‘The Stanley Parable': Choice Finally Done Right

Sometimes, game developers surprise us. I’ve got a vested interest in gaming as a medium. Not only is it one of my hobbies, but I suspect it is a place where Christians can go to engage a large number of young men (and, increasingly, women) who are unwilling to engage with us directly. Most of the industry, unfortunately, is filled with problems that film critics regularly lament: the same, boring action game comes out year after year. Whether that’s Call of DutyBattlefieldHalo, or whatever Michael Bay is currently working on, both industries are filled with appeal-to-the-masses, easy to digest franchises. While some productions become worthwhile, even from the standard formulas (InceptionThe Matrix), mostly the top films and games of any given year are telling the same stories, only pushing forward graphics or special effects.

Enter The Stanley Parable. While some games have attempted to push the boundaries of what we can accomplish with game mechanics (BraidPortal), a few franchises have stepped up and attempted to provide solid narratives (Mass EffectDishonoredBioshock: Infinite, Braid, and, again, Portal). But this is something different. Here’s the description, straight from the game’s Steam page:

The Stanley Parable is 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.

If that sounds contradictory, welcome to the game. The game begins with a narrator explaining Stanley’s thoughts, who you are (allegedly) controlling. Very quickly, however, the narrator starts to predict your action. “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.”

Of course, you can step through either door. The narrator reacts accordingly, sometimes addressing you directly, sometimes getting angry at you and forcing a game reset, and sometimes he just lets you do what you want. It’s an interesting illusion of control. Each of these reactions had to be programmed based on all of your options, and the game is clearly quite complex. It has kept me coming back to it over the last week, and I’m still finding “endings” to the game that I never knew were there.

That’s a lot of lead in, and I’m not shy about my endorsement. If you’re a gamer, you ought to give The Stanley Parable a shot. You’ll laugh, you’ll be surprised, and if you’re reflective you might just face some new thoughts about the limitations of interactive narratives.

More on that last point. Many gamers claim they want the stories of their games to offer them choice. Remember the outcry from the Mass Effect finale? “You promised us choice, but you only let us choose the color of the ending!” This was in spite of the numerous actual choices presented throughout the series. You could lose characters, damn entire races to extinction, make friends and enemies, and these all changed the story you told. But the ending fell flat, because of the final “decision.”

Mass Effect‘s problem was that it was simply too large to offer actual choice. It isn’t financially feasible to produce what amounts to three or four games. There is already a ton of content that I never saw in all three of those games, and their narratives were all more-or-less concluded the same way. What Mass Effect has in scope, The Stanley Parable has in choice. I’ve found branching paths, complex sequences that must be completed to arrive at different endings, and even unique dialogue if I’d acted a certain way in a previous play-through. Much like the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, The Stanley Parable invites repeated engagement, though holding your finger in the book to save your spot is considerably more difficult.

The choices are deterministic, sure, but that is one of those inherent limitations of produced media. No game, movie, or book can answer your questions in real time, or offer you unique and personalized content as you request it. Until someone manages to devote staff to answer questions online and program new sections of a game in real time (or, more likely, figuring out a way to make procedural generation more intelligent), or until we develop AI, we won’t really be able to incorporate the sort of choice The Stanley Parable offers at the length and breadth that Mass Effect promises.

For a generation that loves to conceptually play with reality (if you thought “wow, so postmodern” as you read the description, you weren’t far off; if you were just intrigued, you’re likely more postmodern than you realize), The Stanley Parable hits all the right notes. This is a clear subversion of the form, a step away from the normal narrative that games possess. It even takes jabs at the promise of choice, throughout. There are times when the narrator removes your options, forcing you along some path or another. In a game centered around choice, that can be jarring.

In fact, jarring is probably the right word to describe the game. In a time when we’re flooded with games that don’t really challenge expectations, The Stanley Parable stands out as a unique exploration of gaming itself. While the game lacks the moral punch that something like Mass Effect can explore (there really aren’t characters to care for or make moral decisions about in The Stanley Parable), it demonstrates one method to offering something approximating actual choice.

And gamers everywhere ought to rejoice.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).