Here’s the YouTube link for those who want it. Also, spoilers for The Stanley Parable (obviously) and also Half-Life 2. I can’t believe I have to warn people about that, but according to the comments the YouTube video has received so far I apparently do?
Transcript-ish thing after the cut.
I know I’m on record as being sick of “games about games.” This is still largely true, though if we have to explore the topic I’d prefer more Spec Opses and Saint’s Row 4s and fewer Assassin’s Creeds and FarCry 3s. I get it, it’s a tropical vacation where you indulge in ultraviolence, your social commentary is noted. But while I’m tired of the trend overall, there’s one game I knew I’d let slide on the issue: Galactic Cafe’s The Stanley Parable. This is largely due to the fact that the game is a remake of the 2011 Half-Life 2 mod of the same name. Which means that not only is it technically one of the first games to engage in the slightly navel gazing trend of critiquing games using games, but it’s also one of the most incisive games dealing with the subject, looking not at themes like violence but the very structure of of games and how they are used to convey meaning. It’s sort of like Ernest Adams by way of Erik Wolpaw as narrated by Stephen Fry. (…Surely some of you got that.)
Unfortunately The Stanley Parable has proven itself… difficult to write about. Normally when I talk about games I tend to approach it from two general directions – a narrative-focused reading that looks at the plot structure, characters, dramatic arcs, that sort of thing, and a play-focused reading that looks at mechanical systems and how they interact with one another. Then I try to reconcile the two into a cohesive whole and a month later a stork delivers an Errant Signal episode. But that doesn’t really work for The Stanley Parable. Depending on your choices in the game there are so many winding plot branches that have little to nothing to do with each other that a traditional narrativist reading is all but impossible. And the game’s systems consist of litle more than simple binary choices scattered throughout the environment. So a systems based reading isn’t very interesting onto itself. And because the choices drive the direction of the plot and because the plot is all about commenting on the results of those choices there’s no real looking at either in a vacuum. So the old methodology isn’t really going to work here.
This is made worse by the fact that the branching narrative structure allows the game to bring up a number of different themes that show up in some branches of the plot and not others – which makes for a layered and interesting text, but it also means that writing about any of these themes sequentially is an absolute nightmare. But in an effort to give SOME struture to this episode, I’m going to attempt to go over my short list of themes and ideas the game seems interested in.
1. Critique of Winstates.
The Stanley Parable seems to have a lot of disdain for traditional winstates – or at least how they’re used as a carrot to guide player behavior in linear, narrative driven games. The first indicator of this are the achievements – which seem designed to explicitly force players to do things just to get them. One is toggle-able on and off depending on an option in the game’s settings, some have absurd requirements like playing the game for an entire Tuesday, and one – knock on door 430 five times – actually prompts The Narrator to dissect what actions are truly worthy of being called an achievement. There’s even an unachievable achievement that seems unlock on random level loads solely to get under the skin of completionists driven by extrinsic motivation more than the joy of the game. But the one thing they all have in common is that none of them are skill based; they’re either activities you’re going to do without the achievements to motivate you like get the Freedom ending or boot the game twice, or they’re crazy things that you’ll only do because the achievement asked you to. The point being that in a narrative game achievements are either tied to the plot and you’re going to get them one way or another, or they’re tied to the game’s systems and therefore distract from the core of the experience. I mean, I have to assume carrying a gnome through all of Half-Life 2 Episode 2 took away from the gravitas of the proceedings at least a bit.
But the notion of a narrative based experience being “winnable” is mocked a number of times in the game itself, too, most notably in the nuclear detonation ending. The quote’s a bit on the long side, but I think it’s worth listening to: [49"30' in the first video]. We presuppose that games have a winstate; that the point is for them to be won. The Stanley Parable questions if that’s true, and asks if our attempts to always save the day or get out of trouble stem from a relentless optimism or they’re simply a pavlovian response to decades of games that presuppose the end of the story has to be a victory condition.
But what’s the point of calling the end of the story a winstate? That equates the end of the story with victory, that you’ve vanquished the bad guy and won the day. But not all stories are like that – in fact arguably *most* stories aren’t like that. The Stanley Parable indulges itself in tragic, humorous, introspective, and absurdist endings – and while they’re all meaningful, most if not all of them could hardly be called victories. Do you really win when you finish SpecOps: The Line? Heck, games like Dwarf Fortress or roguelikes are based around the idea that losing often results in better stories than victory.
