the artistry and psychology of gaming

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The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable

The Good:
+ Eye-opening philosophical and narrative commentary
+ Inventive psychological tricks masterfully drive the story forward
+ Utterly unique atmospheric and comedic style
+ Updated graphics and music are both used to superb effect
+ The best voice acting in gaming

The Bad:
– A bit of repetition…during the many playthroughs you’ll definitely want to do

This is it. This is the new definitive example of games as art. This isn’t like Braid, where you play through 8 hours of abstract gameplay and meandering story before you get to the special parts. This isn’t like Dear Esther, where you spend an afternoon wandering through exposition that might be symbolic or might just be nonsense. And it’s certainly not just shallow appreciation of a cool graphical style. This is an immediately relevant, maddeningly intelligent, bizarrely hilarious, aesthetically flawless masterpiece. This is the story of a man named Stanley.

And to be honest, that’s all I really want to tell you about it. To describe The Stanley Parable is to spoil it, for reasons that I can’t really explain without spoiling it even more. So while I will go into a little more detail in the following paragraphs, it is definitely in your best interest to stop reading this, close your browser window, and go play The Stanley Parable right now. Do this, and it will blow your mind. And then reassemble it and blow it about six more times.

I will only be using screenshots from the game’s Steam page, so you can’t know any more about it than you’re supposed to.

Now, if you’re reading this, I assume you either need more information, you’ve already played the game, or you’re a glassy-eyed moron who ignored everything I just said. Regardless, I can continue. The Stanley Parable can’t really be defined. It’s an “art game”, yes, but it expands far beyond the connotation that label carries. It’s comedy, but it’s also horror. It’s a linear story, but it’s also fragmented and flexible. It’s academic and analytical, but it’s also entertaining and memorable. It’s a commentary on choice in games, but it’s also a commentary on the psychology of games in general, in addition to free will, perspective, narrative, and the relationship between author, character, narrator, and player.

These would all be reasons enough to celebrate it on their own, but what’s truly astonishing is that the game conveys all these things despite the fact that its core game mechanics wouldn’t even merit a bullet point in a traditional game’s design document. The literal summary of The Stanley Parable is “A man walks to places while being guided by a narrator. He can either obey the narrator, or not.” And yet, because of its human, subjective execution, it’s the best game in years. It’s because of the way the dry humour of the narrator’s delivery during early deviations gives way to unbridled chaos and desperation as you make more and more “mistakes”. It’s because of the uniquely immersive references to other games. And it’s because the game can end on anything from a solemn thoughtful note to a vapid victory message to a glitchy freak-out.

There are a lot of self-proclaimed psychological games out there that purport to make you question what is real. The Stanley Parable is the only one that actually does it – and it does it in and out of the game. You never know when you’ve finished The Stanley Parable. You never know if you’ve discovered a new version of the ending, or if it’s just another step in another elaborate way the game systematically demolishes your conceptions of narrative structure. You never know if the narrator is an omniscient god, or just a second character with a god complex. There are a lot of games with surreal settings and plots that force you to think about what’s happening onscreen. In The Stanley Parable, you’re told exactly what’s happening, but you have to think about what it means for you.

I almost wish the game looked more interesting; it would be much easier to sell. But then, that would ruin its charm.

An entire dissertation could be made on The Stanley Parable’s use of the “fourth wall” concept. The game doesn’t just break the fourth wall; it vaporizes it. And the results range from hilariously snide narrator comments to disturbing corridors of…well, in the interest of spoilers, let’s just say places you weren’t supposed to see. At several points, the game begins constructing additional figurative walls to house the already highly transparent fourth one. It is impossible to view a playable character or narrator in the same light after playing this game.

Although it’s possible that that’s only the case because The Stanley Parable’s narrator is an amazing character, and backed up by the sublime voice work of Kevan Brighting. His warm, inviting demeanour acts as yet another layer of misdirection for the intuition-rending showcase the game becomes, and his emotional range, when called for, is unparalleled. The script is exceedingly well-written, too; it moves from clinical description to jagged sarcasm to megalomaniacal enthusiasm in the span of five minutes, leaving no room for filler dialogue or forgettable moments.

Of course, most of what I’ve mentioned so far was present in The Stanley Parable’s original 2011 incarnation as a Half-Life 2 mod, so what makes this version (originally subtitled HD Remix before being shortened to something less stupid) so special? Well, for one thing, large chunks of the game have been redesigned and expanded without diluting the impact (and in some cases, deepening it). In fact, the mod’s biggest problem (identical dialogue across multiple necessary playthroughs) has been mostly addressed, with slight changes to the world appearing for the first few replays. They do eventually repeat, but it’s still a much-appreciated feature.

But perhaps more importantly, the game can stand up on its own legs now that it has art and music assets specifically designed for it. The models ripped from Half-Life 2 and the songs from Creative Commons Nine Inch Nails albums never quite fit in the original mod, and were clearly the product of necessity rather than artistry, so original assets would have been welcome just on principle. But The Stanley Parable once again goes one step further by using them to strengthen both the game’s messages and the way they’re conveyed. Even without all its philosophy and humour, The Stanley Parable would still be a great art game, if only because of how well it uses the techniques of visual art. Things traditional developers neglect – composition, highlighting, contrast – are on full display in The Stanley Parable, with all their associated psychological effects in tow. And the new music is a perfect addition to the game’s alternating tone of humour and horror.

Case in point.

In short, everyone involved in The Stanley Parable is a master of their craft. Its level design, audio, visuals, script, and structure are all calculated and connected in a way that penetrates the brain completely and leaves you open to its remarkable observations. The developers have predicted almost every action a player can take within the game – whether they’re playing it like it’s a video game, playing it like it’s real life, or playing it like they’re trying to break it – and they’ve used those predictions to intercept the player at every turn, and create one of the most memorable, intellectual games ever created. If you have any interest in video games at all, you. Must. Play. This. Game.

Score: 10/10

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