Enter Stanley. The protagonist in The Stanley Parable, well, presumed protagonist. This is a meta game, there can be no doubts about that. However, the rest is speculation. Stanley is worker number 427, which alone sparks questions. 4-2-7. Could this be a reference to Adam Douglas number 42, representing the meaning of life? Or maybe a comment on the modern working force, being online and in some ways working 24/7. Welcome, to this weeks indie blog post on The Stanley Parable.
This post will contain spoilers, so if that concerns you, then look away (after throwing a lovely comment down below of course).
Entering the game we take the role of Stanley, an office worker, who according to the narrator is happy with his job, which simply consists of pushing buttons in the correct order. The office building is empty and we set out to investigate the cause. However, this is no normal narrator, as he quickly throws off a witty remark about our slow pace of progression in his charming British accent. After traversing through a few corridors we come to a room and face two open doors. The narrator confidently states that Stanley enters the door to the left. And silence. This is where the game becomes subtly meta. We now have a choice; do we follow the narrators directions and enter the door to the left, or do we rebel in the name of free choice and enter the door to the right? Are we at all offered a choice, or confronted with the illusion of choice?
I talked about choice, illusions of choice, and determinism in a previous post. You can check that out here.
Now, quite a few people on reddit have seen this game as a meta critique of the gaming industry. This interpretation focusses on the narrative design in the game, and other games. Valid points are proven with those remarks, although they do not seem to strike quite true with the majority of content in the game. You see, most of the comments offered by the narrator are aimed at the players actions, and often at the futility of said actions. For instance:
“There was nothing here. No choice to make. No path to follow. Just an empty broom closet. No reason to still be here.” – Narrator
“It was baffling that Stanley was still just sitting in the broom closet. He wasn’t even doing anything. At least if there was something to interact with, he’d be justified in some way. As it is, he’s literally just standing there, doing sweet FA.” – Narrator
These strings of narration simply derived from the player standing in a broom closet, doing nothing. The narrator does all that is in his power to convince the player of the futility of standing there, pushing to move the story along. In other words, the narrator makes this action seem pointless, which in meta perspective comments on the pointlessness of doing… well… anything, in a video game.
On the other hand, we can turn this situation slightly on its head, and think once again about why I in fact chose to spend three minutes of my life standing still in a broom closet in a video game. Video games are very much reward based. You kill the monster and level up! That kind of thing. In that reddit thread, as mentioned, people thought the game might be critiquing video game narrative, and how little it has evolved. However, returning to The Stanley Parable, and my standing about in a broom closet, the games narrative is the reward. The narrator is interesting, the situation is interesting, and so, we chase the next witty line, or meta-comment. The narrator kept commenting on my standing in the closet, so I patiently stayed there in order to see just how far he would go in his comments.
Eventually he of course stopped talking and I left – but it was fun as long as it lasted. The strangeness of the situation was enough of a reward in itself. Apparently, the narrator did not enjoy my little rebellion from his script, so the next time I played through the story the door had been sectioned off!
I forgot to mention, the game has multiple endings (16+) and each time you get to one of its endings the game simply restarts. The intriguing thing is that the game alters slightly every time, which keeps you on your toes (figuratively speaking).
The Stanley Parable is basically a satire, and gamers are its victim. Satires intend to amuse, poke fun of, slightly insult, but also educate. They function as social commentaries, aiming to make people question their ways. In this case, the game wants gamers to question their reasons for playing video games. I told you – meta.
A crude interpretation can identify how the game argues that we are in fact just pushing buttons, in a particular order, according to what the game instructions told us – just like Stanley’s job is simply pressing buttons in the correct order. Why do we do it? Because we like following instructions, and enjoy the (apparently) meaningless feedback and satisfaction it offers. As I said, this is a crude interpretation. But chances are it was enough to make you think – either for or against these arguments – both are of equal succes. Because it isn’t really about for or against, it it about the thought process and the reflections.
Our actions in video games are, in my opinion, not meaningless or even simple for that matter of fact. Anyone new to video games would tell you that – there is nothing simple about getting good at video games. Anyway, I digress. The point is, the gamer creates meaning through his or her interactions with video games – even if that game follows the most standardised design patterns. The same goes for anyone watching a film, or reading a book. However, it is useful to be aware of what meaning we make of our experiences, and why.
For instance, as I mentioned, it is the narration that drives this game forwards for me. I am curious, and want to know what might happen if I do this, or do that. See how far I can push the narrator. The endings are interesting and diverse, but only to an extent – as they always take us back to the beginning. The journey is what was really interesting for me, and that was where meaning was created in my experience.
Being confronted with the illusion of choice so squarely was fascinating. It highlighted the necessity of scripted paths within video games. Of course, in this particular game, every single path was tightly scripted, and left little to no room for original actions. But even for open-world games, there is mostly a main story, and a scripted path that you will sooner or later have to follow. In stories that make use of narrative there simply has to be a restriction on freedom, and limit on choice.
The question is whether or not that is a bad thing? I suggest not. If you buy into any kind of human determinism, then you will probably already believe we live our real lives with the same illusion. Even if we do not have a choice, having a path laid out in front of us isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes all we need is a well constructed narrative, and allow ourselves to fall for the illusions the story offers – enjoying the journey for as long as it lasts.
“Stanley realized none of this mattered to him, for it was not knowledge or even power that he had been seeking, but happiness. Perhaps his goal had not been to understand, but to let go”