We can’t get enough of stories which refuse to play by the rules, or which make us suddenly realise we had no idea what the rules were in the first place. Some very interesting, not to say entertaining, narrative experiments are happening in the world of video games—we talked about this a bit with game designer and former Structo alum John Björling a few weeks ago—and here guest contributor Katalina Watt sets out to illuminate one such experiment. Meet Stanley.
The Stanley Parable begins with a narrated cut-scene, a cinematic sequence in which they player can only observe the video game environment. In a classic voice-over by a seemingly omniscient narrator, the player learns about Stanley, an office drone who receives orders on a monitor and spends his life mindlessly pressing buttons.
This might be a familiar situation for many gamers.
The player controls Stanley as he investigates the mysterious disappearance of all his co-workers in the office, but the game’s plot is more a device to highlight conventions of the gaming medium and subvert the player’s expectations. No one actually cares what’s happened to the other office workers. Instead, the game constantly provokes questions: Why is there a disembodied voice narrating game play? Why doesn’t Stanley ever speak? Why are we so willing to do as the Narrator tells us?
Stanley is a silent protagonist; his thoughts, actions and back-story are relayed only through narration. This is a common trope in video games, the idea being that this allows the player to embody the protagonist and increase immersion. Through a first-person perspective of a silent protagonist, the player is given more freedom to make their own in-game decisions, rather than act according to the protagonist’s personality. Of course in The Stanley Parable, it’s not that straightforward. The narrator often points out oddities of the in-game environments, such as doors automatically closing behind you or the fact that you can’t see Stanley’s feet. You feel foolish when the narrator points it out, but you’re still compelled to look down. There’s a fascinating, self-fulfilling quality to the narration. If the Narrator says Stanley is confused, you wonder why. The Narrator is the story’s creator, the ultimate author-god.
Through the game, the player can choose from many possible outcomes, ranging from blind obedience to every one of the Narrator’s orders, to complete disregard of everything he advises the player to do. There are multiple branches which allow the player to affect the game’s outcome, and diverge from a linear narrative structure. These multiple endings result in various outcomes for the protagonist, some of which are hilariously inane, such as a four-hour mini-game which asks the player to prevent a cardboard baby from being consumed by flames, while others are downright cathartic or involve chaotic confusion or gleeful resignation. Many players will want to exhaust all the possibilities of the game’s choices, and The Stanley Parable makes light of this with the parody ‘Broom Closet Ending’. There’s a broom closet environment that has no purpose or anything with which the player can interact. Lingering there prompts the narrator to impersonate the player discussing the merits of the ‘Broom Closet Ending’ and declaring it their favourite. There are so many permutations of the game, and one of the loading screens loops the phrase: “The end is never the end”. With The Stanley Parable, you can never quite be sure if you’re finished.
In many games, player choices and narrative endings are often linked to moral decisions, with a spectrum of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ outcomes. The desire for freedom versus the pain of death is the dichotomy of good and bad endings in The Stanley Parable, but the game even undermines this. Death in games is usually used as a punishment for the player, as level progression is often lost. It discourages the player from diverging from the game’s plot and ‘not playing properly’. But in The Stanley Parable, even this is a tool for player disobedience and adds to the metafictional layers. In one of my favourite narrative branches, you disobey the Narrator to the point where it seems as though Stanley is about to be squished, when suddenly another narrator takes over the game. In this ending, I was amused and baffled to find myself in a museum environment which includes level models and artwork for the game, with heavy vibes of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ and questioning what counts as art.
As in all games, there’s nothing worse than getting stuck, and so in The Stanley Parable the player is rewarded for completing tasks with story progression and new game environments. But the game undermines this brilliantly in an ending that involves a countdown and a room full of buttons. Countdowns usually signal that a player needs to do something, and the Narrator relishes the chance to mock the player’s futile attempts to interact with everything in the game in an attempt to ‘win’ or ‘solve the problem’. Indeed the Narrator often restarts the game, sometimes resulting in exposed textures or distorted game maps. These things usually indicate glitches or that a game is still in beta testing stage, but here it is just another way of breaking immersion.
The Stanley Parable is a mod. A mod, short for modification, is an alteration of a videogame to make it behave differently. When the mod results in something completely different from the parent game, as in the case of The Stanley Parable, the result is known as a ‘total conversion’. At times The Stanley Parable pays homage to other games, such as Minecraft, an open-world sandbox game that encourages world-building and creation. The player is also given the chance to play a section of Portal. Portal was created by the game developer Valve, whose Source engine for Half-Life 2 was the basis for The Stanley Parable. Portal, like The Stanley Parable, features a silent protagonist, and relies on the player disobeying the narrator character to progress the storyline. This was a clever tie-in for Portal fans, as we’re used to being mocked by GlaDOS, who initially acts as the player’s guide.
While exploring major themes such as free will, the illusion of choice, and the futility of life, The Stanley Parable does so in a clever and humorous way. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but still manages to be poignant whilst also darkly satirical. Paying homage to its origins as a mod, the nuanced and surreal story-telling highlights and subverts video game conventions as well as literary ones. It’s a fantastic example of interactive fiction.
Katalina writes novels and short stories and is a recent graduate of The University of Glasgow, where she dabbled in theatre and dance. Her blog on science fiction and fantasy can be found here.