Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation on one of the most influential independent games of the last decade, The Stanley Parable, brought together by Dan Solberg. Dan Solberg is an interdisciplinary artist, freelance writer, and digital media professor, producing works about videogames, music, and art. In 2018, he coordinated and designed the DED LED compilation project, preserving a set of videogame criticism from 50 contributing writers. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Solberg.
The Stanley Parable is a game about game design –a so-labelled “walking simulator” that distills videogame storytelling into its vital component parts, lays them bare, and then asks why you’re even playing it. You can’t exactly beat it, it has no easily discernible challenge, and it can diverge intentionally into what traditionally would be labelled as “bad design.”
And yet The Stanley Parable’s hammy omniscient narrator and firm grasp of videogame vernacular ultimately granted it mainstream appeal. Released in 2013, The Stanley Parable was widely covered in reviews and critical features as well as YouTube walkthroughs and let’s plays. The most iconic moment in the game comes early on, where the player, as Stanley, comes upon a pair of doors and the narrator announces, “Stanley took the door on the left.” At this point the player must choose whether to follow through on the prescribed story or defy the narrator and choose the alternative option. This pivotal moment sets up the core loop of The Stanley Parable. In any given situation, will you follow instruction or disobey, and what will the consequences be for either?
Though the vast majority of works featured in this compilation are about the 2013 standalone “HD remake” of The Stanley Parable, it is vital to note the game’s initial release as a Source engine mod in 2011. Although the 2013 release would rework and expand the scale of TSP, the mod first established those same frameworks and narrative conceits the remake became known for.
So, to begin in 2011, Filipe Salgado reviewed the mod for Kill Screen (archived link), interpreting it chiefly as a joke that “works because it’s surprising, and just like a joke, dissecting it drains its power.” This is a running sentiment through much of the writing about TSP, including pieces featured in this compilation: the suggestion that players should experience the game firsthand before reading too much about it, for risk of spoiling the game’s many surprises.
In a post on his blog, Robert Yang offers a quick rundown of the parts of the mod that he found interesting, including a roughness and a blandness to the environmental design that reinforces its artificiality and speculation that the audio files are hidden away to stifle snoopers from discovering the game’s secrets prior to playing. Yang also interviewed the TSP mod creator Davey Wreden for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, not pulling any punches on Wreden’s design choices and intentions before collaborating to build a Portal 2 “roundtable” level together. Over at Kotaku, Kirk Hamilton also interviewed Davey Wreden about the mod, and may have indirectly confirmed some of Yang’s blog speculation. Quoting Wreden:
“It shouldn’t have worked,” he admitted, pointing out that many reviews laud things that he thinks of as unfinished or broken. “For example, when you go through the red door, I originally tried to bind keys to actions in the world so that the screen told you to do things and then it had a response, but I couldn’t figure out how to bind keys, so I just flashed text on the screen and nothing happened. But then people were like, ‘I love how it tells you to push buttons but it doesn’t actually respond to your input!’ That actually was the benefit of designing a ‘broken’ game.”
On PopMatters, Aaron Poppleton pondered the significance of player agency, or lack thereof, in the TSP mod.
“It’s an uncomfortable train of thought because we want to believe that there is a freedom in games that is not in other stories, but in reality, it is only the freedom to fail to tell the story, either by dying and having to start over or by quitting and not playing anymore.”
The following year, Alex Aagaard would speculate whether The Stanley Parable brought videogames closer to artistic recognition, saying TSP showcases videogames’ “true potential.” And lastly, Miguel Penabella conducted a compare/contrast exercise between the TSP mod and Dear Esther for Medium Difficulty, drawing on player choice and narrative implementation as variables.
The narrator’s description of Stanley as a mere drone parallels the player’s own role behind a set of controls, pushing buttons and following orders from an unseen authority – therein lies the crux of the game’s impact.
