Life in London is fine. Between the Tube, my job, and the lively nights out, there isn’t too much time left for gaming, which is why I end up falling behind with my list of games. But sometimes, probably when Jupiter aligns with Mars, I find some time to make a dent in that backlog. As I’m not the only one on the Vexoid team to game this way, we’ll be keeping you posted in Diaries of a Backlogged Gamer!
A video game cliché or trope is a feature within a game which you know how to interact with without any explicit instruction. They’re something that years of gaming experience instils into you without you even noticing. For example; you shoot the red barrel next to the enemy soldiers, the big bad boss will probably go down after three hits, the member of your JRPG party that died will probably (Aeris pls) come back later, the abandoned house is most likely not going to be abandoned, and the unseen voice narrating on your progress is there for your benefit and understanding.
Enter The Stanley Parable, an indie title that intends to play about with one’s understanding of what they expect from these video games, gamers’ passive understanding of video game clichés, and most importantly, to pour cold water over that last cliché I mentioned. I’ve been meaning to play this game for ages, due to its similarities to the Portal series. In the way that GLaDOS, effectively your only consistent ‘companion’ in the Portal series, plays a narrative role as well as her antagonistic role, The Stanley Parable features an ‘antagonistic’ narrator companion in an otherwise completely isolated office environment.
What initially starts as the efforts of a blank canvas of a man to try and find his vanished colleagues becomes a deeper exploration of a game player’s relationship with the narrator, as the player chooses to ignore the narrator’s script and make their own way through the office. The narrator will say “Stanley chose the door on the left” when you approach the first fork of the game, and the game relies on the fairly high probability that the player will choose the door on the right, because YOLO. The game progresses in this manner, with the narrator becoming increasingly annoyed with Stanley when his instructions are not followed, and the player finding multiple endings depending on which instruction is ignored or followed, and when. If this premise seems quite minimal, that’s because The Stanley Parable is a fairly minimal game, relying very heavily on its writing and often random humour.
It’s effectively a Portal game but without the puzzles. I make the Portal comparisons with merit; like Portal, The Stanley Parable is an off-shoot of the Half-Life series, the environments are very similar to Portal’s non-test chamber rooms (including a room which is remarkably similar to GLaDOS’ chamber in the first Portal), and you can even complete the first level of Portal in The Stanley Parable. But where The Stanley Parable skimps on the puzzles, it really goes in with the left-field and sometimes dark humour that the Portal series is known for.
To give you an example; choosing the right door in my earlier example results in the narrator saying “This was not the correct way to the meeting room, and Stanley knew it perfectly well. Perhaps he wanted to stop by the employee lounge first, just to admire it.”, before the narrator sarcastically admires the rather bland employee lounge that you subsequently pass before you make your way back to the main scripted path. Pretty subtle.
However, in a choice that comes a matter of minutes later, you can choose to go downstairs at a junction where the narrator asks you to go upstairs, and this leads to Stanley suffering a mental breakdown and realising that he is insane, before dying on the street. Bit of an extreme result for such a simple choice.
In another example, Stanley, following a series of instructions being ignored, can choose to supposedly reconcile with his wife, with whom, according to the narrator anyway, Stanley is having a stagnating relationship. However, upon choosing this option, you are told that Stanley doesn’t have a wife, and that he is, again, insane.
In terms of humour, I’m not sure this always lands. These endings and segments can be darkly amusing, yes, and it’s interesting to see the creativity and the underlying message from the writers, but I wouldn’t say I found these particularly hilarious – in contrast to, say, when GLaDOS laments becoming a potato in Portal 2. Instead, I chose to interpret The Stanley Parable as social commentary; commenting specifically on the mental stability of a person that works a nine-to-five in a pretty unchallenging office job. Too many endings touch upon the notion of insanity – or at the very least, lack of fulfilment – to not reach this conclusion, and as a person that works a fairly repetitive nine-to-five in an office job, I found that the message landed.
Stanley’s numerous journeys through the story see him, among other things, realise that he is not in control of his own life, realise he has damaged his relationship because of his commitment to his mundane job, realise he has gone insane, become trapped in an infinitely-moving elevator, and, in a deviation from the usual restart upon ending format of the game, become part of a multi-journey ‘story’ which repeatedly breaks the fourth wall; all of which are pretty tame ‘bad’ endings for a video game, but they are only deemed bad because the good play-through – the one where, ironically, Stanley earns his freedom by doing what he is told – is considerably more realistic. It’s what you’re more or less likely to do in real life, and those bad endings – well, elevator and multi-loop aside – are quite possible for a person like me.
To sum up, for this writer, The Stanley Parable works better when compared to one’s own day-to-day working life, as a more extreme demonstration of the effects of a monotonous routine and mundane job – as an interactive experience, rather than a game. In the few hours it takes to explore the world of The Stanley Parable, you can choose whether you want to blindly follow instructions from above you, or whether you want to make your own choices, and then reflect on what you’re more likely to do in real life, and maybe even make a few important life choices along the way.
Or, you know, you can just tell the narrator to go to hell.