Indie Game Spotlight is a weekly feature where I highlight an independent game that deserves attention. Given the difficulty these developers have in being heard, every little bit helps. Some will be free, some will cost money, but all are deserving of some attention.
The Stanley Parable is a Source Code mod made by Davey Wreden. It took two years of work to make and is a superb think piece. That’s what it is, a think piece in interactive form. It’s not a game in the traditional sense. There are no points. There are no enemies. It’s a first person game with no shooting or jumping. It is a game about choice. That’s all you do during the course of the game make choices.
They are binary choices, each one of them, but they all lead to a very different conclusion. Why? It’s unusual in that it’s not just a work that may need to be experienced again in order to fully appreciate it; it demands that you play it again. In fact there are 6 endings. I’m not sure if I should tell you that before telling you to play it before reading on, but I feel that you need to know that to appreciate everything. It is easy to miss one of the choices. This way there is no confusion.
But seriously, I highly recommend you go play it now. It will require Source SDK Base 2007 installed on your computer to run and Steam since that’s how you get it. You can download the mod here with instructions.
This is a game about the relationship between player and designer. That is what it is at its core. It is called a parable in the title, but that is a cover. The parable is the story you get should you follow everything as instructed, as the narrator wants you to. By itself, that ending is a parable, a short tale about freedom and control. It’s light and doesn’t offend or really make you think. It’s fluff. Alone it is a parable, but with the rest of the game it becomes part of something greater. The game as a whole, with all the endings is allegorical.
There are six endings with six very different stories tied to them. They all start the same way. You are Stanley, office drone number 427 who spends his day pushing buttons as commands pop up on the screen. You know this because you hear a narrator telling you all this and then you are told no one else is here. So you go looking for someone following the instruction the narrator give you until you come to your first choice.
I thought hard how to explore this game and while just relating my own experiences from the order I played it, I noticed the whole. While playing towards each individual ending it is difficult to see the whole, you can only see what the specific story you are playing out is telling you, but this is a game that demands reflection. It is a game that only works in that context.
The designer has said you can play the choices in any order you want and there is no prescribed way to do it. And there isn’t. It’s an interesting work of post-modernism that eschews reading order and drive to the end for the meaning under the whole as the desired goal. A game with six endings where getting to the end is not the point. Though the order does not matter in playing, the human brain is a funny thing and demands order from chaos, structure from the random. To see the allegory the mind needs to see the story, the flow of events with a beginning, middle and end. The order I think is in the degree of defiance from the narrator.
The first part is to follow the narrator’s instructions all the way to the end. To get the “proper ending.” One follows the designer’s prescribed path to an ending where Stanley is free, but is he really. Once it is over, control is taken away from you and with the narrator speaking you have what essentially is a cutscene. So all the game has done is free Stanley from your control and place it in the hands of the computer. You are not Stanley and all this time you were following the instructions of a computer and when you turned off that computer in game we are presented with an exit where our computer now takes over. This is an irony not recognized by the game. We followed the designer’s story and it was boring. There is nothing there;` it’s dull and safe. It was a parable that taught us nothing.
The second time, one does everything as instructed until the very last part. You turned the computer back on, which, paradoxically, is supposed to put me back under its control, while at the same time defying the narrator. Here we see the designer as tormentor. Things don’t go his way so he punishes the player. We’ve all seen this person. The DM who sends hoards of monsters or instakill random accidents when the players go too far a field and destroyed everything he made. The spoilsport who doesn’t get his way so he takes his ball and goes home. Here we understand there are three people here and not two like we always think in video games at the very moment the narrator/designer explicitly states this is a video game, but there is no escape from the impending doom. The three people are the narrator, Stanley and the player. Because now the narrator is no longer addressing Stanley or even veiling talking about him in order to get the player to act. He’s angry Now he’s outright about communicating with you and not your avatar.
