The Stanley Parable
Originally released as a Half-Life 2 mod back in 2011, The Stanley Parable is best described as an experiment in interactive storytelling. Through the simplest of first-person control schemes, players respond to a variety of choices laid out before them by a disembodied, all-knowing narrator. While your interaction with the world doesn't evolve beyond wandering around an empty office opening doors and pushing buttons, the clever scenarios and amusing narration entertain for dozens of playthroughs.
You play as the titular Stanley, a white-collar button-pusher who finds himself mysteriously alone in his office one day. As you investigate the building, the narrator shepherds you from room to room, describing your actions before you actually take them. Whether you follow his guidance or stumble off the beaten path is your choice, but each playthrough only takes a few minutes, and no matter what ending you come to, the story restarts. The result is a Groundhog's Day-like loop of you making your way through the changing office building, employing different choices to obtain different outcomes.
Much of the enjoyment comes from your interactions with The Stanley Parable's wry narrator, voiced by British actor Kevan Brighting. Every choice you're presented with offers a new opportunity to obey or defy your handler, who responds in unpredictable and amusing ways. Go through the wrong doorway, and he may give you the benefit of the doubt, bending the story to accommodate your errant action. Continually disregard his directions and he may call you out in an angry diatribe or magically alter the environment to force you into following his lead. As you challenge the narrator's expectations, the game challenges your own, dropping you into odd situations that defy the lessons you've learned from countless games, with hallways that double back on themselves, buttons that do nothing, and no-win scenarios you're simply meant to experience, not solve.
Galactic Cafe's creativity keeps the basic gameplay loop interesting. Each narrative twist and humorous soliloquy inspired me to test every branching path in hopes of uncovering new endings, of which there are many. Some are throwaway gags that made me chuckle (I never thought standing in a broom closet could be so amusing). Other times, the narrator's musings made me stop and think; the developer isn't afraid to break the fourth wall, questioning traditional game design, the value of player choice, and many other conventions we don't think twice about.
The Stanley Parable is built upon a single, simple premise, and only offers a few hours of entertainment. That said, those few hours were unlike any I've experienced playing games before. If you're a fan of experimental indie projects or just in the mood for a fun detour from your typical gaming adventure, look no further.