my refrain throughout nearly all of my time with The Stanley Parable. I think I uttered it once every 17 seconds or so.
It’s tough to settle on which bit encapsulates this best. There was that time I went from wandering an abandoned office space to being in Minecraft. There was also a bit where the narrator lost track of the story entirely, eventually crashing us into a screen that revealed we were both just pawns in some twisted meta-narrative – at which point he had an existential meltdown. Oh, and I particularly loved the ending that flung me from inevitable, flat-as-a-pancake death into, er, a museum dedicated to the game I was still playing. It was really quite nice. Excellent decor, very insightful exhibits.
And then I was catapulted back into the hungrily mashing metal jaws of certain death.
But I think I enjoyed comparatively restrained moments even more. Little things. Ropes that, when tugged, pulled back the curtain and revealed the man behind it, furiously typing away. (He was also probably naked, because this game, you guys. This goddamn game.)
At one point, I found a dizzyingly high-up conveyor platform that would automatically carry me to the dusty, ramshackle warehouse section of my office building. Unless I jumped off. Because, I mean, why not try, right? This decision ended up being a branch into not one, but three endings (that I know of) – only one of which involved my horrible, limb-pulverizing death. There was also a moment where the narrator was trying to coax me into answering a telephone call from my alleged girlfriend, and I tripped over an alternate path by accidentally unplugging the phone. This one tiny slip of the piggy toe caused the entire game world to systematically unravel. Seriously. And the narrator? Poor guy was heartbroken. I ruined his story. Kinda made me feel bad for him, to be honest.
Oh yeah, there’s a narrator. In essence, the game is a giant, combat-free 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. Whatever he’s up to, though, he’s pretty much uniformly wonderful. In my opinion, 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 Stanley Parable is about a lot of things. On its surface, however, it’s the tale of a man named Stanley who one day comes to the shocking realization that his humdrum office – his cog-in-the-machine kingdom of perfect paper-pushing bureaucracy – is entirely abandoned. So he embarks on a search through rooms and hallways and secret passageways and alternate realities and his own mind to figure out what happened. Well, unless you instead choose to just sit in Stanley’s office, clutching your knees in the fetal position and praying for the safe reliability of Stanley’s dull-as-dirt job. There’s an ending for that.
There’s an ending for everything, really – which is kind of a poignantly fitting statement itself, if you think about it. I doubt it’s intended, but Stanley Parable has a way of putting you in that meta mindset, constantly examining inner workings, double-meanings, and undercurrents. Those aspects of our favorite stories we don’t quite consider on our own, though in this media-saturated world, we’re always on the brink. Stanley Parable revels in giving us a little push.
In doing so, it vacillates wildly between sly, kinda-makes-you-think-huh gags (The main story in which you don’t disobey the narrator at all ends with you shutting down a mind control facility. But wait, you just unquestioningly did everything someone told you. Hmmmm), incredible zaniness (Hi, Minecraft ending), and everything in between. The whole thing is hyper self-aware, and it’s got a borderline-unbelievable handle on what’s happening inside your noggin as well. If you can dream it, you can probably do it. The more twisted or “game-breaking” your idea is, the more likely you are to get a highly specific response out of the narrator.
In that sense, Stanley Parable is a truly incredible piece of work. There are so many secrets and rewards for outside-the-box thinking, and I’m not just talking one or two lines of dialogue either. Oftentimes, a well-considered prod at the fourth wall will yield entire, 10-15 minute sections – semi-self-contained ministories that lead to everything from jarring perspective shifts to ruminations on the nature of choice to THE ADVENTURE LINE to self-help videos that end by declaring your entire existence “materially insignificant.” 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.
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 (Museum ending narration switcheroo, I’m looking at you). It’s a lightweight snack for thought more often than it is a filling, slowly digested meal, but it’s almost always amusing regardless. And again, 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. That said, it can get a bit repetitive searching around for new story branches once you’ve already played through the big ones. But then, at this point you might begin to think you’re close to having seen all Stanley Parable has to offer. You aren’t. After a while, you might notice things around the office begin to… change. Perhaps all those playthroughs aren’t so disconnected after all.
Beyond writing and pacing issues, 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 is a game of moments, a tiny behemoth made up of wildly disparate parts. This might be a spoiler-ridden review, but I’m done spoiling, and honestly? I’m ashamed of you for ruining this wonderful game for yourself. Why didn’t you pick the demo option? Or the spoiler-free review? Or at least the video that doesn’t make any sense? There’s still tons I haven’t told you, but your purity is tarnished. Oh well, whatever. Go. Go play the game anyway.
Duh. Obviously. That’s always how this review was going to end. Probably. Unless it wasn’t.