The Stanley Parable, or, What is Metacommentary? (Guest Review)

The Stanley Parable is a game about games. You wander through an office building while an omnipresent narrator narrates your every action. The trick is that he narrates your actions before you perform them, so you’re given the chance to disobey. There are a large number of paths, choices, and endings, many of them quite bizarre. This all adds up to a metacommentary on the inherent limitations of game narratives – that is, pointing out that they only allow you the illusion of choice. The Stanley Parable points out that regardless of how many options the game gives you, your choices only allow you to traverse a set number of premade paths; therefore, it asserts, the narrative isn’t truly interactive. I found the game very funny and clever overall, but this is one thing that didn’t sit right with me.
I’ll start with a parable of my own.

Some time ago, I went to an amusement park, as you do. One of the rides took place entirely within an enclosed building, allowing it to rotate while appearing to stay still. Gravity would suddenly shift – now you were being pressed against your seat, now you felt like you were going to fall out – but, lo! the room did not appear to move. The room was modular, so some parts would eventually detach and start to rotate on their own, making it seem like, for instance, the seats were traveling in a full circle all around the room because the ceiling passed over them, when in fact they had only gone halfway up. It was all good fun, and I thought it very clever.

However. One kid had figured out what was going on, and brought in an umbrella that he pointed upwards. This allowed him, and anyone watching, to see where gravity was really pointing, regardless of the disorienting shifts of the room. This showed people the wires, thus ruining the illusion, I thought. I don’t blame the kid for this – I’m sure he just thought he was clever for figuring it out (and he was) and wanted to see if his trick would work. He wasn’t trying to ruin it for everyone else.

I’m not sure if I can be so charitable with The Stanley Parable. It feels like a rebel without a cause, trashing the medium just for the sake of being rebellious and incisive, without offering anything to fill the gap it creates. When you really get down to it, does it really matter that our video game choices are predetermined by the creators? I don’t think it does, and nor is it some terrible secret. Of course games are not inherently free worlds – they’re artificial! Every possible action and interaction must be made by a guiding intelligence from the ground up; that’s how all art works. Having your experience circumscribed by the creator’s worldview and imagination is an inherent limitation of consuming something made by something else. Despite this, many developers put a lot of effort into delivering a facsimile of freedom for their consumers – and it works, given how many people enjoy interactive narratives. But apparently that isn’t enough for The Stanley Parable; no, it won’t cow to any authority, even an imagined or implied one. Its only definition of true freedom seems to be the ability to outwit and outcompete the artists – to break the game, essentially. That strikes me as an incredibly juvenile, entitled, and pretentious viewpoint. If you feel that way there’s no point in interacting with any art, ever, because you’re always going to be disappointed.

But here’s my main criticism: It doesn’t take it far enough. It only points out a (perceived) problem, but offers no solutions or even a platform for further exploration. I believe that is an important point of metacommentary and discussion. If you’re pointing out a problem, that means you want it to be changed, and that begs the question of how. Here, Farla and Act don’t just tear stories apart, they also build them back up again by providing alternate outlines and ideas. Merely pointing out a problem can serve as an alarm call, but until you come up with a solution you can’t truly move forward; you’ll only be shouting into a void. Especially when criticizing such a fundamental component of the medium and of art itself, you need something more. Even if I agreed that this “illusion of choice” stuff was a real problem, I can’t think of any way to fix it, and The Stanley Parable doesn’t leave the viewer with any jumping-off points. It pushes against the boundaries of its medium, but only offers dead ends.

(Also, what was up with that potshot at pretentious arty games in the HD version? Pretty hypocritical, no? Does it really think it’s not pretentious and is therefore above all these other posers? If so, that has to be the most truly pretentious thing in this entire game. The audience gets to decide whether or not you’re pretentious, game, not you.)

Overall, the sense that The Stanley Parable leaves me with is merely that it’s smug. Its humor is legitimately enjoyable, but in terms of story and commentary it’s more in love with how clever it is than it is actually clever. It reads as a snooty art student complaining about how art doesn’t live up to his standards while expecting everyone to be awed by his pointing out the obvious and declarations of “Wake up sheeple!” The Stanley Parable acts like it can just drop its mike and ride off into the sunset, but all I have in response to it is, “Yes, and?”

28 Comments

  1. David B says:
    I feel like seeing this game exclusively as railing against video game narratives as inherently restrictive is really selling it short quite badly. It’s certainly true that the basic endings have that as a theme, but the sheer number and scope of endings, some of which are quite complicated in their own right, seem to undercut that by their very existence. It builds back up the illusion of free will that the ‘main storyline’ (which is of course a nonsensical concept here) makes a mockery out of.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      It builds back up the illusion of free will that the ‘main storyline’ (which is of course a nonsensical concept here) makes a mockery out of.

