Thursday, December 5, 2013

Narrating The New Stanley Parable, 2013 Edition

What can I say about Galactic Cafe's retail release of The Stanley Parable that I haven't already said in my previous article on its original, free source mod? The problem now, as it was then, is that any kind of description of what The Stanley Parable is, or why it's absolutely worth playing, would spoil its mystique and ruin many of the pleasant surprises in store for gamers unfamiliar with its premise. So the best I can do is attempt to describe its setup as basically as possible, and to describe its allure as vaguely as possible.

The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure game of sorts, albeit one far from the typical adventure game formula. The Stanley Parable fits in with the crowd of games originally popularized by Dear Esther, wherein you simply walk around a setting and experience an unfolding narrative. Where TSP distinguishes itself from the crowd is the way it embraces freedom of choice and player agency; whereas games like Dear Esther force a rigid storyline upon you, TSP allows you to explore off the beaten path and shape its very course, all in terms of how you choose to react to the narrator.

You play as a man named Stanley, a droning office worker whose job is to sit at a computer terminal pressing buttons on a keyboard as commands stream in through the monitor. Stanley relishes this job and feels contentedly satisfied with life pointlessly typing away at the string of commands. But one day, the commands stopped coming in, and Stanley faces a choice: does he get up to investigate, or does he stay at his post and wait for the problem to solve itself?

This decision does not actually lead to a branching path; inevitably, you'll have to leave your post to see more of what the game has to offer. The choice is a bit of an illusion, but should you choose to linger in the office room, the narration will change to reflect your inaction. That's where TSP's brilliance begins to shine; there's a narrative reaction for nearly every conceivable action or inaction. The narrator has a very specific story that he wants to tell, but since you're in control of your own actions, you have the free will to follow his narrations or to explore off the beaten path, leading to numerous branching paths in the story.

The iconic exemplification of this branching story comes early on, when Stanley enters a new room and the narrator states plainly: "When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left." Do you obediently follow the game's intended path to completion, or do you attempt to explore the unintended paths and push as many boundaries as possible?

I've always been an avid explorer; when a quest arrow pops up pointing me down a specific path, I always go the exact opposite direction and explore every possible option before eventually going down the intended path. Sometimes games reward this kind of effort with rare loot or special power-ups, but just as often I'm met with a pointless dead end or an invisible wall that shatters all suspension of disbelief. Most developers want to tell a very specific story, and slap the player on the wrist whenever they deviate from the path; even the most renowned of RPGs that claim to allow role-playing options still force players down the same linear paths.

As with any video game, your freedom within TSP is still ultimately limited to whatever actions the developers specifically enabled within the game. Even though you're frequently presented with options to deviate from the narrator's intended story, you're still ultimately following one developer's vision of a possible story. What makes TSP fun, in contrast to certain other games, is that it presents the player with numerous meaningful choices that dramatically alter the course of the game, leaving the player with a much greater feeling of choice and independence, while making them feel like their decisions actually matter. It's great fun to test the boundaries -- doing things the narrator didn't anticipate -- and witnessing his reactions. 

The Stanley Parable further plays with video game tropes and conventions in occasional moments where it deliberately breaks the fourth wall. Little moments call attention to the fact that you're just playing a video game, like when the narrator describes Stanley's inner monologue as he realizes that he can't see his feet when he looks down, and that he must therefore be dreaming. You encounter rendering glitches after certain actions, and the narrator whisks you away to play versions of other games when it becomes apparent you have no interest in following his own story. At other points, the narrator calls you (the player) out, insulting you for your stubborn insistence in treating his story like any other video game.

The effect is for TSP to be a incredibly meta experience. It's the kind of game that can really make you think about the elements that go into video game design, as well as making you reflect on your own behaviors and incentives in playing video games. The writing and execution of these ideas are very clever, subtly getting under your skin and exemplifying its ideas through concrete scenarios that make you fall victim to its own critiques. But while it's handling this serious, contemplative subject matter, it also manages to be amusing and entertaining all the way through.

The narrator is the very soul of the game, the sole embodiment of TSP's unique sense of character; without him, you'd just be aimlessly walking around empty hallways. Much of the game's great appeal stems directly from the voice acting provided by Kevan Brighting as the narrator, whose emotional range varies from light-hearted whimsy to annoyed menace to sympathetic compassion, depending on your actions. The pure sound of his voice is often comforting and nostalgic of storybook narrators, and his ironically scripted, "unscripted reactions" to your actions makes him feel like a very real character. The writing behind the narrator had me smiling and chuckling at frequent turns, and Brighting's vocal delivery had me at one point content to sit in a pointless room at long lengths just to keep him happy. 

In the game's core philosophy on defying video game conventions, there is no distinct ending. This is one of the key changes made in going from the free mod to the full retail release -- whereas in the mod, an ending would kick you out to the main menu, thus providing some sense of closure, in the 2013 retail version, each apparent ending dumps you right back at the very beginning of a seemingly new playthrough, making it much harder to distinguish actual "endings" from futile, infinite resets. The only way to "beat" the game is to quit manually via the escape menu, because this isn't a game about "winning."

Going from the free mod to the retail release, I was a little worried that the new version would be basically the same thing but with improved graphics and more spit-polish -- after all, that's basically what Dear Esther did. I found myself pleasantly surprised, however, by the vast amount of totally new content and new twists on familiar sequences. There are a variety of new areas to explore, all new branching paths, and new outcomes to experience. Perhaps what's most interesting is that, with the game's new "no endings" approach, there are recurring themes and variables that occur across playthroughs, which compels you to keep replaying the game looking for new variations. 

Even for the demo for the full retail release offers a whole new world of narrative possibilities. The demo only shows you a few seconds of actual gameplay from the full game; otherwise, it's an entirely separate game meant to hype up the full game while showcasing what goes into the production of demos and ultimately deconstructing the very purpose of demos. The 30-minute free demo is most definitely worth playing, whether you intend to play the full game or not. 

That's about all I can say about The Stanley Parable. There's plenty more that I could say, but doing so would spoil the game, since a large part of the fun comes from discovering things for yourself. There are then other things that I want to say, but I can't quite wrap my brain around some of the deeper meanings to put the game's significance into words. Suffice it to say, The Stanley Parable is one of those rare, clever games that deserves to succeed and is absolutely worth its $14.99 asking price. 

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