Not long after the release of the TSP mod Davey Wreden formed up with William Pugh to start work on their HD remix of the game, which would later turn out to be the definitive version of The Stanley Parable (barring the forthcoming Ultra Deluxe rework). In 2012 they released a teaser video of sorts called the “Raphael Trailer” (video link), where narrator Kevan Brighting responds to an indignant email complaint about the game, mockingly implying that their studio, Galactic Café, was hard at work on a version of The Stanley Parable that would address all of Raphael’s grievances.
When October 2013 rolled around and The Stanley Parable properly debuted on Valve’s Steam storefront, the game was met with a flurry of positive reviews from sites large and small. TSP’s metatextual bent resonated strongly with many critics, although it also posed certain critical challenges. Matthewmatosis cites the game’s self-awareness as a barrier (video link, CC/auto-captions) to worthwhile critique and that “the entire experience suffers heavily from diminishing returns,” referencing TSP’s emphasis on repeatedly restarting the game to achieve multiple endings. On the other hand, Alex Duncan’s essay on how to approach critique of TSP as a work that seems resistant to the process provides some helpful guidance.
Narrative need not be something that’s superimposed on gameplay to make the end product more appealing to the player: it can be just as integral to the game’s design as any other ‘mechanic,’ even being the end goal of the game itself.
For Gamespot, Carolyn Petit’s review makes particular note of how one’s self-awareness of the game’s manipulations ultimately don’t detract from their effectiveness.
I think of The Stanley Parable as a sort of video game analogue for Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s brilliant film Adaptation, which gently mocked the ways in which so many films manipulate audiences with formulaic plot twists and situations in which characters learn huge life lessons, while simultaneously moving me with its formulaic plot twists and situations in which characters learned huge life lessons.
Some critics took direct inspiration from The Stanley Parable’s metagame shenanigans and played with the form of written critique itself. Mattie Brice offered a baking recipe interwoven with a screenplay of loose premonitions of Stanley’s untimely demise for her Alternate Ending site. Writing for Kill Screen, Dan Solberg (ahem, yours truly) wrote a review of the game in the form of 8 possible outcomes from reading the review (archived link). In his review for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Nathan Grayson gave readers a cheeky set of links to videos of specific scenes from the game and “alternative” reviews including one that is just pictures of baby owls in lieu of a score.
If there’s one aspect of The Stanley Parable that shows up most consistently across writing on the game, it’s how the narrative is steered by and against player choice.
For Tap Repeatedly, Amanda Lange writes that The Stanley Parable is part of “a continuum between making the choices meaningful, and making them legible and accessible,” settling on the idea that even an illusion of choice still holds tremendous power. In an extensive essay up on the Journal of Games Criticism, Michael James Heron and Pauline Helen Bedford examine how TSP works as a spiritual successor to choose-your-own-adventure books, coining the term “empathetic puzzler” for the ways players’ choices imbue the narrative with relatable meaning while also solving their way through the game environment. Posted on YouTube, Satchell Drakes’ video essay on TSP also draws reference to the legacy of CYOA books (video link, CC/auto-captions), and asserts that the game’s multiple endings don’t necessarily lead to one unified “message.” Over on his Folding Ideas channel, Dan Olson focuses on the player’s opportunity to choose negation over affirmation in TSP (video link, CC/auto-captions), and how a similar feeling of disobedience is also at work in Dark Souls.
In an article for PopMatters, Eric Swain examines choice in TSP in terms of spatial relativity, arriving at the conclusion that “In the end, any individual playthrough from beginning to whatever end that the player arrives at is only a part of a greater whole. The meaning is derived not from a single set of choices, but the relationship that all of the choices have to all the others.”
