Surprise is a terribly underrated response. Briefly consider how it’s often deployed in interactive entertainment and you might conclude games gave up on intentionally threatening the player’s expectations over a decade ago. Games may be willing to exhibit a fleeting moment of objective shock, but outside of Metal Gear Solid few have the confidence to repeatedly eject the player’s brain onto the ceiling. You only find John Romero’s head on a stick once. Fighting Reptile is only extremely cool the first time. Discovering your role-playing game has an escalating series of endings is actually expected. Videogames excel at generating a number of reactions other than pure empowerment; surprise just doesn’t seem to be high on the list.
I loved playing The Stanley Parable because it consistently surprised me. As a cruel tradeoff, it’s also left me reluctant to write anything that might compromise the experience for someone else. The Stanley Parable gets off on creating expectations and then almost immediately demolishing those expectations, and at the end of my time with it I’m still not quite sure how to pin it down. It’s not for a lack of clarity, but rather because The Stanley Parable says and does so much in such a short amount of time that I’m unable to supply a conclusive opinion on what it was trying to say. I have ideas and various interpretations, but assigning any one of them as the, to borrow an always hilarious term, “true ending” would be foolish. The Stanley Parable has this perpetual elusiveness that’s simultaneously provocative and attractive, and that assigns it a very enigmatic value.
You play as an office worker named Stanley. Stanley’s job is to go to work and push a button. One day Stanley realizes his office is completely deserted. To complicate matters, any further action Stanley takes appears to be directed by an omniscient British narrator. My immediate thoughts went to Bastion, a lovely game where the booming voice of the narrator indulged in your activity, but The Stanley Parable differed in that I sensed the narrator was slightly antagonistic. Because he is British and I am an American predisposed to either unconditionally laugh at or immediately trust anything a British person says, the narrator was also both extremely wise and delightfully witty. Still, he seemed to have this frenzied edge where I sensed he didn’t have Stanley’s best interests in mind.
These suspicions manifested when I discovered the two doors. You see, at its opening The Stanley Parable appears to be an exploratory mystery concerning what happened to everyone else in Stanley’s office. The narrator appears to exist to assist your brain in providing a bit of direction, but all of that changes the moment he exhibits two doors. He says, “Stanley took the door on the left,” but really the choice between two doors resides with the player. You can deliberately disobey the narrator and see what happens, or you can follow along and see where his words take you. Or where you will take his words. This is essentially how The Stanley Parable functions; it presents a binary choice between two paths and leaves the player to choose Stanley’s particular destiny.
Whichever path Stanley happens to choose, he will always meet some sort of conclusion. And then he wakes up. And then he starts over in the empty office. Every time. Some of the paths are easy to spot and some take a slight amount of thought, but every single one is geared toward one specific profundity that is completely different from the other. Better, the manner in which these sequences unfold run the gamut from questionably tragic to expertly madcap. You’re not just going left or right, you’re spiting the narrator, falling into his trap, questioning whether or not it even was a trap, and suddenly you’re tumbling through outer space. And then you wake up and try to do something differently.
It’s easy to draw comparisons to the movie Groundhog Day or somewhat similar office life simulator Every Day The Same Dream, but The Stanley Parable isn’t interested in an exclusive definition. In my case I experienced an escalating series of small crises where I wasn’t positive if minute details of the office had changed which was further complicated in instances where I was absolutely sure major details had changed, but such is the challenge of The Stanley Parable; right when you’re ready to assign meaning it casually decides it wants to be something else.
The diversity between The Stanley Parable’s endings leads to number of suppositions. At one point I was convinced every single path was a critique on modern game design and at another I concluded it was a light entry into the philosophy of being happy. The Stanley Parable’s message is intentionally volatile because of its complete indifference to creating a consistent theme. One ending completely contradicts another, but your (well, my) brain savagely tries to find a way to connect all the dots because that’s what happens in most of the other media I’ve consumed forever. I’m not conditioned for this type of experience.
The Stanley Parable drives me crazy and that’s kind of the point. Inevitably some vaguely interested person will decide to play it and might unconsciously undergo a dramatic paradigm shift in the way they think about games. Remember when The Matrix secretly tricked people into getting interested in philosophy? What if The Stanley Parable’s purpose was to apply that backdoor brain awakening thing to the way some guy off the street thinks about videogames? Could it make him or her reconsider pressing X to Jason or generating dopamine via 360 degree no-scope kills? What if none of that happened? The Stanley Parable probably isn’t interested. Or it is. Totally.
Note: The Stanley Parable has an incredible demo that features plenty of the, well, spirit of the full game but isn’t actually composed of anything from the full game. In fact I played it after I finished playing The Stanley Parable-proper and still enjoyed it. If my words are failing you then a) sorry b) please check out the demo here.