The Stanley Parable Turns Video Game Storytelling On Its Head

Is it a game? Is it a manifesto? An artsy-fartsy waste of time? A story-within-a-story, an exercise in branching plotlines, meta-humor, and video game commentary? The provocative new Half-Life 2 mod The Stanley Parable is perhaps all of those things. Or maybe none of them. The game and its designer hope only that you'll draw your own conclusions.

Since we linked to the mod last week, I hope that some of you had a chance to give it a go. I won't be writing any heavy spoilers here, but it's worth noting that The Stanley Parable is worth experiencing as fresh as possible. So, if you've yet to play it, go on over to ModDB, download it, and plug it in. It's short—only around an hour or so—but it's almost guaranteed to get you thinking.

The conceit of The Stanley Parable is one of repetition and existential disorientation. Stanley is a worker in a large complex, but it's unclear what he does or why. One day, the game informs us, the monitor that feeds him information stops functioning, and so he breaks his regular routine to see what's going on.

Once outside his office, things get… weird. His actions are prompted by a kindly British narrator, who offers the sort of matter-of-fact narration we've come to expect from arty mainstream cinematic fare like American Beauty or Magnolia. In fact, the opening cinematic is scored by Thomas Newman's now-iconic theme from American Beauty, an effective means by which to quickly inform the player: "What follows is a bleak and yet charming statement on the human condition."

The Stanley Parable Turns Video Game Storytelling On Its Head

As I mentioned last week, the first time through the game I followed the Narrator's directions except for a single time: when I came to a pair of doors, and the Narrator said, "At the doors, Stanley went left." I went right, and found the Narrator got a bit annoyed before closing and opening doors until I was forced to go in the direction in which he had originally instructed me. Hmm.

A few minutes later, I'd been a good Narratee and had made my way to a fairly unsatisfying ending that seriously borrowed from the final sequence of American Beauty.

But upon reloading the game, I found that there are several other endings, and the paths to them are as circuitous as they are surprising. I won't spoil any of them here, but it was on my third playthrough that I began to see what The Stanley Parable was really all about, and what its creator, Davey Wreden, was using the game to say.

Wreden, 22, lives in Los Angeles, and his only formal game design training was a game design workshop he attended at USC. I spoke with him on Sunday via chat, and was surprised at how consistently he avoided ascribing specific meaning to his work.

"I think the wonderful part is that we don't need an 'answer,'" Wreden said. "People still enjoyed the game, they still had meaningful experiences, and I never offered an explanation of why any of this was happening. To me THAT is the big take-away."

I asked him about the discussion of whether TSP is in fact a game at all—after all, action is minimal, and interaction is limited to extremely simple presses of the "use" key.

"Part of what I'm trying to say with TSP," he said, "is that that distinction [between game and non-game] is all in your head. The best parts of the game are the parts that the player arrives at themselves, without me saying anything. If someone plays the game and they say, 'Wow, I really enjoyed that!' then maybe they have to reconsider what's 'valid' fun in a game.

"I think any piece of work that gives the consumer the answers is pretty boring," Wreden continued. "If I have to tell you to enjoy my game, you didn't enjoy it. If you decide for yourself that you enjoyed it, and that decision conflicts with a previous belief, now THAT's interesting to me. I realize this can come off as sounding zen and artsy," he admitted, "but I believe that there is no answer. The best answer is the one you had to come to and no one else could have."

The Stanley Parable certainly raises more questions than it answers—and many of the questions it raises are about game design and video game "meaning" itself. I asked Wreden if he that had been his intention going in.

"That's something that games can do," he said, "there's a space between the developer's intentions and what the player actually does, so the player has to fill that gap in themselves. No other medium is capable of that."

He's right—there is always a line between artist and audience, and at some point intent must become interpretation. When you listen to Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," you might hear beauty where someone else hears noise—but each interpretation is equally valid.