Meanwhile, Chloe Barreau looks into the concepts of freedom and intentionality behind players’ choices. In a blog post, Toussaint Egan reflects on TSP’s encouragement of dissent via player choice. And as part of a 2013-in-review series over at USGamer, Pete Davison views choices in TSP as a back-and-forth dialogue with the narrator, further elaborating that,
[Having a narrator] allows you to explore all manner of things that can’t be easily depicted visually or through game mechanics — things like a character’s innermost thoughts, or providing non-visual context to their actions, or indeed providing the player with an enticing opportunity to steer the narrative in a distinctly different direction to what the writers seemingly intended.
Davison wasn’t the only critic to hone in on the iconic narrator voiced by Kevan Brighting; for Unwinnable, Riley MacLeod wrote about trusting unreliable narrators. Aaron Trammell did a deep dive into the implementation of the narrators in TSP and Bastion and sees them behaving as a kind of surveillance. Luke Dougherty’s analysis of the game (video link, CC/auto-captions) focuses on the multitude of ways in which the character Stanley is so often at odds with the narrator, illustrating a metaphorical push-pull between game developers and players. And Christian Donlan followed up his review for Eurogamer by also singling out TSP and Bastion’s narration, noting how Bastion uses its narrator for genuine, old-fashioned storytelling, while TSP is more focused on directly teasing and prodding the player.
Moving on from the literal narrator voice and onto TSP’s overall branching narrative structure, Brenna Hillier argues on VG24/7 that TSP applies a magnifying glass to the “flaws” of typical game narratives, and tells its own story largely by employing those very “flaws” on its own terms. “TSP joyfully embraces the fact that its players come to games to play – to fiddle around with interactions, to push the boundaries of what is possible, and to ask inconvenient questions like ‘why can’t I open this door?’” Writing for Pixels or Death, Jason Rice compares the direction and narrative form of TSP to the non-linear interactive theatre of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More production.
Just like the first time you go in the right door in Stanley, it’s only when you work up the courage to leap into the darkness does Sleep No More’s true brilliance materialize.
And speaking of theatrics, a YouTube critic who simply goes by The Game Professor conducted a literary analysis of TSP (video link, CC/auto-captions), complete with branching paths via on-screen annotations.
In an academic paper, Elia Alovisi makes the case for how TSP functions as a “narrative sandbox.” Tom Blaich views TSP not as an adventure game, but a roguelike, and argues that the game makes a great example of how to tell a compelling story within a repetitive roguelike framework. And in a piece on Firewatch and the walking simulator trend for the New York Times, Chris Sullentrop briefly mentions TSP as another example of a story-driven game that centers around a non-violent narrative.
DESIGN & EXTRAPOLATIONS
Some critics drew from philosophical traditions to analyze The Stanley Parable, such as Sam Tjahjono who performed Structuralist and Post-Structuralist reads of the game.
Most importantly, [The Stanley Parable] demonstrates that even in its attempt to study the structures of game narrative, it cannot escape those very same confines.
In a post for Nightmare Mode, Line Hollis investigated both TSP (the mod) and Dear Esther through lenses of determinism and non-determinism. “TSP is about how story structures mock the idea of free will. Dear Esther is about how people force incomplete and untrustworthy information into story structures.” In an academic essay, Feng Zhu writes about TSP’s “variable expressiveness,” and how the game must temper it’s authorial expression in order to allow player reflection. Over on YouTube in a decidedly more accessible form, the Play Noggin team offers a quick study of TSP’s use of the concept of “free will” (video link, CC/auto-captions).
Pulling back to examine Wreden and Pugh’s design choices, Chris Franklin’s episode on TSP for his Errant Signal channel (video link, transcript/CC/auto-captions) focuses on four main components: winstates, free will, rejection of the power fantasy, and the conflict between player choice and embedded narrative. Philippa Warr dissects The Stanley Parable’s impossible architecture with additional comments from Pugh and Wreden. While over at Paste, Maddy Myers pits TSP and non-Euclidean puzzler Antichamber together to talk about how each defies expectations for how games work.
