What is The Stanley Parable?
In a boring office building, a charming British narrator introduces Stanley, who works at an 80s-era computer pressing the exact keys he’s told to. Suddenly he realizes there’s a first-person choose-your-own-adventure lying before him.
The Steam Store page describes The Stanley Parable as a “first person exploration game. You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end.” This self-contradicting description sets the tone for the overall confusing nature of the game. Perhaps it is best described as a treatise about confusing meta-narratives in life.
When The Stanley Parable begins, you’re handed a framing story. Then the narrator lays informs us of what Stanley should do. At precisely this instant, Stanley is confronted with two doors. It’s a choice whether to fully accept this framing story or to challenge it.
So which are you? The obedient sort? Or a rebel?
Doorways convert the narrator/player relationship into binary terms of agreement and disagreement. The fun of The Stanley Parable is in a semi-contentious relationship between acceptance and rejection; affirming the given framing at one point, and taking the divergent option at another. At one point, it literally comes down to taking the blue pill (door) or the red one.
The diverging paths always lead to some kind of “ending.” A full run of The Stanley Parable can last as little as five minutes. But one thing is consistent: you will start the story over again, and again. It’s a narrative buffet in a fixed-setting not unlike Groundhog Day. But don’t let that lead you to believe that it’s simply a cosmic justice tale.
It’s more about the author’s relationship to the player.
The narrator stands-in as the perpetrator of relationship to every action. Each doorway entered elicits a response from the narrator in his (mostly) polite British intonation, “Oh, you chose not to listen to me, did you?” The decision builds the tension and motivates you to try to parse the truth.
One might liken this to a relationship with religious instructors: teachers and parents that taught us how to see the world. It beckons the question at each hearing, “Is this the truth?”
Once you try every door that seems available, the narrative well runs dry. Perhaps this is why Stanley’s designer, Davey Wreden, recently said in an interview with Big Sushi FM that he finds Proteus’ procedural generation and open-ended possibilities so fascinating because his own constructed narrative forced a finality. And so it can seem with our worldview formations: like you see all the options on the table, but still remain unsatisfied with your findings.
The Stanley Parable most interesting moments occur when you make decisions with a mixture of informed obedience and caring defiance: staying in-relationship but refusing to cave to the author’s worst tendencies. This is also where The Stanley Parable’s best paths unfold, presenting some of the most delightful surprises. Like when you accidentally discover a new path you didn’t know existed to the chagrin of the narrator.
After all is said and done, you may be even more confused on what exactly The Stanley Parable is. But at least you have walked through an intriguing narrator/player thought-experiment relationship. I’m not saying it’s gonna change your worldview. But it might affect how well you listen and respond.