Review: The Stanley Parable

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Originally created as a Source engine Half-Life 2 mod, Galactic Cafe has taken the original idea behind The Stanley Parable and crafted it into a full standalone release, telling the story of a mindless office worker named Stanley who suddenly finds himself in his place of work without any other co-workers. Playing through The Stanley Parable is similar to that of other interactive narratives like Gone Home and Dear Esther. Experiencing the world is key, while the first-person gameplay is merely a means to deliver the story. Carrying that idea one step further is the addition of a narrator who explains which actions Stanley does or does not take, based on the choices and path the player chooses to take. The Narrator is almost more important to the experience than the player’s choices.

A simple example of this is such: Stanley comes to a room with two open doors. The Narrator explains that Stanley should take the door on the left. Of course, choosing the door on the left means the session will continue down a certain path with several ending variations available. Choosing the door on the right takes the player on a different path (and opens several different ending variations) and also provides the Narrator with a quick chance to educate the player that Stanley could still make his way back to the main path after a short detour through a break room. Going against the narrative direction from the Narrator provides a good amount of humor as he clearly wants Stanley to go a specific direction.

The Stanley Parable is a meditation of self awareness and personal choice. Examining the monotony of living as a cog in a machine, without thinking about the bigger picture and enjoying life, is one of the main messages, or parables, of the game. Of course, that message can be played through and learned within five minutes, so being able to go against the grain and see what other endings play out is where the game truly shines. Sure, it is nice to see Stanley making choices which lead to escaping the humdrum life in an almost sterile office space, but playing through and seeing how upper management has control over every aspect of the typical worker almost seems depressing when reflected back on my own daily life working in an office space.

Instead, The Stanley Parable offers some truly great moments of bucking the system by choosing the path of the right, or going down the steps instead of going up. One ending offers players a chance to play a simple game of saving a cardboard baby moving closer and closer to a fire, by repeatedly pressing a button. Not pressing the button sets the Narrator off on a wonderful rant about the player’s lack of humanity. Another choice sets the game world into an ever decaying and broken environment. Textures and office furniture collide and tear, causing the Narrator to panic and prattle on about how Stanley should just stick to the plan.

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Part of the fun is to just experiment with the world and see what happens. Opening a door labeled as a Broom closet does nothing the first time other than make the Narrator comment about how Stanley opted to take a brief detour into the janitor’s closet. While on a second playthrough, opening the Broom closet evokes a slight rant from the Narrator about wasting time. And on a third try the closet door will be sealed shut with boards. These little touches offer a lot of fun variety while experimenting with the environment. The development team seems to have taken a cue from the creators of Portal with both the level design and the level of humor, trusting that gamers are smart and will get something without having to drive home every single joke. The world may not be overly detailed at first blush, but after spending enough time with the game seeing the subtle changes that are made with almost every single playthrough is impressive. The workplace cubicles may change position, the hallways may vary slightly, or minor interactive moments will be different on each attempt.

For all that is fun and thought provoking about The Stanley Parable, the notion of unlocking every type of ending is not nearly as intuitive as I would’ve hoped. Trying to earn more achievements (because really who doesn’t at least look at the achievement list and wonder how easy some of them would be to go back and earn?) or see as many endings as the game provides will likely require a trip to either Steam community created guides, or a quick search on your favorite guide site. Seeing a detailed flow chart of all of the ending possibilities made me realize that I had seen maybe 80% of the game before I resorted to guides. This I don’t mind. To me, that means the game has enough subtle clues to offer a pretty substantial experience. What drives me nuts is the fact that the game hooked me enough that I felt compelled to see all of the endings, but the only way to do so was reading a guide. Of course, this also meant I needed to replay certain pathways again in order to unlock endings I had missed before. Replaying sections over and over again does show the limitations of the overall design. This monotony is probably something that some gamers won’t want to subject themselves to.

The Stanley Parable is a fun exercise in human behavior. Humor plays on both a high and low brow level and I found myself laughing out loud on plenty of occasions during my gaming sessions. The variations in endings offers a lot of replayability, even though a sense of repetition does begin to set in when going back to earn all of the achievements. Still, The Stanley Parable is a well thought out game, worth playing multiple times to see how dark and twisted the Narrator can be.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Variations to each playthrough offer plenty of new content
+ Laugh out loud humor throughout the game
+ A first-person game without killing (unless you count the baby)

Cons:
– Main story can be completed in just over 5 minutes
– Some endings require repetitive replay

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac
Publisher: Galactic Cafe
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Release Date: 10/17/2013
Genre: Adventure
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.