These two games give the player the sensation of ‘breaking’ a videogame. These days, that’s exactly what I want to do, since I’m sick of doing what I’m told and getting a boring result as my ‘reward.’ The key to satirizing videogames isn’t to make the player do something they don’t want to do; all videogames make us do stuff we don’t want to do already. Antichamber and TSP have figured that out.
Alex Aagaard was cited earlier as believing The Stanley Parable could elevate the conversation around games into the sphere of art criticism, but some critics saw connections between the art world and TSP in a more direct fashion. Writing for Art Blog, Maeve Griffon evaluates TSP as an interactive digital installation, and Guido Pellegrini comes from a similar approach, ultimately seeing the game, and perhaps the walking sim genre at large, as akin to a self-guided virtual museum tour.
Speaking of walking sims, Grace Maich ran a comparison between Gone Home and TSP, and speculates as to why the former received so much more hate for being “not a game” than the latter. In a Gamasutra blog post, Kris Graft sees games like TSP, Gone Home, Papers, Please, and other indie contemporaries as depicting a certain kind of beauty in the ordinary, relating the actions and settings of these games to growing up in so-called “flyover country.” And sometimes walking sims can show up in the darndest places, like Assassin’s Creed. Alex Cowan holds TSP up against the game-studio-within-a-game segments of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and concludes that TSP ultimately buckles under the weight of its own self-aware artistic aspirations.
For Screen Therapy, Courtney Garcia analyses TSP’s capacity for granting opportunities to explore emotional intelligence: “While TSP does motivate us to look more closely at our choices, at what is keeping us from leaving fantasies and toxic jobs/lifestyles behind – it does little to comfort players after shoving them into these painful and un-compassionate perspectives.” Over on Electron Dance, Joel Goodwin’s article on TSP, dissects a number of ways in which the game seems to contradict itself, but ultimately behaves like an astute conversation between player and narrator.
It is a game in which players recognize free will is limited and their genuine choices few. It is a game that recognizes exactly what its players will get up to and knows to react in a way which will amuse them. … It is the ultimate Mind Control Device yet also has the utmost respect for the player.
Seeing as how TSP could be viewed as a work of criticism itself, it seems only fitting to close by hearing a bit more about the game from the development duo.
In their 2014 talk at the Game Developers Conference, Davey Wreden and William Pugh discuss how they created choices in TSP without offering players a challenge to contextualize the options (video link, CC/auto-captions). Pugh presented solo at GDC 2015 on how comedy was integrated into TSP (video link, CC/auto-captions). On Galactic Café’s developer blog, Wreden wrote a post with an accompanying hand-drawn comic about the emotional drain of being the center of so much attention and unloaded player feedback and baggage in the wake of TSP’s release. Wreden further elaborates on how game of the year awards compounded this feeling with the anxieties of desiring professional and artistic recognition. Following up that post, John Walker interviewed Wreden and Pugh for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, digging into how they came together to make the game and what their personal dynamic was like over the course of development and post-release.
If anything, Pugh and Wreden’s story is a parable for other independent developers, unprepared for the suddenness of an overnight success, the switch from anonymous bedroom coding to international acclaim, with no run-up.
Pugh and Wreden also granted an interview with Adam Sessler at GDC 2014, that leans more heavily into discussions about game design and thematic intentions for TSP (video link, CC/auto-captions).
Ironically, the story of criticism about TSP largely fits into the meta-fiction of TSP itself. Player agency becomes critical agency. Branching paths become hyperlinks. The voice of the narrator becomes the perspective of the author. The game world seeps out onto the internet, blending virtual and real. Endless feedback loops, forever loading loading loading loading loading loading loading loading loading loading loading loading loading loading
Do you have an article about The Stanley Parable you believe merits inclusion in this compilation? Drop us a line and let us know!
Disclosures: Mattie Brice, Riley MacLeod, and Eric Swain have previously written for Critical Distance. Davey Wreden is a patron of Critical Distance through our Patreon but was not involved in the conception, commission, writing, or publishing of this feature.