Saturday, December 28, 2013

Indie-Cember: The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable
  • Developer: Galactic Cafe
  • Lead Designer: Davey Wreden / William Pugh*
  • Release: PC/Mac, 17 October 2013
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$15*
*Applies only to stand-alone Steam release
The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure game where you play as an office worker named Stanley. I don't know how much more I can say without resorting to spoiler tags, because this is an experience which relies on surprise, but I'll try to go on regardless.
The first of many choices.
Stanley's job in his office is to type keys on his computer. Not in any structured context, like a document or a piece of code, just "press this button for a second", then "press that button for two seconds", etc. But one day, when the orders stop coming in and everybody in your office mysteriously disappears, you set out to find them. You walk past the empty cubicles and offices, while a British narrator tells you what's going on. Eventually you reach a room with two doors, the narrator tells you to go through the one on the left, and you do so.

But what if you went through the door on the right?

Ah, therein lies the hook of The Stanley Parable: you, the player, have the freedom to make your own choices and go down any path presented to you at the moment. And whenever there's any possibility of you taking a different path or choice than what the "story" tempts you to follow, it will react to either possibility. For one example, I was in a room with a ringing telephone that I was "supposed" to pick up and answer. But the first time I entered that scenario, I instead pulled its plug out from the power point on the wall. (Mind you, I only did that because I tried interacting with the phone itself and thought it didn't do anything.) Boy, the verbal beating I got from the narrator for that one!

They keystone that makes it all work is the aesthetics. NOT the graphics, mind you; this game runs on the Source engine, which on a technical level is showing its age. I mean, the games that pioneered this platform, Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source, are almost a decade old! But seriously, folks, how many video games take place in an office setting, let alone one such as quirky as this? For just one set of examples, check out the slideshow and dry-erase boards in the meeting room, which even I won't spoil despite how early they show up. And then, there's the narrator, played by Kevan Brighting. This guy and his material are funny on a GLaDOS level. Said material relies primarily on fourth-wall-breaking, to make you question whether he's reacting to the character Stanley or you, the player; and on passive-aggressiveness, as if to guilt-trip you into following the "story" despite him being unable to stop you through direct incentives. All this creates a fusion of player and character which, surprisingly, has never been achieved in any first-person-viewpoint game yet.
One of the many changes that may be triggered through repeated playthroughs.
So assuming you've decided to highlight the spoiler tags and read what was underneath them, you're probably thinking that this game is an absolute good. Well... Let me put it to you this way: No matter how many directions the story can branch off to, you're always starting out at roughly the same place. Sure, you might trigger subtle variations by reaching endings and restarting multiple times, and part of the fun is seeing what will happen, but in the end it's still a computer game. It's programmed to always present the same events if you go through the same steps. And that curtails The Stanley Parable's replay value, which is utterly sad considering the nature of the game, that it relies on the unexpected to provide an engaging experience. When you know what endings there are and how to get to them, there's just no reason to play it anymore. Sure, you might be able to rope a friend or family member into playing it, tell them as little as possible about the game and how to play it, and see how they react to what it has to offer. But as a great man once said, a great game should be able to stand on single-player alone. And I know it's not the same thing here, but having to get other people involved in something is a pretty big "if", and big "if"s shouldn't be required to enjoy a product to its fullest. Perhaps that's why I didn't enjoy Goldeneye 007 as much as I should have, but I digress.
The first of many choices. (From the original mod.)
Don't get me wrong, there is great potential in the field of video games based around interactive storytelling. I mean, look at how a lot of the triple-AAA tripe handles storytelling: using gameplay as nothing but a tool to string together a bunch of cinematic moments more or less removed from said gameplay. If you immerse yourself in enough of it, sooner or later it all comes across as contrived. But not in The Stanley Parable. You are in direct control of the story, whether you choose to indulge yourself in the narrator's desire to follow said story or to figuratively flip him off in that regard. But if you're not the kind of gamer who can appreciate finding the little differences that come with each permutation of the story, then I'm sorry, this just wouldn't be for you.

Actually, and I regret to have found this out after buying a copy of the stand-alone version, The Stanley Parable started out as a free mod (downloadable here) for the Source engine, back in 2011. Sure, the stand-alone version re-designed the rooms and added numerous new paths and endings, and you have to own another Source-based game in order to play it (apart from the two games I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, other examples include Team Fortress 2 and Portal), but look at it this way: you pay for a great stand-alone game like Half-Life 2 (seriously, one of my favourite games of all time), and then you go out and get the The Stanley Parable mod as a free side diversion. (Wait, did I really have to use the word "the" twice?) So whilst I would like to see more arthouse-type games like The Stanley Parable become famous, sooner or later you're gonna have to look out for number one (read: you and your bank account).

+ Many surprises to be found by exploring the game's world.
+ Lovely voice-acting from the narrator.

- Gameplay is as basic as can be.
- Limited replay value due to the highly-scripted game design..

Control: 4 choices out of 5
Design: 4 choices out of 5
Graphics: 3 choices out of 5
Audio: 5 choices out of 5
Value: 2 choices out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

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