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Spoiled for choice

The very foundations of modern video games are questioned by The Stanley Parable, writes Jeff Wong.

A scene from The Stanley Parable. A scene from The Stanley Parable.
A scene from The Stanley Parable.
A scene from The Stanley Parable.

The reader’s eyes were drawn to the article about The Stanley Parable, curious as to what this was all about. They had heard whispers about this particular video-game, and decided it was finally time to see it for themselves. Or had the reader known about the game for some time, and in fact come here to see if this article held opinions similar to their own? The reader grinned at the clever introduction and continued reading.

Apologies – sadly, I’m not as well-spoken or as witty as the narrator in The Stanley Parable, which in October 2013 found its way onto PC and Mac. Hopefully, however, I will be able to guide you as the narrator did Stanley, and illuminate several points of intrigue about the game.

Stanley, the game’s protagonist, arrives at work to find his office building empty. All of his co-workers have disappeared, and for the first time in his life, Stanley is left to the machinations of his own free will – or so it seems. A disembodied narrator speaks to Stanley and, by extension the player, guiding both through the office in search of explanation for the mysterious events within.

One of the first places the narrator takes you is a room with two doors, where he instructs you to enter one of them. A few players may listen to such commands, but many would be beset by the nagging curiosity of defying the narrator and choosing the other door, if only to see what happens. The desire for independence and explanation, fuelled by the mischievous possibility of defying the narrator, is what makes The Stanley Parable one of the most impressively written and creative indie games of recent times. One of its central themes, however, speaks fathoms about the game itself. It’s a core theme that plagues a great proportion of video games – choice, free-will and pre-determinism.

Many games punish the player for straying too far from pre-determined paths, physically disabling them from traversing as they please. The Stanley Parable on the other hand appears to offer every possible path to the player, so long as the player can actually comply with, or defy, the narrator. Davey Wreden, developer and writer of The Stanley Parable stated that the game came from “a desire to do something that hadn’t really been done before”. He wanted to produce “a kind of game that broke player expectations.”

However, in The Stanley Parable, every action has been pre-conceived. The player is ultimately still being guided to recite a story already written for them. The game effectively only provides an illusion of free-will. Can The Stanley Parable really be considered a game, rather than a digital choose-your-own adventure novel? Is the true theme conveyed actually the lack of free-will and choice?

In spite of the negative press surrounding linearity and the lack of freedom in video games, some games favour closed narratives because it allows for a story to be told that compliments the provided gameplay. A game’s ability to provide a sense of free-will must be entirely reliant on player choice, and not upon pre-determined outcomes. Wreden himself states that “it’s the kind of thing that seems to emerge naturally from open inquiry rather than being consciously programmed into the game.”

The Stanley Parable is a spark of creativity and ingenuity in the increasingly cynical medium of video games. The ability for such a simple game, once an amateur hobby project, to spark conversation and thought-provoking debate should not
be taken lightly, leaving it to advance the artistic medium of video games.