In the indie adventure game The Stanley Parable, you are given a simple choice: follow what the narrator says, or go against him. The first real game-changing choice is a room with two doors. Go to the left, as instructed, and you follow along a fairly linear story about what happened to all of your missing coworkers. Go to the right, and the narrator starts to fight against you. This is the beginning of a bizarre experiment in surrealism and video games agency (how collective choices influence a game) from Galactic Cafe. The game is all about choice. The framework always goes narrator's choice or other option. Move on as instructed or go off the path. The further you wander, the stranger the game becomes.
On my first playthrough (the scenarios vary in length, but it's only a few minutes from beginning to restart), for example, I caused the total nuclear annihilation of my little world at work. That happened because of one anti-narrator choice. To call that a jarring start to a gaming experience is an understatement. Yet I was sucked right into this bizarre world because the creators went that far.
Unlike a lot of less than interactive adventure games (like Telltale's The Walking Dead), the choices are real in The Stanley Parable. Everything you choose can trigger a new action from the narrator that mocks you, supports you, or breaks the world around you. In one room, falling off a high ledge results in death (whether the narrator instructs you to jump or not); in another room, an even higher fall is perfectly survivable. The narrator's reaction here ranges from gloating at your demise to lamenting your refusal to let him be at peace.
The Stanley Parable conditions you to follow certain rules that only apply in the moment. Each time you reach an end point--not an ending, the game never ends--you wind up back at the desk in your office, staring at a blank computer screen. You turn around and start walking toward the basically linear path to the first room with two doors.
Yet each subsequent start alters the environment. Maybe a different message is playing on one of your missing coworker's computer screens. Maybe there are more options in the two door room. Maybe the narrator remembers what you did the last time. Maybe you are prevented from following the same path. What you think you've learned no longer applies. The most basic rule you can follow is not doing everything the same way every playthrough to open up more possibilities in the world. Even that won't open up everything the game has to offer.
This is a game about pattern, repetition, and power. There is no singular overriding message because each ending of the game is so radically different than the other possible endings of the game. Yet it is undoubtedly a game, as Dear Esther is undoubtedly a game, because you explore an environment at your own pace with a keyboard, a mouse, and a first person view of the world. Also like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable is now a standalone indie game born of an award-winning mod to another game that will most likely pick up more awards in the future.
There's a certain haunting realization that comes from continuing to play The Stanley Parable. You are in charge of your own choices, but only when the narrator gives you that power. He alone can restart the game. He alone can alter reality out of spite or mercy. He can instantly restart your suffering or bring you to some kind of salvation. It is the story of a man who was a cog in a machine, is still a cog in a machine, and will always be a cog in a machine. It's a surrealist nightmare reflecting on modern corporate culture and the illusion of power and free will found in even minor satisfaction.
This is a horror game that does not set out to scare you. It's satire that boils the blood more than it pulls out a laugh. It's interactive art that refuses to take itself seriously for fear of sucking the joy out of video games. It's an adventure game without physical conflict and a puzzle game with no riddles to solve. The Stanley Parable is the experience you make of it because all of the prompts come from your exploration of the environment. You do not get to directly choose your bizarre fate but you do get to wind up the toy and watch where it falls.
The Stanley Parable is available for purchase on Steam. You can also download the demo (same link) to get a taste of the insanity.
Thoughts? Share them below.
Since the game messed with my mind so much during my first few playthroughs (it goes dark, good people), I'm including it in the 31 Days of Horror round-up. Click through for more great horror (and horror-adjacent) content.