Jason Thompson takes an in-depth look at one of the best single player Half-Life 2 mods to be released, The Stanley Parable.
Before I get too far into this, you need to go play this game. There are going to be spoilers everywhere, and if you don’t want the entire experience ruined for you, you should download the files below and see as many endings as you can. It takes less than an hour to see the whole game, and it’s totally and completely free. Now you have no excuse to avoid the coming spoilers.
- Download The Stanley Parable – Available on Mac & PC
With that out of the way, I think every games developer and games designer should play this game. I finished it first by doing everything I was told, and I found the initial credits roll very unsatisfying, aside from the fitting music. It was relatively obvious the game was designed this way, since it provided choices–but clearly showed the player which choice was considered correct. Every subsequent ending after the first one illuminated another question about how a story should be told, and this is where the game’s principal importance lies.
Each ending of The Stanley Parable caused me to question the intricacies of telling a story. How much control over the player (railroading) is too much to be fun and ends up sapping the ending of its rewarding sense of accomplishment? How much freedom should a player be given to tell his/her own experience of the story? All these questions of right and wrong ways to play a game, especially from a designer’s viewpoint, are echoed nicely in an article posted July 29th by Zorba at Mandible Games (http://www.mandible.net/category/design/). As he alludes in the piece, at some point in the process of making a game, the DM, GM, or developer has to somehow answer the question of how much freedom to give the player. When the developed game leaves the hands of the developer, it then becomes the player’s game.
All these concepts are presented in The Stanley Parable. If the player chooses to disregard the Narrator at different points, the voice breaks the fourth wall to deliver some dark humor or make it more obvious that the player is trying to play the game he/she wants to play regardless of what was intended. This sets up an interesting combative relationship between Stanley and the Narrator, akin to Chelle and GlaDOS, in which ignoring the voice’s wishes ends up making Stanley the object of its contempt. As I referenced above, Zorba illustrates examples he has seen of this concerning game design in his article, and this is a dynamic towards which I think all devs and DMs alike should take caution. As video games continue to develop more into their own as expressions of art, this subtle relationship between the intended design of the game and what is considered cheating or “breaking the rules” should gather more attention among our community.
I have to take time to say Davey Wreden has done an excellent job writing out several possible trains of thought through an experience of a game, including a few self-aware scenarios. The game messes with the player’s expectations even moreso than Portal did, and the brilliance of the writing is at least on par, if not surpassing, that of Portal. A huge nod goes to Kevan Brighting for the voice of the Narrator, as well. He really nails the role like it was made for him, and his phone should be ringing off the hook for more work, honestly.
From the credits, it seems only five people, including Kevan, were involved in the creation of this Steam Source mod. A game of simple design, The Stanley Parable serves as a great example of what can be done with minimal focus on fancy graphics, explosions, and all the other whistles and bells big studio releases give attention these days. As with most games focused on emulating art, the point of the game is to make the player think about the experiences he/she has while playing moreso than trying to defeat a boss, clear a dungeon, or bring X of MacGuffin Y to NPC Z, and Stanley nails it.
Like movies, there are games designed to merely entertain, and there are games designed to challenge the way we see the world around us—even how we see ourselves. While games like The Company of Myself and Today I Die dealt with issues of solitude and sociability, The Stanley Parable challenges the player’s notions of control, blindly following orders, and what factors make an experience worthwhile and rewarding. Every player should question the line of how much railroading is too much and where games stop being fun because of this. I might ruffle some feathers saying it, but from what I’ve seen recently of big name studios in the past few years, the executives running the show would do well to take heed to the lessons presented in this game. Dumbing down the experience of a game for the lowest common denominator may generate sales, but it has the same feeling upon completion as the easiest ending—an empty, meaningless experience that was little more than a lesson in instruction following in order to see the trite, predictable ending anyone could foresee without hearing more than the plot.