Video Games as Literature and The Stanley Parable’s Answer to “What is a Game?”

stanleyatdesk

Alex Russell

You are Stanley, and your job is to push buttons when a screen tells you to push buttons. You like your job fine enough normally, but today is different. Today, no one came to work. Today, the office is entirely empty except for you.

That’s where The Stanley Parable starts out, and that’s how it always starts out. The Stanley Parable isn’t a traditional game in a lot of ways, but it has a defined start. Every single playthrough starts with Stanley in his office, alone. Where it goes after that is up to you.

During each “run” of The Stanley Parable, a narrator narrates your actions just before they happen. He may say “Stanley went through the door on the left” just as you confront two doors. It’s up to you to then either follow the narrated story and play out the “true” The Stanley Parable or to “break” the game and make another choice. Most of them are just that simple: the game says you went up the stairs, but maybe you go down the stairs, and so on.

If you do what you’re told every time, you’ll finish the game in about 10 minutes. You’ll discover some secrets about what appears to be a simple office, and you’ll “beat” the game. That’s one way to do it, and it’s not wrong to do so. You’ll experience a complete story. You’ll learn something.

But you’ll learn just as much if you take the door on the right. You’ll learn about who Stanley really is (maybe) and what’s really going on with all these choices (also maybe). You have to decide for yourself what the story of the game is, and it changes a little bit every time.

everyoneisunique

Frighteningly realistic workplace graphics.

The full The Stanley Parable experience involves playing it until you see every ending. You’re in for about three or four hours or so maximum if you do that, and that can make the price tag tough to swallow. You can buy it on Steam for the price of a movie in the theaters (though it’s been much cheaper during the Steam Summer Sale) and you will only feel cheated if you assign dollar amounts to fun in strange ways. I can absolutely assure you that this isn’t what you expect, and that much is worth it alone.

The only other thing to discuss is something that has come up a lot lately in games journalism. It sounds dumb, but it boils down to “is The Stanley Parable a game?” Since there are dozens of endings and you can’t really die, there’s no such thing as a fail state. Some of the endings involve the narrator restarting your game and calling you an asshole, essentially, and even those are “true” endings. The Stanley Parable is more interested in testing the boundaries of what beating a game means than it is with what “a game” is in the first place, but people love to debate this stuff. Gone Home, one of the best games of the last few years, is often labeled a “walking simulator” in Steam. It’s meant to be a dig, because in Gone Home the only gameplay is walking around and uncovering a mystery. The only gameplay in The Stanley Parable is making choices and uncovering different endings.

dangereverywhere

Hostile work environment.

The Stanley Parable is open to interpretation. It’s a sort of “choice simulator” where the entire fun of the experience is that every choice is valid. You experience what it means to do A instead of B, but you also consider the fact that most choices don’t really matter. You get very different endings based on what you do, but you never know what inputs will give you what outputs. There’s no morality assigned to going down a staircase instead of going up one, but making that choice once determines if you stay sane or not. So instead of the choices in a lot of games about the morality of good and evil, the choices in The Stanley Parable exist to remind you that you are shaped by decisions that you don’t understand. Your life doesn’t have a narrator that you can listen to or ignore, but your life is also shaped the same as Stanley’s.

I say it counts as literature even without a “real” ending. It’s the story of choice, which is really what every story boils down to, even though most of them don’t start with door number one or door number two.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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