      Eh…I suppose that depends on personal experience and reception, but personally I think it’s the reverse. It initially presents itself as one of those fun interactive games, and it’s only when you get to endings such as the second narrator one that the message becomes explicit. It’s structured much more like a breaking down than a building up.

      How would you say the Easter Egg bits contribute to this, by the way? I interpreted it as a further deconstruction, by creating an atmosphere where even when you think you’ve broken the game you discover it was just another preplanned path.

  2. Y says:
    I got this as a birthday present just the other day, and I’ve honestly not thought about any of this, really, because I was kind of just giggling at the narrator.
    The exception is the baby fire game, where i can remember cringing and thinking that it would have worked best as a stab at games that “deconstruct” their genre by forcing you to do a thing and then saying you’re awful for doing it, rather than artsy games.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      That is what it’s stabbing at, though? I mean it’s stabbing at artsy games too, but when you let the baby burn there’s a bit where the narrator says this proves you’re horrible etc. It’s pretty clearly a jab at games like Spec Ops and OFF. Personally I think it came uncomfortably close to the standard “it’s just a game it can’t have any social influence or importance so stop telling me it’s messed up!!!” argument, and kinda misses the point of those games, but I might have just read that into it because that bothers me so much.
      1. Y says:
        I actually forgot about that line of dialogue after the baby dies, and was think more about what happens if you keep playing.

        But I’ve played neither Spec Ops or OFF and I was only thinking of what I’ve heard of them, so I’m not really qualified to discuss whether or not it satirized them or did it well.

  3. SpoonyViking says:
    I do think there can be some merit in pointing out existing issues even if you don’t add anything else, but I wonder if this specific issue pointed out by the game is actually even an issue at all. I mean, yeah, videogames can’t offer true interactivity, but does anyone really expect them to? I mean, can you imagine what a nightmare it would be to program a game that could offer true interactivity, never mind proper gameplay as well?

    That said, would you mind if I offered you a suggestion? I think I know why you thought this review was too short. Perhaps if you pointed out specific passages from the game to support your points, the issues you outlined would be clearer to those of us who haven’t played the game (or played it, but don’t necessarily agree with your views).

    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      Perhaps if you pointed out specific passages from the game to support your points, the issues you outlined would be clearer to those of us who haven’t played the game (or played it, but don’t necessarily agree with your views).

      Ah, but that would require effort.

      More seriously, the game is pretty short and provides its message more through general atmosphere (such as the narrator’s increasingly childish exasperation when you disobey). Also, it’s freeware and there are videos all over YouTube, so if you’re really curious on the specifics it’s pretty easy to find them.

      If you want specific examples…hm. The route where you disobey the narrator as much as possible has you wandering into an unfinished room that just has blank wall and skybox textures, which prompts the narrator to rant about how he designed such a wonderful story for you to play in where you got to be the hero and everything worked out perfectly, you’re such a horrible ungrateful person who ruined everything, and that if he knew the blank room was all it took to amuse you he wouldn’t have bothered. Before that, he also screws with the physics to try to force you onto the right path. If the narrator is supposed to be representative of game narratives and/or the writers themselves — and I really don’t think you can interpret him as anything else — then that seems to align pretty clearly with my reading of the message. It’s proposing the idea that developers hate the player having any agency and want to stifle all freedom by having them stick to a rigid, pre-planned path. (If you watch Zero Punctiation, this is a common complaint in those videos as well, which makes me think it’s at least a moderately popular view in gaming circles.)

      But I think where it gets most explicit is an ending where you disobey at first and then obey; the narrator tries to kill Stanley while ranting about how he’s so terrible for ruining the story, then suddenly he cuts out and the story is overtaken by a second, female narrator. She outlines, very explicitly, the message I discussed in the review: that every choice Stanley made was actually made for him, that despite the apparent choice there are only premade paths, etc. She ends by saying the only way to win the game is to defeat it by opening the menu and quitting.

      I find it hard to interpret the game any differently in the face of that evidence.

      1. SpoonyViking says:
        Yeah, that’s pretty damning evidence, there. And the “Do you see that Stanley was already dead from the moment he hit start” line does sound especially smug, even compared to the others.
        1. Clerish says:
          I suggest watching the remade version. While still not perfect, it is much better.
          1. SpoonyViking says:
            Hm, it still seems pretty smug to me. The smugness isn’t only in the tone of voice, it’s also in the words themselves: to simply comment on the nature of “death” and restarting in videogames without anything new to add, as if the information itself is entirely new (“Do you see now?”) to an audience OF GAMERS is pretty smug.

