With the year-end just past and the Steam Christmas sale going quite thoroughly nuts, you might be inclined to follow the words of wise men and drop some ducats on the game The Stanley Parable. Often these people praise the game for being clever and for being funny and for being excellently put together, and those people tend to themselves be involved with writing words for a living (as one might not be surprised to learn), and also, quite funny. In particular, Matt Lees, who is one of the funniest and sharpest men writing for videogames today, speaks highly of The Stanley Parable and advocates its purchase.
I’d like to provide this contrasting voice: Do not buy The Stanley Parable
When I play a videogame for review, I often sit down and scribble out some information on a piece of paper for my future review, details that I can bring to light. Often these notes are more fun to read than the review itself winds up being, especially when they stop abruptly because the game has suddenly become fantastic and I don’t care about writing things down any more. Thing with The Stanley Parable is that when I first put down some notes, after the very first ending I achieved in the game, I summarised it simply as Metatextual Wank. The game argued with me, telling me that the only real choice I had was to stop playing.
So I did.
I thought maybe that was the point, that the game was trying to be clever and there’d be some sort of special expansion upon the game when I booted it back up, that it would notice what I’d done, or maybe tease me for returning even though I’d tried to assert independence. It didn’t, and then I played the game out for another ending. One of the endings involves you sitting still and waiting out the narrator explaining how Stanley felt, then how Stanley felt about how Stanley felt, then about how Stanley felt about being told about how Stanley felt and then some sparkles and some screaming and anxiety and then death, and a restart. This would be, in some way, a little bit interesting if what had happened hadn’t amounted to about six minutes of completely unskippable, uninteractive cutscene, while trying to talk about how we experience videogame narratives and the use of narrators.
I’m not going to argue that The Stanley Parable isn’t a clever game. It very obviously is. To come up with so many opportunities for forking, to thoroughly expand on every possible permutation of the game’s reasonably limited tool-set, all of that is clearly the work of clever people. What’s more, it keeps it all from being repetitive, too!
I have what I think of as a fairly low threshold for cleverness for cleverness’ sake. If a game does something clever to overcome a limitation, or to induce a feeling in a player, or to make you reconsider strategy, that I tend to like. The Stanley Parable is not that kind of clever. The Stanley Parable is a short game that is mostly built around taking every opportunity it has to tell you how clever it is. The game is thorough, it is well-presented, it uses its tools well and to me, it utterly fails to be funny.
Comedy is, at its core, deriving a positive reaction (laughter) out of a subversion of expectations. This is why humour sometimes is hard to translate across cultures or across boundaries of social class. You need to be familiar with a thing to have an expectation, and you need to have an expectation for it to be subverted. The Stanley Parable does not, to me, ever subvert expectations. It never surprises me, because it never did anything I didn’t really expect. Oh, I didn’t expect the exact turns of phrase that the story would use when I closed doors that should be open, but every time I pushed or poked at a thing, it was trying to earn some reaction from that narrator, because that’s all the game really does. You push a button, the narrator says something. You fail to push a button, the narrator says something.
Ultimately, The Stanley Parable is a very thoroughly constructed game, but most of what makes it interesting doesn’t make me laugh. If you’ve already read or discussed the nature of games, if you’ve ever had to argue what games are, then chances are, you’ve already discussed most of the things that The Stanley Parable wants you to think or talk about. Now, I know that for some people, the humour lands fine and it still works, but for me, the whole experience was just an excellently-crafted exercise in telling me things I already knew, then wanting to be considered clever because it told me so.
Buy it if:
- The trailer made you laugh.
- You want a good crash-course for discussions of choice in videogame narrative.
- You want to have those discussions with people whose introduction to the idea was The Stanley Parable.
Avoid it if:
- The trailer didn’t make you laugh.
- You’re already familiar with the idea of the illusion of choice.