First released as a mod to Half Life 2, The Stanley Parable is a game that comes across at first as merely clever, but eventually reveals itself as a much deeper and thought-provoking affair. A short, simple game about player choice, The Stanley Parable simultaneously mocks and reinforces the uncomfortable paradoxes we face in our own lives, art, and thought life. Also, it is hilarious.
We talked to the game’s creator, Davey Wredon about his own personal beliefs and how they play out in The Stanley Parable.
The Stanley Parable is currently available on Steam for PC.
WARNING: Spoilers lurk below.
What core beliefs would you say most motivate you?
The important thing is that beliefs change. To me that’s fundamental, that the beliefs I hold now are going to be different than the beliefs I hold in the future. That’s interwoven in and among everything that I believe and is intrinsic to it. This is not me, this is not identity. This is exploration or a pursuit that is like a signpost pointing toward me at this moment in time.
I think what motivates me most for right now is a compelling balance between vulnerable self expression and selflessness; understanding how to do each of those things, but also how to cultivate a balance between them.
Can you give a concrete example of how that tension plays out in your life?
With The Stanley Parable, early on in the development of the thing, you’re basically just pumping pure self-expression into it as much as you can. You’re cutting a vein on your arm and just letting it bleed out in as deep a way as you can.
Then later as the project goes on and it becomes an actual thing, you have to deal with the realities of this thing that you’ve made. How is it actually going to be received? I want to sell this product. So what expectations do I need to set in terms of being able to handle that, and how humble do I need to be? Because if the game is coming together and someone tells me that they really really like it or that it inspired them or changed them, it’s very easy to get sucked up in that emotion.
So I think that knowing that I’m not such hot shit is really important for me. And people will tell you, “Oh I think this thing is really good,” or “It’s going to do well,” and I have to go, “Yeah, but probably not.”
But there’s this horrible thing you have to do where you have to spend years saying “This is me, and therefore it is great,” and then you have to turn around and kind of do the opposite thing.
Yes, that’s exactly right. You have to go “It’s not me,” because it’s too much. When people come back to you to talk about your game, especially if a lot of people play that game, or whatever it is that you’ve made, you become this emotional grounding rod for a hundred-thousand people in the world that you’ve never met. They have plenty of energy to deal with it, because they’re only having this one line of connection. But you’re having thousands simultaneously. And to try to receive that volume of emotional discharge, be it positive or negative or whatever, it’s impossible. I think I would just shut down if I felt that I was the receiver of all of this.
Especially when someone says something really nice about your game, you have to be like “Okay, that’s cool, but it wasn’t me.” I can only receive so much of this, or I’m going to just go crazy thinking about it and trying to internalize it. It’s not why I set out to do this. It’s not healthy to just be a completely available emotional grounding rod for anyone who has that to express.
So do you feel like you’re lying at this stage?
You have to. You have to deceive yourself. I just don’t think there’s any other way.
You have to deceive yourself early on too, but in the opposite direction. You have to convince yourself that this thing is purely this violent, passionate work of incredible self-expression, even though it probably isn’t. You get in that mindset to really give yourself the energy and momentum you’ll need to get through that whole development process. It’s because you believe that this is the definitive word on life and meaning, even though obviously it isn’t. But that’s how you get yourself to keep going.
At the same time, when you actually put the thing out, if you still believed that, it would be way too difficult to deal with those thoughts, so you have to deceive yourself in the opposite direction.
You said that your beliefs are always changing. Is there one thing that’s stayed the same in the midst of that? Is there a common thread throughout your life?
I know it’s cheesy to say, “The only constant is change,” but that’s my first thought. It’s not just change. It’s the discarding of one’s own self. Over time, accumulating life experiences and knowledge tends to lead toward identity.
Based on my experiences, I form an identity. “This is who I am. This is what kind of person I am.” And you believe that is your “self.” This is part of the self-deception, that those things are “you,” even though they’re really not. I think that the change element has to do with recognizing when that identity is no longer serving you and to be willing to let it go.
That’s really interesting to me, because I had all of these ideas that I wanted to talk about with The Stanley Parable, but ultimately that idea seems to be what The Stanley Parable is about: your opinion on things changes drastically – on the narrator, the idea of story, the idea of the narrative – it changes drastically every time you discover something or have a new experience.
Yeah. And if you were to think, for example, of each ending in the game as being an identity. Like, “Based on my experiences in this particular ending, this is the meaning I’ve constructed out of it,” essentially each being its own lifetime. And the broader experience of the game being the ability to move from self to self, to not stay entrenched in the idea of a True Self, or a Real Meaning, but that there are many selves.
So just on that personal level, that’s how I want to live. I want to live in such a state of awareness of those multiple selves, that I can let go of one and adopt another where it best serves me to be happy, healthy and constructive.
