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This is a story about a reader who wandered upon an article. Well this isn't normal, thought the reader, expecting a review for a game that's gotten so many people talking. Granted, The Stanley Parable toys with narration in weird and wonderful ways, but attempting the review in a style that reflects the game's narration seems gimmicky at best and an inevitable failure at worst. Reviews need a formula! They need structure! They need objectivity often presented by numerical values that describe a game's worth with cold, calculable certainty! No, this won't do it all, the reader surmised, moving his courser to find something more suitable to read. But a curious thing happened the reader didn't expect. The reader, as readers are wont to do, continued to...well...read. Hmmmm, thought the studious protagonist. Maybe I should see how this plays out.
What the reader did not immediately understand was that a game like The Stanley Parable is far too strange to approach by any conventional means. And really, aren’t conventional reviews kind of boring? I mean, anyone could have written a by-the-numbers review of the latest Grand Theft Auto before it even released. But that’s another point entirely, and besides, this story isn't about a review. This is the story of a reader. The truth, the reader discovered, is that The Stanley Parable warrants anyone’s consideration. It was truly that simple. Since, however, the reader felt compelled to read on, the narrator felt obliged to elaborate, which suits the subject at hand. After all, isn’t compulsion the reason we play games in the first place? Don’t they serve as distractions from the mundane yet paradoxically employ rigid structural and narrative boundaries?
There I go again, following distractions down tangential corridors of thought, as narrators often do. Surely I can find the story around here somewhere… In the meantime, here’s a relevant video:
Ah, right. Tired of the narrator’s indulgent asides, the reader happily found the way back to the discussion of the game. The Stanley Parable begins when the titular office worker stands up at his desk and looks around to find his coworkers have vacated the premises. At the behest of some disembodied narrator, Stanley goes in search of his colleagues. His movement is limited (no jumping) and controls are simple, so navigating the office corridors feels suitably drab. But just as the reader began to question how in the hell a tour through a virtual office could be worthwhile, the article had already prepared an answer. For you see, as the narrator actively tries to steer Stanley (and by proxy, the player) to a very clear end, branching paths invite attempts to challenge the voice’s authority. Well, thought the reader, that may prove interesting.
Intrigued, the reader continued the article to find out that the narrator of The Stanley Parable, responded to the player’s choices. Taking a path other than the one suggested prompted the narrator to react to the player’s choice. The reader knew this concept wasn’t altogether new. An entire game based on the tension between authorial/narrative control and player agency sounded dreadfully tired. Besides there didn’t seem to be much to mine that hadn’t already stripped out by games like BioShock, its sequel Infinite, and even a game like Bastion. What else, the reader wondered, could a game have to offer besides the usual shrugging acceptance that agency doesn’t really matter in a game?
“Not much,” was the answer the reader encountered with a degree of disappointment. The article, nevertheless, tried to convince the reader that, although the subject was nothing revelatory, the execution of its content was nothing short of delightful. Each path Stanley treads reveals more about not only his strange little office but also the underlying architecture of the game itself. The narrative voice changes with context from a pleasant storyteller (much like in The Unfinished Swan) to a cold sociopath (akin to Portal’s GLaDOS). The Stanley Parable’s narration may prove, the reader found out, the best example of voice work this year. Here the article weakened, and the reader was a bit confused by this previous paragraph meant. The wording was vague (and maybe a bit sloppy), and the writer seemed uncharacteristically hesitant to reveal much more about the game, lest foreknowledge of its content could soften The Stanley Parable’s impact. It was a fair assumption (even if the writer thinks spoiler anxiety is toxic to good journalism), so the reader took the article’s reticence to mean The Stanley Parable is a game best experienced on its own terms. But just for kicks, the article hinted that some pathways led Stanley to possible freedom, his own destruction, bouts of psychosis, and some endings so bizarre that they are best left to be discovered.
Without much more to add, the article seemed bare, so the reader’s mind began to wander—then it hit. If The Stanley Parable is a game about subverting narrative authority, any choice that causes the narrator to react must have been anticipated by the game’s creator. Here, the reader encountered a paradox. Games, the reader understood, work on systems of affordance, meaning what they allow any given player to do within the bounds of the game. A game like Portal, for instance, affords the player the player limited control over where the player can place portals to manipulate the environment. Affordances exist to define the gameplay experience while offering the illusion of open-ended gameplay, and The Stanley Parable seemed to be a game that understood this paradox better than most. It already knows the choices the player can make because with limited control and interaction, such choices are reduced to cold, unfeeling calculus. The Stanley Parable reads any player’s choice because that choice was already programmed.
The reader’s mind no longer wandered but raced. Could such a philosophy be applied to another medium? Could actions or even thoughts be anticipated by another voice in, say, a story on a video game website? The article hinted heavily that this was the case, that the reader’s musings were actually those of the writer, directing the reader to think what and when he wanted. Just as an eerily normal voice coaxes the player to direct Stanley in his own game, the words of this article's writer steered the reader to an end contemplating the meaning of agency and affordance, hearing a foreign force control the way a topic is discussed. Perhaps the only free will found in any such texts truly lies in the decision of its audience to turn away from it.
Hang on…where was I? Right, the reader and The Stanley Parable.
So, the article ultimately recommended that the reader play The Stanley Parable because it’s one of those rare fascinating titles that plainly deserves to be played. Thus, the reader had a decision to make: play the game or not. I wonder which was chosen.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!