"I should clarify that I do NOT believe games have a monopoly on artistic interpretation," Wreden said. "Just that they're capable of it in a way that we really haven't even begun to explore."

The Stanley Parable makes it clear that short games can take considerably greater risks with branching storylines than long, AAA titles. Whether by necessity or by design, the fact that one can play through all of the game's six endings in an hour makes it possible to actually see them all. I can't wait to finally see the effect that different choices will have in my second playthrough of The Witcher 2, but the game is so long that it's a real commitment to see them through.

Wreden says that part of the reason TSP is so short is simply due to the fact that he made it by himself. "[The decision] was definitely pragmatic," he said. "But I also wanted to encourage people to replay it, because replaying it is the whole point. Players know they're encouraged to try new things as opposed to thinking 'I gotta make the right decision, it'll be 20 hours before I can go back to this.'

"Most of the decisions you make in those 20-hour games are fairly meaningless when you get down to it. Especially if it's on a good/bad scale. I didn't want to punish people by witholding content based on an arbitrary decision."

I mentioned my belief that if, say, Deus Ex had had an ending like some of the more off-the-wall endings in The Stanley Parable, players would have been justifiably upset. He agreed, adding that "In Deus Ex, if you'd had another ending where you also were told 'and then everything was happy!' you'd also have been upset because there's cognitive dissonance between that and an ending where, say, it was in the mind of a crazy person. Gamers generally expect all 'paths' in their game to fit within the same cohesive narrative context. That's not bad, it's just how we've come to perceive branching story in video games."

Wreden made the game with minimal testing, relying mainly on instinct to tell when it was finished. "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."

In the included commentary text-file, Wreden describes the process of designing The Stanley Parable as "grueling," and says that by the end, the project "felt completely dead to me." He goes on to admit that "I started out with career ambitions; this game killed most of them. If you're starting out, do not try to create something as ambitious as this by yourself. You will burn out and crash hard."

The Stanley Parable Turns Video Game Storytelling On Its Head
Davey Wreden – A 22 year-old modder in Los Angeles, Wreden cites mainstream influences like Bioshock, Braid, Shadow of The Colossus, and Metal Gear Solid, as well as mods like The Chinese Room's Dear Esther and Robert Yang's Radiator. He spent two years making The Stanley Parable.

With the newfound success of The Stanley Parable (ModDB is showing 64,000 downloads), Wreden feels a touch differently. "Toward the end of development, I was sure it would be a long time before I made a game again. But now, people are coming to me saying they want to build games with me, so there are opportunities popping up that I would only have dreamed of a month ago. I'm in that rare position of being a desired creative writer."

Before starting any new projects, Wreden says that they'll be taking the time to remake The Stanley Parable and polish it further. He plans to bring on skilled designers to reconstruct the entire game, overhauling the visuals and sound design. But one thing that'll stay the same: the voice of the narrator, Kevan Brighting, who recorded his vocal takes in a single pass. " there isn't a chance in hell I'd do it with anyone but Kevan," said Wreden. "God no. He's half the reason this game has been successful."

Branching, dynamic storytelling is something that games do almost uniquely well. But that kind of design stands in opposition to the length of many AAA games today; building truly consequential decisions into a 50-hour game like Fallout 3 or The Witcher requires an incredible amount of work, and it's difficult for players to see all of the possible content. As a result, many modern AAA games can't deviate very far from their primary storyline; it's simply too much content for one team to create.

It's exciting to find a game in the indie scene—the truly indie, make-this-game-in-my-basement-alone scene—that engages in storytelling as risky as that of The Stanley Parable. Download it, play it, think about it—it's certainly worth your time. And as for Wreden, he'll be out there dreaming up new ways to shake things up.

"As long as I keep surprising people," he said, "that's the most important thing to me. Because even this formula can become routine. My next game will be a third person action puzzle shooter set on Mars in hell."

I think he was kidding, but I'm not sure.

Download The Stanley Parable [ModDB]