The version of The Stanley Parable that I most related to was the one where you just do all the right stuff [and the narrator rewards you by leading you into a wondrous garden where Stanley would be happy forever]. I really appreciated how, at least to me, it didn’t seem sarcastic. It didn’t seem like a joke. It seemed totally sincere that you would be happy. This was literally “The Good Ending.”
Yeah, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the original mod, but the ending where you follow the narrator is much more sarcastic. It’s much more kind of on the nose about it. A lot of people wrote to me like, “Oh yeah, if you follow the narrator it just makes fun of you for following instructions.” And I think maybe at that time I was a little more cynical. I think maybe I was just a little younger and more rebellious and a little more like “Fuck the man,” and everything. Because I think that over time I started to feel like it’s not that clear-cut. I don’t ever think that there’s just one side of it that is wrong. I think it’s a balance.
No matter how rebellious you are, many elements of our lives are contingent on a certain amount of structure, order, and being able to follow certain instructions and certain tropes that give a kind of concreteness. It’s really difficult to live in a purely abstract, rebellious state constantly.
Did you feel that at all? Did you draw that relation to those other endings?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m a Christian and I draw my ultimate happiness to how closely I can follow the narrative – how closely I can do what I’m supposed to do. So I really appreciated that ending.
But then I was playing the other play-throughs and they all felt valid in different ways. They all felt like they had a really good point, but from a totally different perspective. Like, if your goal is just contentment and happiness, do the first thing. But if your goal is to get to the bottom of things, you’re going to have to deviate.
Do you read me as trying to have my cake and eat it too?
No, not really, because it’s not like you’re making an argument necessarily. To me it’s just a work of art, so let’s just think about it. I don’t really have a problem with that.
Sure. I think that maybe in some ways the art is closer to what I want to be, which is feeling at all times an awareness of those multiple things and how at different moments in time, some are truer than others.
Because obviously I’m biased. I’ve got my own beliefs and everything. It’s this thing that I’m trying to get closer to, and I always appreciate when someone sees that. Like, “Oh, it really did feel like each of the play-throughs were valid.” If I can put it into art, maybe I’m getting closer to being able to do that for myself.
Yeah, and I think if I had to differ with The Stanley Parable, it would be with what a lot of people in my circles call this “postmodern” idea, where the search is constant, and there’s no end to it. So for me, it would start with all the other deviations, and then end at the end…
Right, like as a conclusion.
Exactly. That’s probably how I would have crafted that game, if I were to make it.
Sure. I’m really fascinated by that. That says so much that I think is really interesting. That you have an ability to construct these things together internally in such a way to make sense out of them, and give them that order. And that you can be totally happy with that.
I think that most of the time, if I ever feel like I have too convenient an answer, I get really skeptical. I just start doubting myself just a little bit. But it’s weird because over time I feel a stronger and stronger sense of certainty and confidence in the lack of a definite answer. Especially compared to even just a few years ago when I was a bit younger, and I’d have all those questions in my head just knocking around and doing whatever they felt like and I have no control over any of them at all. It was awful. I just got super depressed and nothing made sense. I had no kind of emotional restraint.
Maybe in some way that was kind of like the emotional equivalent of going to the gym. It hurts really bad the first time you do it, but then those muscles get a little bit stronger, you do it again and they get a little bit stronger and a little bit stronger. Now I feel much more confident just being in that place. I feel like I’ve got some footing under me and it feels like an identity in a much stronger way. It feels like this thing that I can wear and carry with purpose, in the way that you describe the freedom ending being for you.
How do you feel about games addressing religious or philosophical issues?
I think it’s a bit like educational games. I think the more directly you state your intentions, the less meaningful it becomes for the person experiencing it. The Oregon Trail, for example, is a great educational game because it’s not trying to teach you. You learn through the course of playing it, and it’s fun, it’s engaging. It’s compelling as a game, and therefore the messages it has about those elements of history – you make yourself more vulnerable to them, because you’re engaged.
Engagement is apparently an act of making oneself more vulnerable, which is what’s so beautiful about it. Real engagement with a work of art, with a book, a song, a movie, a game, whatever – you’ll let down those guards and just kind of open up your chest a bit and whatever there is that’s there comes rushing in. That’s the most powerful impact that I think a piece can really have. It inspires you to make yourself really deeply vulnerable in that sense.
I think it’s the same thing with religion in games. I think that the extent to which a person has a religious experience with a game is the extent to which they’re compelled to make themselves vulnerable.
What games have you seen that have done this well?
It’s so varied. I think the assumption is that there’s a certain style or class of game that does this well, but I don’t think that’s true at all. Super Hexagon, which you look at and are like “What about this is religious?” but you have to make yourself so vulnerable in order to play that game.
You have to really really give yourself up and just submit to it, over and over and over, as many times as it takes. I think that’s a great ground for the player to find that in themselves.