Do we really have any choice, or any agency in them at all?
Galactic Cafe have aimed to try and explore these issues in the humourous first person romp The Stanley Parable
I reviewed it for SquareGo, full text below the cut:
The Stanley Parable
If every decision we choose to make is already a choice defined by someone else, what agency do we really have?
It’s that exact question which makes up the heart of The Stanley Parable, a 2-3 hour long adventure in which a lowly office worker gets up from his desk to find out why no-one came to work that day. Doesn’t sound all too interesting does it? Well actually, it’s absolutely fascinating, and what’s more, it’s funny as all hell.
The Stanley Parable began life back in 2011. A distinctly unusual Half-Life 2 mod, with a dry sense of humour and an unusual take on the first person game type. A short, single player, narrative experience, which seeks to make a few pertinent points about the nature of first person gaming, as well as interactive storytelling in general.
Because of the Half Life mod community origin, it’s often mentioned in the same breath as the other well known arty mod-turned full release, Dear Esther. And it’s upon that same wave of modern indie ‘experience gaming’, that Galactic Cafe have brought The Parable to full HD release. The original, basic and functional graphics replaced by the latest source engine tricks, and the handful of narrative paths expanded into a plethora of diverging options.
It’s difficult to go into too much depth in explaining The Stanley Parable, without ruining much of the wit, comedy and insight it shows. But suffice to say, it’s a tale about choice and agency. The game is constantly narrated by the dulcet and fatherly tones of Kevan Brighting, who gently coaxes Stanley along the pathway through the narrative. The genius of the game is in the 4th wall breaking moment when players inevitable decide to disobey the story being told to them and step off the path. For most, with the simply choice of deciding to step through the other, when presented with two doors, and instruction to pass through one.
While the original mod featured half a dozen endings, the re-imagined HD version, more than doubles the amount of pathways, seeking to explore even more clever puns, silly jokes and even gently poking fun at other well known games, which promise emergent play and freedom of expression. There is even a literal museum built within the game, showcasing many of the design choices and some of the various ‘outtakes’ of concept and narrative text.
One ironic problem which The Stanley Parable faces, is that in the two and a half years since it was first created, the concepts it showcases have become far more widely known. While in 2011 the concepts of Ludonarrative Dissonance, player agency, and debates over where the line was drawn between story and game, were far more common among games developer circles; today those ideas are lunchtime discussion for many a common gamer.
As a result, it’s easy enough to see why some quarters of the gaming world will likely view the game as crass and unnecessary, especially with a£15 price tag attached. But, while the message of the original game has become more widely known, The Stanley Parable still stands on it’s own as a clever package of ideas, cleverly formed into an easily digestible whole. Moreover, it excels in every direction at either confounding player expectation, or smartly making fun of existing game tropes, even going as far as to point out that it’s doing so at comedic intervals.
It’s an experience which will stay with any player who picks it up, and what’s more, it will either make you think about video games in a completely new way, or reinforce your feelings about lazy game design verses someone actually putting some thought into a game. For that alone, it deserves to be played by anyone who thinks they’ve seen everything games can do, and is bored with what they’ve got.