The Stanley Parable is a game about a man who leaves his desk one day to discover that all of his most difficult to animate colleagues have vanished. First released in 2011 as a Half-Life 2 mod, it is a wild fantasy about what it might be like to not be in front of the computer for a while. There’s also some bonus themes in here about determinism in narrative fiction and the illusion of choice, framed as a satire of contemporary game design, but also as an incisive commentary on the notion of free will in general.
But most of all, I think that The Stanley Parable is a game about not being in front of the computer for a little while, as a treat. There’s an achievement you get for not playing the game for five years, and in The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe – a remastered version for consoles that adds some new content – there’s another achievement for ten. If they could implement an achievement for feeding all of your worldly belongings into a woodchipper and staggering naked into the forest to live with the animals, they probably would.
The Stanley Parable is famously narrated by a genial-sounding British man. You might have forgotten about this in the intervening decade, but back in 2011 we lost our collective minds about being spoken down to by the disembodied voices of unthreatening British men. We couldn’t get enough of it. Pillowy-voiced British men who sounded like they could be your dad were absolutely everywhere: advertising our mortgage products, reporting on which platforms our trains would arrive at, telling us how to take deep breaths when we were feeling sad or afraid.
The original Stanley Parable arrived not long after Little Big Planet had launched, a seminal puzzle platformer in which a helpful British man – in this case the wonderful Stephen Fry, the ur-vocal-cords of this particular genre – explained how all of the various buttons worked, and what a human imagination was capable of. (Spoiler: it was anything.)
Almost overnight, tender-sounding white British men with warm cardigan voices were the hottest ticket in town.
Almost overnight, tender-sounding white British men with warm cardigan voices, aged between 45 and 65, who spoke with an accent specific to parts of the south of England and certain educational institutions, were the hottest ticket in town. After centuries of being overlooked and taken for granted, their time had finally come.
When The Stanley Parable debuted, our obsession with being gently bossed around by an uncle-sounding-guy was reaching a fever pitch. Amazon had just dropped $300 million on Audible, a sort of daycare centre for our most reverberant voice artists. Stephen Fry was enjoying his meteoric rise to success in the now-resurgent audiobook format. ASMR had just broken into the mainstream, and wary parents still weren’t quite sure whether it was a sex thing or just a bit harmless Satanism. (As we now know, it turned out to be a little of both.)
So that’s the state we were in 2011, and again in 2013 when The Stanley Parable mod was rereleased as a “proper” thing. The game was critically beloved for its very clever, branching script, its dry meta-humour and its myriad surprise endings, but even more so for Kevan Brighting’s star performance as The Narrator, an especially genial-sounding British man who remains The Stanley Parable’s one and only voiced character.
If you don’t know: The Narrator guides Stanley’s story from beat to beat, foretelling the player’s next steps moments before they take them. At first his caramel-toned narration provides a helpful instruction as to how to proceed, which doors to enter and which bleak office corridors to walk down. But it’s not long before you realise you can defy The Narrator by following the wrong path, or standing still in a broom closet for a while, or breaking the story by using information you learned in a previous playthrough before the protagonist should rightfully know it. Impressively, the Narrator reacts to all of this with what I can only guess is approximately one billion lines of recorded dialogue. That’s why The Stanley Parable is brilliant, in one spoiler-free nutshell.
Far from being part of the trend, The Stanley Parable felt like a creative response to years of being told what to do by a series of melodious, middle-aged British men, who sound like they teach maths as a hobby and own a grandfather clock and play petanque on hot summer days in Devon. It encapsulated the rebellious desire to tell national treasure Stephen Fry – after he has patiently explained that you can grab objects by pressing and holding the R1 button – to shove the R1 button up his ass. And then, crucially, to have Stephen Fry reply with a bespoke pre-recorded line, hurt and astonished that you could say something so unbelievably cruel.
But a lot has changed since 2013. We’ve changed. Our brief obsession with the cosy vocal cords of kind-hearted British men – who sound like they read very big newspapers near a fireplace and smell like dust and peanuts – has gone the way of flash mobs, really big skirts, and that iPhone app that made it look like you were drinking a beer.
So where does that leave The Stanley Parable and its mellifluous narrator in the year 2022? The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is not quite a remake, or a remaster, it’s certainly not a sequel, and it’s sort of an expansion pack if you don’t think about it too much. The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe doesn’t like to say what it is, so I’m not going to tell you here either, but I’ll say that there is some new stuff on top of all of the original stuff, and that the new stuff is really, really surprising and funny.
At its core this is still a very silly game about not doing what a big voice tells you to do, but a decade of introspection has gifted The Stanley Parable a cursed awareness of its own weird, culty relevance, which this remake expresses with some beautifully weird and entertainingly self-indulgent new ideas. I love every last bit of it, so much that I don’t plan on playing it again until 2032.