Linear games tend to instead invalidate their lose states by suggesting that the only true outcome where the player “wins.” The Stanley Parable, with all of its endings, asks why a singular victory state should be the only canon. The freedom ending is the ending you get an achievement for and it fills The Narrator’s grand vision, but it’s hardly the only legitimate ending to the game. In fact, the game seems acutely aware that all of its possibilities are canon despite the fact it presents itself as a game that wants to tell a singular tale at The Narrator’s behest. So why should the only canonical ending of Half-Life be the one where the Citadel blows up and the good guys win, and not the tragic story of how Gordon Freeman was shot to death by Combine guards? There are several reasons the loading screen on The Stanley Parable has The End Is Never The End is Never The End… written across it, and one of them is because all potentialities in this system are valid. No ending is truly final; they’re all potentialities you’re exploring. There are no wrong ending, there’s no “The Prince of Persia died oh, wait, I’m remembering it wrong.” If The Stanley Parable had a true winstate, a way the game could be formally beaten it would invalidate the rest of the possibility space of the game with one single canonical way to play. The game is critical of approaches that use shallow incentives like winstates to get players to disregard systemic possibilities that the narrative can’t handle.
2. Choice and free will in games.
The Stanley Parable also has more than a passing fancy in the nature of choice and what that means for free will in games. The whole game’s built on choice, after all, with the set piece of the whole thing being a room with two doors to choose from. But despite a being a game where the decisions of the player guide the plot The Stanley Parable seems somewhat ambivalent about the nature of choice in games as a substantive, meaningful act on the part of the player. The confusion ending opens by asking about the nature of choice in the real world: [Medical Professionals suggest you make 8 choices a day. Do you make more than 8? Less? Your choices don't matter.] While it’s done in a tongue in cheek way it serves to deconstruct the notion of choices as discreet or even necessarily meaningful acts the way we present them in games. In real life the majority of choices are things like “Do I want to have pizza or sandwiches for dinner?” or “What should I wear today?” They’re decisions of little consequence made with little thought. We don’t count the decisions we make one at a time or try to demand they have a demonstrable and immediate impact on the world around us. But in games choices are often framed as these big important decisions that are expected to have lasting rammifications of extreme good or extreme evil, and the more of them the game has the better! And it puts the notion of player power and player choice on a pedestal that it doesn’t necessarily deserve.
And for a game about choice, it’s notable that Stanley himself is often referred to as not having true freedom of will – in one ending it’s because of the mind control device which he can only turn off by (ironically) blindly following The Narrator’s instructions without question. In another it’s because he’s a drone worker trying to escape the monotony of his reality, inventing the illusion of choice where none otherwise exist. In another it’s because he’s a fictional character who can’t have choice because someone else is writing his future. And in yet another his decision making ability stems entirely from the Player, and with the player removed he becomes incapable of any action at all. Stanley is doomed to forever desire freedom and autonomy but never truly achieve it.
The Museum ending has a second narrator talk about this idea directly to the player. She posits that life and death are meaningless when all choices and consequences are laid out in advance. True freedom doesn’t exist for Stanley; it *can’t* exist for Stanley because even when he defies The Narrator he’s still operating within the confines of the game’s structure. Every path of percieved defiance is really just another preplanned route by Galactic Cafe, and as the player you’re no more free for following those faux protestations than Stanley is when he listens to the narrator to shut off the mind control device. The woman narrator goes so far as to say that the only true choice the game offers is to quit playing it.
Note that the game doesn’t reject the notion of choice outright, but rather the idea that choice in games is something owned wholly by the player, that choice gives players any true free will or power. This idea that choice has to be meaningful to the player is also mocked in the game’s demo [choose a button]. And the promotional video for the game pokes fun at the other extreme, where choice really is unlimited and wholly in the hands of the player [bike reference]. Complete, boundless freedom like the bike scene doesn’t exist, *can’t* exist in any game. Players in game systems aren’t free, they’re exploring a text with rules put there intentionally by an author. The Window Ending, for example, references how players will eventually explore both paths to consume all of the content: [example] The Stanley Parable posits that thinking a player’s choices signify free will in a game is like thinking fictional characters have free will over their own actions when the whole text is already written out before them. Your choices in games aren’t decisive in nature, but instead they’re exploratory; you’re not making lasting decisions but you’re choosing a branch of possibility space to examine. You don’t have the freedom of choice, you have the walls of rules and mechanics that give shape and meaning to the game even as they confine you.