The third part is playing to see where the other stairwell goes. And here is where things get trippy. Not just because of the meta commentary about what we as a player are experiencing, but by keeping it within the fiction we get a whole new type of story, only to realize, sorry it isn’t your story after all. It is there for the narrator to again abuse the player in another way for going off track. He uses the fiction itself to go against you. It’s not passive aggressive like other parts, that we’ll get to, are. It’s creative and within the fiction making it that much more of a kick the shins. Players are the driving force behind their games. They are used to being the main characters, for everything revolving around them. And things have so far, but now the ending is ripped away from you. The narrator tells you, sorry, it wasn’t your story Stanley it was this woman’s and you were just an odd event on the way to work for her. Here the designer goes out of his way to create the strange mindscape and way out both for you and for himself for not following the story.
The fourth play through is the original choice with the two doors. We defy it at the very beginning and again by not getting back on track. Only at the elevator do we acquiesce to the narrator and push up on the elevator. There is no trick; there is no sadistic streak in the narrator this time, he’s not being passive aggressive anymore in fiction or out. He outright tells us that by going up in the elevator we are headed for punishment. (Though he does say Stanley does it to punish himself.) The trap is obvious, but there is no escape, we are told so. Until the person writing the story breaks the 4th wall’s 4th wall and tells Stanley to escape from the narrator whom she is writing. Because her entrance is in narrating what the narrator has done to Stanley. No we understand there are four people here, not three. She is the designer and the narrator is her avatar in this digital world, yet she acts as if Stanley is real by telling him to escape and quit out, for it is the only way. And she is right, but she is still talking to the player. The narrator has no power and neither does Stanley, they are pawns of the designer and player both. And when Stanley is dead and the narrator gone because he has no story to tell, you will stare at a black screen, until you press “ESC” and quit out. It is the only way out of the program.
The next playthrough is where you go down the elevator and then acquiesce by going through the red door instead of further defiance. The game takes us back to the office we originally left. Here I was subjected the mind numbing work of pushing button prompted on the screen for the rest of my life. Except it wasn’t on the blue screen in the game, it was on my screen. It was the white, semi translucent writing of game instructions that pop up when you are learning the controls in the beginning or maybe a quick time event. We are the monkey at the computer pushing buttons when prompted to. We are playing a video game and the narrator finally expresses it as the final cruel truth. You are not free, not while you are in the game. You can’t be, because everything created is only a prompt to push a button and in the end it is utterly meaningless. In this case it is meaningless. There is nothing else beyond this room and pushing the button that is prompted (which doesn’t do anything anyway.)
The final playthrough is to disobey till the very end. Here is where the narrator who by this time we should all understand to be the allegorical stand-in for the designer. You go against everything he has made, tried to break everything he has spent so long in working towards all for your enjoyment and eventually you reach the end, you have achieve freedom by stepping beyond the conventions in the nadir of the digital existential existence only to find nothing. There is nothing to be had, nothing to the meaning for you end up in an empty sky-box. The narrator boots up the opening to Half-Life 2 only to put on display how artificial it all is. We are put in the mindset of breaking the world and how we don’t belong here and it doesn’t fit us. Here we see the designer finally admitting his frustration and “hopes we are happy with what we find.” The scary part is once we as Stanley think we have gotten away, somehow broken beyond even the existential nightmare of nothingness, the narrator/designer pops back in and says, ‘no I’m still here, you are still in my world even though you tried to break it.’ But he is conciliatory, because though he made the game, it is your story. The best he can do is make sense at the end of whatever journey you chose to make.
Here is the only ending that actually gets a “The End.” The first playthrough got the credit roll and the ironic use of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, which normally signifies an ending, but here it is outright told to us. This is the end of the allegory for this is where we are as players and designers. The designers have poured all this time to craft experiences for us, to tell us narrative tales as if they are books or movies, but now they have to admit we as players are part of the equation too. This is the full conclusion of the game.
The writing of the narrator is so sharp and full of detail and subtext that I’d love to get a transcript and do a close examination someday and pick out all the details. But I have to end it here. Why? Because I’ve gone on long enough and besid…
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