            Ironically, I think it would work better as a parody of games that take themselves too seriously (assuming such a thing even exists; if videogames ARE art, then it doesn’t) without this additional narration. It would still be a pretty shallow parody, though.

        2. actonthat says:
          There’s also an ending where the narrator goes on about how gamers make up stories and roleplay via games because their own lives are disappointing and they’re just sad and lonely. Also they can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy, the the dev is the one trying to save them from their sad existences.

          Basically the game is just an asshole. It’s so self-important at some points that I just start to feel bad for it. It gets cringey.

          1. SpoonyViking says:
            Wow. That goes from smug all the way into asshole-ish, indeed.
  4. Emmannuel Alexandre says:
    The first paragraph where you say that even though the storyline creates the opportunity for the player to follow different paths branching from a certain choice, every possible path is already mapped regardless whether you choose path A or B. This is illustrates why I don’t accept certain arguments regarding Visual Novels characters (mainly the MCs) being protected by plot armor. People are given the illusion of choice, and then a false sense that there’s no plot armor involved is created. However, as soon as a “wrong” path is chosen, a Dead End or Bad End screen pops up and the story is over. It’s not like the players are given the choice to continue reading another scenario in which the story goes on for the better of for the worse without the MC.
    A very interesting text indeed. I might get this game as well. ;)
  5. Anonymous says:
    Maybe it just really hates games with vapid choices, or games with choices period.

    It’s also fundamentally a game commentary, which makes it seem a little uncharitable that you’re summarizing the position as “can’t accept that the artist needs to have control, no point in even interacting with art”. There’s no movie or book criticism there, the issue it’s sticking on is the clash between the supposed interactivity of choice-based games and the need for the guiding hand of an artist to have any meaning for you experience in the first place. There’s no criticism to be found for a game that doesn’t sell itself on allowing you to make choices, so if it’s trashing the medium, it’s trashing a very small part to begin with.

    I also can’t fault them too much for criticising the choice-game experience when they made a perfectly good choice-game with meaningfully, albeit short, decision trees. I consider this enough of a reconstruction, because everybody who complains about TSP complains about the content, not the token illusion of choice in what’s pretty clearly a story with only one ending.

    I also think it’s a little premature to state “Despite this, many developers put a lot of effort into delivering a facsimile of freedom for their consumers – and it works, given how many people enjoy interactive narratives.”. Doesn’t that dismiss the content of the criticism out of hand, by assuming that TSP’s potision is wrong because people enjoy choice-based games? Isn’t that why it’s so harsh and eager to point out the strings, which you criticized it for in the same paragraph?

    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      There’s no movie or book criticism there, the issue it’s sticking on is the clash between the supposed interactivity of choice-based games and the need for the guiding hand of an artist to have any meaning for you experience in the first place.

      Well yes, but my point was that, since this is an inherent limitation of all art, TSP is holding video games to an unreasonable standard. It may only be targeting a very specific subset of video games, but I still think its targeting and its complaints are unreasonable.

      On reflection, I think it comes down to what you want out of a game experience… I’ve heard a lot of people say they enjoy the organic narratives that they create through ordinary gameplay and such. I would presume that they are very imaginative, creative types, and see video games as a sandbox to create their own narratives and amusing situations. I can see why people from that perspective would be frustrated by VN-type stories, because the freedom given by the choices isn’t the kind of freedom they’re actually looking for or have come to expect.

      I cannot empathize with that playstyle at all. It baffles me. I’m dull as a brick, you see, and I’m only ever interested in exploring other peoples’ narratives, not using them to create my own. From this perspective, the freedom offered by VNs is fine, even preferrable, because it gives me more narratives to explore and allows me a form of participation in that narrative, rather than building my own completely unrelated thing off of the scaffolding.

      I also can’t fault them too much for criticising the choice-game experience when they made a perfectly good choice-game with meaningfully, albeit short, decision trees.

      Mmh, I think that’s death of the author reasoning. The fact that people managed to enjoy it for the choices doesn’t change the fact that the developer was very clearly only using the format to make a mockery of the entire concept. If it was a loving parody, I could see this argument, but it’s not; it’s a very scathing and destructive one.

      Doesn’t that dismiss the content of the criticism out of hand, by assuming that TSP’s potision is wrong because people enjoy choice-based games? Isn’t that why it’s so harsh and eager to point out the strings, which you criticized it for in the same paragraph?

