"You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end."
That is the message presented to you when you go to hit that purchase button, and it couldn't be any closer to the truth. Contradictions are the name of the game when it comes to The Stanley Parable, which is easily one of the strangest and smartest games currently on offer.
If you weren't already aware, The Stanley Parable started off life as a Half-Life 2 mod released on ModDB in 2011 by Davey Wreden. From there it went on to win various awards, inspiring Wreden to begin working with William Pugh in order to make a true standalone HD title. Throughout the development process, Pugh and Wreden made decisions to alter bits and pieces of the game, creating the polished experience with which we are now presented today.
To ask what the objective is in The Stanley Parable is actually a very complex question. Simply put, The Stanley Parable is a first-person exploration game where you play the role of Stanley, an office worker who carries out the same, laborious, menial task every day, until one day, everyone in the office has gone. Or well, at least, that's what the Narrator tells you. And here is where I give you a small piece of advice before I go any further.
As a reviewer, I'm going to review the game, but as a gamer, I'm going to tell you that you'll be missing out if you don't play this game with an open mind, with no idea what to expect, with no clue what is going on.
Playing as Stanley, you set off in search of the reason behind the missing co-workers, guided along by the Narrator, voiced by a wonderful British man known as Kevan Brighting. It only takes minutes of play before you realise that this is not the typical game, that the Narrator is demanding you to follow a certain path, to play through the story he has crafted for you.
Meanwhile, the environment calls out to you with temptations, open doors, to challenge the Narrator with choice. It really is one of the most interesting takes on interactive narrative that I have ever seen, and with the recent release of games like Beyond: Two Souls and The Wolf Among Us, it couldn't have come at a better time.
In reality, if I was to really say what the aim of the game was, I would say it would be to discover all the various endings that you can find, see all the content, hear all the vocals. It's not actually too tough a challenge considering that a "playthrough" takes roughly 10-15 minutes on average. Don't fret though, as each ending is so wonderfully different that you will find yourself thoroughly entertained throughout the experience.
Every choice leads to a new joke, a new smarmy comment by the narrator as he grows frustrated by your actions. Not to mention how gloriously satirical and self-aware this game is, shown almost immediately by the games cleverly designed main menu, and highlighted during your gameplay. I was highly amused by the games reaction to me showing off that I had clearly played through a section of the game before hand. The writing is quite frankly genius.
Technically and 'objectively' speaking, the game looks great for what it's trying to do, especially when you compare these specially made textures to the Half-Life 2 assets used for the modification two years ago. What really makes the game shine though is the level design. Other than the narrator, there is no indication of where you should go. The sense of choice is just subtle enough to call out to you, but not make it glaringly obvious that the game wants you to make a decision. In addition, the various themes of the rooms and places you visit are varied and interesting in their own right. It's not every day that I spend 15 minutes in a virtual meeting room watching a slide-show presentation and reading whiteboards.
As the game goes on, you begin to question whether there really is a message behind all of this. An answer to all your questions. Why are you playing through this game over and over? What answers are there to be found? I can say for sure that I haven't found it yet, although I'm fairly sure that I haven't found every ending either. However I'm sure that like me, most people spent their time searching for the crock of gold at the end of their rainbow. Or at least why during one of my playthroughs there was a bunch of paper all over the floor?!When it comes down to it, The Stanley Parable is a game about challenging the way games are made, and the way we play games. We want choice and we want a detailed and well written narrative. Well which one do you want more? Not to mention that the games self awareness doubles in on itself multiple times. The game is full of overlapping commentaries, themes and mysteries that all roll up into a package that is sickeningly good. Add on top of that the hilarious cameos in place that any self-respecting PC gamer should recognise.
At £7.99 and $11.99 on Steam, The Stanley Parable is certainly not cheap, especially when compared to the range of similarly priced titles that are also available. However, it's a unique experience to it's very core and one that offers a witty, intelligent and humorous commentary on the state of game development and video-game narrative as it stands today. If you're still wondering whether you should pick it up or not then just take a look at the design document written by Wreden.
"Mess with the player's head in every way possible."
How can you resist that?