Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Stanley Parable

Post-Launch Review
The Stanley Parable
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Released: October 2013
Played: demo complete in 33 mins; game complete in 2h:18min

This isn't as "post launch" as usual, but I played the mod when that came out a couple of years ago and I've been excited to try the full version. So this review is a little early, comparatively.


Originally a free mod, the full version of The Stanley Parable follows Stanley, an office worker who realizes one day that all his coworkers have mysteriously vanished. Accompanied by a narrator, Stanley's investigation is a sidelong exploration of player choice and decision making in video games, in a very meta and surreal style.

The Stanley Parable was very well received, with average review scores of 89%. The mod was praised for its thought-provoking narrative, and a short duration that keeps it accessible. These features carry over into the full version, which has received even more praise for its expanded options, better visuals, overall refinement, and its critique of the narrative style of modern video games.
Before you play The Stanley Parable, play the free demo! The point of a demo is to give you a sense of what the full game is like, with the goal of helping you decide to buy the game. Typically demos do this by giving you a slice of the full game out of context, but The Stanley Parable demo is something special - it's a completely standalone experience, with nothing copied over from the main game. It is, however, a great introduction to The Stanley Parable, even if the narrator tells you otherwise.

Additionally, if you've read any reviews for this game before, a lot of them (including this one) try really hard to avoid saying too much about the game. If that frustrates you, again, try the demo! There aren't really any big decisions to make, and it doesn't get nearly as weird as the full game, but it's a pretty good intro. 
The core of The Stanley Parable is the relationship between the narrator and Stanley, and their struggle for power and control of the narrative. If you follow the directions given to you, you'll come away with a short, relatively simple story about freedom. But when you start defying the narrator, things can get weird. Depending on how you maneuver through the game's many choices, your relationship with the narrator might become deeply antagonistic, even violent. Sometimes he seems to delight in torturing you - in one ending he demonstrates his complete power over the narrative, and mocks you for believing you could make any choices at all. Another route shifts the dynamic in the complete opposite direction with the narrator begging you to go back, to please stop ruining the story he worked so hard on. One of the endings actually made me feel really bad, but by that point I felt like I had committed and needed to finish what I'd started. But for the most part, your choices are not as unconstrained as you think they are - the more you play, the more you realize that your every move has been accounted for.

Some of the greatest moments, though, are relatively small and innocuous. Many of these won't appear on your first playthrough, and may not even show up after many plays. There are great little details to find - the captions on some of the paintings, the executive bathroom, developments with the broom closet. Some of these hidden bits will carry over between playthroughs, like the broom closet. Some of them are options you might not even realize you have, or options that aren't available immediately.
Aside from the often-hilarious (and sometimes disturbingly creepy) stuff the narrator says, the most interesting thing about The Stanley Parable is what it says about video games. The demo offers plenty of subtle commentary on video game demos, playing with the idea of what a demo is, whether you're playing the demo right, or whether you're playing the demo at all. Some of the endings even explicitly point out that you're playing a game or otherwise go for very meta commentary, like catering to the player to improve review scores. Layers within layers within layers.

The achievements are great, too. Seriously, take a look at the list.

The game also makes sparse but fantastic use of music.

To be honest I'm having a little trouble with this review, because this is a game I really don't want to say too much about. I had so much fun discovering things on my own, including some literal laugh-out-loud moments, and I don't want to ruin that sense of discovery. Of course the trick is, how do I really convey how much I loved this game without telling you too much? Maybe someday I'll solve that puzzle and edit this review, but for now I'll just say:

Recommendation: play it.

The Stanley Parable is great. I played it back when it was a free Half-Life 2 mod, but this version is much more refined (though a small slice of the mod sneaks into one of the endings!). It's quite short and cerebral with essentially zero action; gameplay basically consists of "walk around, listen to the narrator, make choices". If you're the kind of person who doesn't like short or slow-paced games it might not be worth the full $15, but for the enjoyment I personally got out of it, I actually regret buying it on sale because I'd rather have given the developers more money.
Anyway, I loved this game. It's goofy, dark, and thought-provoking in different ways at different times. It's only January 8th and I already have an entry for my best games of 2014!

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