      Maybe I was unclear about this, it’s sort of a specific peeve of mine… But I felt like the game was very preachy. It sounded like it was saying “You might think you enjoy choice-games, but you actually don’t. I will show you the HORRIBLE TRUTH behind it and then you will see that my way is the only way to really enjoy games.” Against that, “but some people do legitimately enjoy this” is a fair criticism. I could definitely be reading too much into it, though.

  6. Clerish says:
    I was puzzled as to why your opinion was so negative. I could understand not liking the way the game is presented, but I could never call it pretentious. After reading your comments, though, I realized that you are reviewing the original version of the game, so I can’t really object to anything you’ve said about a game I haven’t played yet.
    It sounds, in fact, like the remade version (a paid version present on Steam), which is probably the version Y played too, is quite different from the original one. For starters, it has 19 endings instead of the original 6 (although only 10 of them could be considered “real endings”), and it looks that the endings which moved me the most (the work, confusion and choice endings) are not in the original game.
    Moreover, the games used for the ending about art in games are different, and the way they are “criticized” is presumably different too.
    I can only advice you to get someday the new version. You could probably write an interesting analysis of the differences between the two versions, and about what reasons the developers could have had to make those changes.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      I watched the new version on YouTube, hence why I referenced the smug “lol art games are dumb” sequence that’s unique to it. Overall I wasn’t terribly impressed; the original endings are mostly the same, and the new endings only serve to muddle things by making the narrator into more of an established character rather than a metaphor. I believe the message is still mostly the same.

      Although, the narrator does mock you for trying to break the narrative by finding the Easter Eggs (the suicide one especially comes to mind), so I dunno, maybe something else is going on. Regardless, it still felt uncomfortably smug to me.

      (Actually, come to think of it, the “lol art games” scene gains new hypocrisy when you consider that the new button-pressing ending uses the exact technique it mocks.)

      the work, confusion and choice endings

      Which ones are those again? The only one I know by name is the confusion ending, which is aptly named because it makes no sense whatsoever and only seemed to be added for false deepness.

      1. Clerish says:
        I just watched the video you posted above, and can say that the narrator’s voice has a very different tone in the remake, which in my opinion is more effective in carrying the intended message. It goes from a smug and blaming tone to a humorous (and sometimes engaged) tone.

        The original version comes out as an uninspired criticism of gaming in general, kind of like you said in your review, but the remake tries mostly to make a mockery out of itself, giving examples of unexplored design choices for the player to analyze.

        As the game’s page in Wikipedia says, the developer’s intention is not to give an answer to the question “how to make games better”, but to provoke discussions about the matter.

        The original game, though, is not very successful in doing so, but unfortunately I think that if you tried to play the remake the bad impression left by the original (and knowing most of the important endings already) would spoil the experience. It’s a game made to be enjoyed starting from a blank state, after all.

        The work ending, my favorite one, is a great example. It is the one where Stanley is asked to press the keyboard buttons, then to “please die”.
        Not being able to press the buttons, or trying to rebel against it only to be forced to, is a big difference. In the remake a parallel is established between the act of pressing a button and that of living/imagining, which made me truly feel sorry for Stanley. Then the “please die” message comes, right when you were expecting another query. It is written in caps, another significant difference, and happens right after the apartment you live in is gradually turned into your office. It had a meaningful impact for me.

        Lastly, art in games. While I agree that Half Life 2 was mocked as being “not designed with you in mind”, I think that the message was different in the remake. It seemed to me like the narrator truly enjoyed Portal and Minecraft, but that they were not the kind of game he wanted to create. In the end, I think he was more frustrated at himself for not being able to create a game than at the player or anyone else.

        In short, I think that the different presentation changes greatly the way the game is perceived, and allows it to express its messages in the most moving way possible. I am not going to discuss the messages themselves because the ensuing discussion would be too long, but I can say that while some of them are not very significant (especially the first few endings) some of the others can be valuable.

        1. Clerish says:
          I found the video of the ending I was talking about. It goes by different names.
          https://youtu.be/SGngPVNh4F0?t=22m52s
        2. Clerish says:
          I found the video of the ending I was talking about. It goes by different names.
          https://youtu.be/SGngPVNh4F0?t=22m52s
          1. Guest Reviewer says:
            Ah yes, that one… Maybe I’m just feeling particularly uncharitable, but that ending felt really trite to me. It’s just an extension of those stupid “what if the happy kid’s fantasy show was actually a hallucination by a crazy/abused/comatose kid????” theories that infest every fandom for some reason. Like, what is it even trying to say? That we play video games for escapism? Well of course we do! Like so many other scenes in the game, it just points out incredibly obvious things and then acts like it’s figured out some deep, shocking mystery or secret.

