The Stanley Parable (PC/Mac: $15, free demo available) is one of the most peculiar, unusual, and daring games to come down the pike in a long, long time.
Where Papers Please has a clear gameplay element, The Stanley Parable has none. Like Dear Esther, it’s part of the new genre of “first-person walkers” in which things happen and story unfolds simply by walking through a game world. In Dear Esther, walking around an island triggered fragmentary story elements that eventually coalesced into a narrative. It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately unsatisfying.
The Stanley Parable makes Dear Esther look like a Dick and Jane book. It is unrelentingly clever, overflowing with ideas, jokes, hairpin mood shifts, and narrative jolts, all of it adding up to a striking meta-commentary on the process of playing games.
The titular character is an office drone who sits at his desk looking at a monitor and punching a key whenever instructed. The tone recalls Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil, where humans are reduced to cogs in a mindless bureaucracy that exists only to perpetuate itself. Just like modern America.
Everything we know about him is explained by an omnipresent narrator, who alternately directs Stanley (you) what to do and explains what you’re doing. Sometimes he taunts, sometimes he tried to coax and teach, and sometimes he just goes mad. The narrator is one of the best-written, best-acted voices in any computer game since GLaDOS in Portal. With his light and soothing English accent, he sounds the way I imagined the voice of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Since you never actually see Stanley (not even, as the narrator observes at one point, his feet), the narrator is the true main character: simultaneously your own voice and the voice of the game designer. It’s a frankly stunning bit of writing and performance that is at the center of the entire experience.
The game begins one morning as Stanley gets up from his desk for a meeting, only to find his entire office abandoned. Not a soul is in sight. He follows the prompts of the narrator and walks to the meeting room. He comes to two doors. The narrator directs him (you) to take the left door.
Of course, you take the right.
And The Stanley Parable is off. The most you ever do is punch a couple of buttons. You can’t run, jump, move objects, or interact with almost everything. All you can do is choose where to walk, and the odd button to push.
The result is a surreal choose-your-own-adventure in which you rehearse all the tropes of interactive entertainment, search for meaning, and try to understand just what’s going on in this world. There are many “endings,” including the most obvious “good” ending in which you emerge into the sunlight of a beautiful day, free of a totalitarian system that was created to crush your individuality.
Oddly enough, that’s the least interesting ending. I can’t say too much because it would spoil the surprise of what The Stanley Parable is attempting to do, but I can give you a small taste. At one point, the narrator is taunting you because your choices indicate you don’t like this game very much, and suddenly you find yourself in … Minecraft. Actually in the game Minecraft! And from there you travel down a hole and fine yourself in … Portal! (The Stanley Parable began as a Half-Life mod.)
The meta-commentary folds in on itself so many times it turns into a Chinese puzzle box, almost impossible to unfold in any rational sense. In the course of unfolding, the game actually falls prey to the cliches its attempting to mock, creating even more folds in the meta-commentary.
It’s a dazzling display of narrative chutzpah, and the most potent commentary on the medium of gaming I’ve ever experience. It is not for everyone. Its “gamelessness” and in-jokes will put off any but real devotees of the medium. But for those who’ve been playing games a long time, it’s like a combination surrealist film and insightful essay all laid out in a game format that ask you to do little more than walk.