Review: The Stanley Parable
A.K.A the game of the demo of the year. If you haven’t played the free demo of The Stanley Parable yet, please – go do that. Available on Steam, not only is the demo hugely entertaining, it offers a great taste of the final game, it’s totally spoiler free and also a demo about demos. This review will also be spoiler free, may or may not be entertaining but definitely won’t be about reviewing reviews, thankfully.
OK, this particular slice of weird is potentially incredibly difficult to write about, so let’s start with the basics. Reduced to its barest bones, The Stanley Parable is a FPS exploration game. Stanley, an office drone, confused by his computer suddenly not working, begins exploring the eerily empty office around him. Accompanied by a narrator, Stanley tries to find out where his colleagues have gone, and the truth behind his soul crushing workplace.
At numerous points in his travels Stanley will be presented with a choice, go left, go right – along with the narrator, speaking in the past tense, telling Stanley which he chose. As Stanley you are totally free to ignore, or rather deliberately contradict, the narrator. And you will want to, the game wants you to mess around. But this is not a one way deal: The Stanley Parable wants you to play, but The Stanley Parable also wants to play you.
In essence TSP is a game about choice, destiny, free will, repetition, surprises, and a game about playing games. The ‘repetition’ comes from the many restarts back to Stanley’s office, following many different apparent conclusions or endings. It’s not truly repeating, each loop through coming with its own twists and surprises. However, just when you think you’ve got a measure on TSP’s formula, it graphically shows you just how very wrong you are, and the extent to which you have been played. It’s a slightly troubling moment, and probably the point that most cynical snarky players will (or should) be won over.
The Stanley Parable succeeds for three reasons, its fantastic design, a desire to constantly surprise, and perhaps most prominently: the Narrator, played by British voiceover artist, Kevan Brighting. All ingredients have to interact well to make TSP what it is of course, but the Narrator is a constant companion, friend, guide, therapist, prison guard, torturer. His reactions both to disobedience and the Groundhog Day like nature of Stanley’s strange world are superbly entertaining. It is worth mentioning that the humour of the demo is also accompanied in the final game by slightly more sinister, darker tones too. It’s hard not to feel that TSP is exploring elements of mental illness, for example.
As heavy as all that sounds, The Stanley Parable is never pretentious, instead exhibiting a wonderfully deft, playful touch. Any self-indulgent philosophisin’ is dependent on the player, if he or she is so inclined. Personally I have little patience for such overthought, and TSP’s wit and charm made me feel it was really delivering knowing winks at me. Yeah, I’m totally with you and your parable, Stanley. But this is all an illusion: TSP is a good social chameleon, a mirror to the player, working for both the cynic and the sincere alike.
2013 has been a particularly good year for intelligent, medium expanding indie games. Gone Home showed us that videogames are capable of more real, empathetic, human stories. And like Gone Home, Stanley is a short experience – although you’ll frequently question if you really are finished. “Probably not” is the answer, by the way. If Gone Home was Dawson’s Creek or My So Called Life, then The Stanley Parable is The Twilight Zone – another glimpse into how versatile games can be.
The Stanley Parable is available now on Steam for PC