            I actually think the original one was better (or it would be if you actually had to press the buttons), since it was more focused and had what I think was a better message (complacency/passivity in player behavior).

            In the end, I think he was more frustrated at himself for not being able to create a game than at the player or anyone else.

            Yeah that really wasn’t a necessary addition. The HD version is definitely more polished and expansive, but it’s also completely incoherent. The new endings feel like they’re just there for shock value instead of working together to support a consistent, holistic theme. Like, what was even up with the one where the narrator became happy all of a sudden and you kill yourself just to spite him? The narrator is no longer an abstract representation of game design philosophy, he’s his own character with humanistic limitations and desires, but the story still tries to use him as a metaphor even though that doesn’t make sense anymore.

    2. Septentrion Euchoreutes says:
      It mostly seems to be the type of ending in respect to theme and humor, making each path less funny as it’s more of rehashing the same joke over and over. The confusion one seems like the only one that could be funny if it was one of the last ones visited.

      As for the whole “how to do it right,” aspect of criticism, nothing even comes close. I don’t even see how since the setting isn’t even established.

  7. Eregion says:
    While i see the message and stabs at artsy games and freedom of choice, i think you see this game as too much of opinion only game.
    I mean, the way i see it it’s only poking fun at certain things that merely try to hard (Heavy Rain or anything by David Cage comes to mind).
  8. dsph says:
    Saying that you’re only allowed to criticize the flaws in something if you simultaneously provide a fix… well, that strikes me as a variant of the old “oh well so where is YOUR book” response to criticism. I can point out that a car isn’t working – it doesn’t start when I turn the key! – without first having to build a car myself. I can point out that socioeconomic conditions screw over the poor without having to also construct a utopian society which doesn’t have these problems. And so forth.
    1. actonthat says:
      He’s not saying you can’t criticize a narrative without going out and writing a complete one of your own. He’s saying truly thoughtful criticism includes proposed alternatives. Which is true.

      If you don’t know what you want, only that everyone but you is currently crap, you’re just a hipster firing complaints in the dark.

    2. Guest Reviewer says:
      Basically, what Act said. You don’t have to go so far as to make your own thing, but it’s good — and much more productive — to at least throw some new ideas at the wall. I think what really annoyed me here, though, is that it’s not even good at the pointing out flaws part. It’s incredibly meandering and confused, and fails to adequately explain why we should care in the first place. I get the impression the dev thought his mindset was self-evident, which just leads to a lot of confusion for the consumer. I kept feeling like I was missing something and that there was a huge disconnect between myself and the author the longer I thought about the game.
    3. SpoonyViking says:
      To add some more to what Act and Guest (Mini-Farla? :-P) have already said, it helps to not act so smug about providing painfully obvious insights, ESPECIALLY when you’re not really even trying to present an alternative. :-)
  9. actonthat says:
    I liked this whole post a lot, as far as meditation on the nature of critique versus complaint, but this in particular stuck out to me:

    [Every possible action and interaction must be made by a guiding intelligence from the ground up; that’s how all art works.]

    I would go a step further and say insertion into another self is the entire point of artistic narrative. Sometimes this “self” follows a set path; sometime you guide them. But that you cannot live out this “other life” as a free life is exactly the point. I play games, or in a more general sense consume stories, in order to experience worlds and lives that are not my own. In badly-written stories it can be frustrating to not get to choose what you “truly” want or be forced into the shoes of someone unlikeable, but in a well-constructed narrative you’re either invested enough in the action to want to participate in it in good faith or enough in the character to empathize with their choices and thought processes even if they differ from your own.

    In games like Skyrim or Seven Kingdoms, you get very close to having “free” choice, but I think part of the implicit contract between writer and consumer is that you suspend disbelief in order to partake in the world’s events, and part of this is the surrender of choice; with free choice there is no narrative, which, as MMOs show, is good for some people, but not for everyone. Why would I play, say, Skyrim if I didn’t want to roleplay the Dragonborn? Are you really going to complain that you’ve entered into a power fantasy only to find your main goal is to save the world and you can’t opt to destroy it? You can deconstruct the implications of such a narrative, of course, but then you’ve entered a completely different genre, and the rules have changed — along with the choices and consequences.

    I agree that this game doesn’t seem to know what it wants. There’s good discussion to be had about the increasing capability for complex, interactive narratives in video games unlike anything storytelling has ever really seen before, and the limits of those narratives, and their consequences. But as in all things, “Everyone’s an idiot except for me,” is hardly a useful approach, and offers no valuable commentary or original insight. “Yes, and?” seems to me the perfect response to what is, really, just juvenile hipster whining.

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