Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Narrating The Stanley Parable

*Note: this review article is of the 2011 HL2 mod. For my review article on the 2013 retail release, click here

The Stanley Parable tells the story of a man named Stanley, who works for a company where he's known only as "employee number 427." Every day, he sits at his desk in room 427 pushing buttons on a keyboard, following the commands that stream in through a monitor. He relishes this job, always happy to press the buttons when the orders arrive. But one day, the orders stopped coming in. Puzzled at this unusual circumstance, Stanley leaves his post to find out what's going on.

You assume control of Stanley as he gets up to leave his post, searching the building for answers. A narrator tries to tell Stanley's story a certain way, describing Stanley's thoughts and your actions. But given that you're in control of your perspective, you have the free will to follow his narration or to disregard him and do your own thing. Numerous junctions present themselves with two options, and the story branches into entirely different paths depending on your decisions.

The Stanley Parable is an intelligent bit of metafiction. It's a story about a story, told by a narrator who realizes this is a video game. It explores concepts of free will, gets you thinking a little more deeply about video game design, and offers some witty commentary on the process of playing a video game. It's one of the smartest mods I've ever played, and it's presented with lots of charming style, which makes it truly stand out as an exceptional source mod that is absolutely worth playing.

Before I say anything else, I must issue a disclaimer: this article contains spoilers, and you're really better off not knowing anything else besides the general premise before playing. The story is basically the only thing going on in this game, and the entire payoff of TSP comes from the fun surprises you encounter along the way. The game is really no fun if you know what's going to happen. So stop reading right here if you haven't already played the game. You can get it on ModDB or on Desura; it requires the Source SDK Base 2007 to run. 

In my first playthrough, I decided to follow the narrator's directions. "Why not," I figured, "let's see how this is supposed to go." I went through a relatively simplistic process of just following his directions, until I reached the very end. The ending you get for going with the narrator is a fairly cliche "happy ending" where Stanley finally experiences the exhilaration of freedom. The narrator says: "Never again would [Stanley] follow someone else's orders without question. Never again would anyone tell Stanley where to go, what to do, or how to feel."

On the surface, this is a pretty bland ending. It's straightforward and entirely as-expected. You play a guy who spends his entire life droning away with mindless grunt work, pushing buttons on a keyboard in response to prompts from a monitor, and now that you've had a taste of freedom, you realize what you've been missing all this time. 

And yet, this ending is actually riddled with irony. You get this "freedom" ending only by following the narrator's precise directions. He says "go left," you go left. He says "go up," you go up. So it begs the question: are you really free at all, or are you only free because the narrator said so? You don't get this "freedom" ending if you disobey too many orders, and so the only way to get to the game's intended ending is to mindlessly follow orders without question. 

On a second playthrough, I decided to test the branching paths of the storyline by disobeying the narrator. I did the exact opposite thing he said at every turn, with him becoming progressively more and more annoyed with each deviation I made from his intended story. At a few different points, he (seemingly) plucked me up and dropped me back into a previous room. Even though I was making these choices of my own free will, it quickly became apparent that the narrator was really in control, and that I might be powerless to go against him.

Eventually, I reached the edge of the playable map, stumbling into an unrendered room where the fourth wall officially comes crumbling down. The narrator describes it very precisely: "No one's even built this part of the map because you were never supposed to be here in the first place. It's just a bunch of skybox and dev wall textures. That's it." Even though it's technically nothing, it's completely fascinating to me from the perspective of a gamer who never sees this kind of stuff during actual gameplay. 

He gets increasingly annoyed with my disobedience and decides to drop me into another map. And then I find myself in the starting area of Half-Life 2, getting off the train and going through security. Except no one's there. All of the NPCs have been removed, Wallace Breen's video speech is gone, there are no audio effects. There's perhaps even more nothing than the previous room. It was like stumbling into the Twilight Zone, walking through a deserted, lifeless map from a fondly-treasured game as the narrator laments that "this map wasn't even made for you. At least I created a world specifically with you in mind." 

In another playthrough, I decided to activate the generator. The narrator, deciding that my decision was against his own intentions for the story, changes it so that engaging the generator also engaged a self-destruct sequence. A timer popped up on the screen counting down from two minutes, and I immediately started looking for a way out, pressing every button I could find, hoping it would activate a secret exit or something. Cause that's what you do in video games. And after a while, the narrator called me out on this: "When you saw that timer, you just instinctively started trying to find an exit, didn't you? I bet you're clicking on everything in this room, trying to open doors, or vents, or something, and 'solve the puzzle.'"

One of the great things about TSP is that your decisions actually matter here, and they really do change the entire course of the game. There are like a half-dozen different "endings" you can get to, depending on what you do and they're all radically different paths. It really is kind of a "choose your own adventure" story, where instead of just following some dull, pre-scripted thing from beginning to end, you have the freedom to alter it. Or do you really, since a modder scripted everything in advance, and the narrator seems to have full control over everything. 

This design begs you think about what you've just experienced, and all of the ways the narrator breaks the fourth wall puts everything in the context of "what should I think of this as a player of video games, and what does this mean for the greater body of video games?" It's not a game that necessarily has answers to the kinds of questions it begs, but it's powerful enough that it can get you thinking about things and reflecting on far greater issues than just this game's silly story, which not a lot of games manage to accomplish.

Another notable aspect of TSP is that, even though I'm experiencing the exact same thing as countless thousands of other players, it really feels like this is my story. (Even though it's really Stanley's parable.) This is because I'm the one making these decisions to progress it through these branching paths, and the narrator is speaking directly to me -- the player. It's a very personal experience, and when the narrator mentions how he made the map specifically for you, he really means it. 

Those are my general impressions of The Stanley Parable. I know I don't have anything profound to say about it, but I don't know if there's all that much you can say about it. It's just something you play and walk away with a rare and inspired feeling that you don't often get from video games. I was really just pleased and impressed with its wit, and thought it was a fantastic mod. 

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