This leads into the next point I think the game touches on:
3. Rejection of games as escapist fantasy for those without choice looking for a world where their choice matters?
Games are usually framed as Power Fantasies in the sense that you shoot dudes with big guns or hit monsters with giant swords. But there’s another angle to the power fantasy that isn’t about raw physical strength that we don’t talk about as much – the idea that the player matters. Games are in a lot of ways narcissistic and usually focus the narrative squarely on the player out of necessity. The Stanley Parable takes this idea and frames it as an escape from day-to-day monotony; a way to feel grand and important despite being trapped in a system where you’re truly impotent. The game’s about a man that stands in front of a computer and pushes buttons in the order the machine tells him to while under the influence of a system of control put in place by people he’s never met. Your boss in his ostentatious office seems to be in on the whole mind control plot, and there are cutesey scribbles about his absolute control over the company in his bathroom. It’s not exactly a subtle condemnation of the modern dead-end office job and how video games can exist as an indulgent but ultimately empty escapist fantasy that distracts them from that reality. The apartment ending touches on this directly:
This is where Stanley being a stand-in for the player becomes somewhat interesting, though, because the game isn’t making that point in the abstract. It’s making that point about us, the players. Every time we click our mouse buttons the game makes keyboard noises like we’re typing away at our office work. We’re the ones who are hitting the keys in response to the Narrator’s demands just as Stanley hits keys based on what his computer tells him. The Stanley Parable may be Stanley’s escape from the monotony of his job, but video games in general are our collective way of escaping, of trying to find importance and empowerment in a system that’s comfortable leaving us behind. It’s a game that sees its peers as opiates providing escapism rather than prompting real change, and that’s sort of sobering. Stanley’s sad endless and futile search for meaning and hope becomes all the darker when it’s seen as a metaphor for the desperation of working class people. Escaping into a fantasy where actions feel meaningful but are ultimately confined to a digital fiction, we slowly realize that even in there true choice is an illusion.
Also, this is a bit off topic, but in a certain sense the game has a lot of the same anti-materialist and philosophical undertones as The Matrix. Lowly desk worker slowly realizes he’s been lied to about his reality and gets talked down to by a guy with grand designs and has to make a choice between two doors while meditating on free will and predetermination…. Eh, worth a thought.
4. Conflict between player choice and embedded narrative.
The tension between the interests of the player and the interests of the designer is the core conflict throughout the game. Stanley, a stand-in for the player, wants freedom and control above all else. The Narrator is effectively a stand-in for game developers – he wishes to tell his story, to see his brilliant vision of events come to pass in the most exciting and emotionally impactful way possible regardless of how Stanley or the player feel about it. Now, the game’s got a mean postmodernist streak and sometimes these metphors fall apart – The Narrator sometimes actually fights the true game designers and sometimes The Player is explicitly framed as separate from Stanley – but generally speaking those allegories hold up and form the basis of the game’s conflict. To play The Stanley Parable is to search for a happy medium between the two; to find a place where Stanley and the player have their freedom and a place where The Narrator and the developer’s stories can be told, all in one beautiful and affecting cohesive experience.
And the paradox of The Stanley Parable – The Stanley Paradox, if you like – is that the game simultaneously rejects and exemplifies this notion. In every ending of the game, in every single one, someone gives up something to the other. There are endings where The Narrator exerts authoritarian control often in cruel ways and there are endings where Stanley or even The Player as separate from Stanley abandon or destroy the narrator’s vision. But there is no ending with a happy medium between the two. The great irony being, of course, that the game, The Stanley Parable, is itself a wonderful merger of the author’s intent and vision clearly coming through while also giving players a possibility space to explore rather than find the one true path through.
What does that mean? Well, I take it as a rejection of The Narrator’s approach more than anything. Galactic Cafe have a vision of a possibility space where any one of a myriad of outcomes are equally valid and, when taken into context with each other, form the cohesive whole that is The Stanley Parable. In contrast, The Narrator has his singular vision with a linear narrative; his beloved “story.” His addiction to this singular story, this one linear way things can turn out is so steadfast that he introduces a literal line to follow in order to assure the player will arrive there undeterred. Where Galactic Cafe see sculpting the possibility space as a way of giving meaning to games, The Narrator rejects the idea of possibility space as doing nothing but detracting from his tale. It’s no accident that the only real mechanic stops being a mechanic when you follow his instructions, The Narrator literally hasn’t planned for any interaction to influence his story.
5. In Conclusion.
Like I said, the game is a *dense* text full of differing ideas, and some come through stronger than others. Really, it’s almost too dense, coming across as a diffuse project that invokes everything from postmodern deconstructions of player characters through to vague grumblings about the plight of middle class office workers to tongue-in-cheek mediations on free will. I think that might be why the general takeaway is “Yeah, it makes fun of video game tropes and stuff.” You have to spend a lot of time picking at the parts to make it a more cohesive whole, and even then it’s pretty scattershot in its approach. It’s almost too clever for its own good, running off on thematic tangents of interest and leaving a lot of the core underdeveloped. Still, it’s a game with no shortage of ideas, and it’s presented in a hilarious and memorable way. Just don’t be surprised if it takes you a while and several playthroughs to start seeing how some of these disparate threads and ideas correlate. After all, Stanley’s still in there, still searching in vain for the meaning and the freedom he’ll never find.