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?”