The Stanley Paradox: A Postmodern Parable
The Stanley Parable is a game about choice. Or, absence of choice.
This is perhaps part of its genius—even on the level of interpretation, it forces the kind of binary logic that the process of playing the game reveals to be entirely arbitrary. Players’ actions are presided over by a narrator — a vocal embodiment of narrative itself—who, in theory, pronounces the player’s next move before it is made. An example: early on in the game, the player is faced with two identical doors. ‘When Stanley came to a set of two open doors’, says the narrator, ‘he entered the door on his left’—but the player may choose to disobey. The voice will compensate for the player’s wayward actions with varying degrees of success; sometimes flinging them back to the start of the game for being too recalcitrant; sometimes opening up entirely new spaces, even alternate dimensions, dream-states; or sometimes even giving up, himself, in the face of the total mess the narrative has become. Such is The Stanley Parable’s first level of meaning: games are a medium that offers the potential to resist linear narrative, and subvert the idea of authorial (narrated) intent.
One does not need indie games playing at deconstruction to grasp this idea. Some genres—sandboxes, role-playing games, and the like—are reliant on these ideas of at least superficial player choice and non-linearity of experience; and as Alex Duncan notes, this kind of metafictonal play has been explored before. What makes The Stanley Parable more convincing is that it advances its critique beyond this rather basic assertion of player subjectivity. The level of choice or agency afforded by video games is above all determined by what is programmed by the developer. In the same way that everything in a choose-your-own-adventure book is the product of a single author and merely reassembled in the act of reading, every alternate ending in The Stanley Parable is, by necessity, coded, designed, scripted. What differentiates Stanley from other experiences is that it makes you aware of this.
While the ‘main’ ending of the game reveals Stanley’s office to have been the front for a Mind Control Facility, calling player agency into question in a manner reminiscent of BioShock’s play with determinism, the more successful critique comes from one of the other 29 alternate endings, in which Stanley (the player) finds himself in a fictionalised museum space that depicts the creation of the game itself. All white walls, faux-marble columns, and neutral, descriptive text, the game lays bare its own mechanisms. A virtual architectural plan of the opening stage reveals the alternative paths that one is capable of following, with written commentary from the developer discussing the way these rooms were designed to heighten the illusion of choice. All of your endings, it says, belong to us, and were created by us. Your choice is a facet of authorial design.
This ending is, on one level, the game’s greatest success, a laying-bare of its own creation that goes further than almost any other essay in the medium. It is precisely the manner of this self-presentation, though, that calls the game’s radical potential seriously into question.
The lines between museum-space and gallery-space are at best confusing, and often indistinguishable. This is the core of a common Marxist criticism of the presentation of material objects as history: there is an aestheticisation in the placing of things behind glass; an erasure of their working contexts, their commodity status. In presenting assets and artifacts from its development in a museum space, The Stanley Parable enacts the same transformation on itself—a vainglorious pronouncement: I am Art.
One would hope, at this point, that something is done to undercut the pretense of this self-presentation, but it seems at this point the game’s critical edge has become blunt. The gallery space is its ‘serious’ point: it is, in a sense, the ‘true’ ending, since it unmasks all other possible endings to the game as false, programmed, virtual. Only what is left is real; but this reality is grounded on the very notion of authorially-constructed marble-colonnade-and-white-wall capital-a Art that so much of the game, and of its postmodernist precursors, sought to deconstruct.
The point of this criticism is not, of course, to assert an anti-Art position, nor to argue that games aren’t/can never be themselves artworks. Rather, it is more concerned with the figure of the artist. So much of the conceit of ‘indie’ development is grounded on the figure of the anti-corporate auteur; a strange synthesis of Romantic, punk, and playful idealist. The development of independent games becomes thus not labour, but art; developers not workers, but—as their names appear in gold in Stanley’s museum—artists. As with most spectres of Romanticism, this image is a dangerous misconception. A better parallel with the position of the ‘indie’ developer is, instead, the much-vaunted ‘small business’—a necessary part of the system that supports corporate capital, and one loaded with the individualist logic of the postmodern culture industry. In attempting to present itself as critiquing the industry from the outside, through aestheticising its own development and appropriating the status of ‘Art’, The Stanley Parable conceals its own complicity.
The same year that saw the release of The Stanley Parable also bore witness to another well-received release that, too, presented an aestheticised version of its own development—though from a much less likely suspect. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a product of notoriously otherwise un-self-aware Ubisoft, could in some ways hardly contrast more with Stanley, the indie darling: one unprecedented, the product of amateurs and early-career professionals working without a publisher; the other a corporate-backed, million-dollar sequel in an annual franchise known for its lack of innovation. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely by embracing its status as brash commodity-good that Black Flag manages to articulate a more convincing critique of game aesthetics than The Stanley Parable, with its loftier aims, could ever manage.
While the main experience of Black Flag is essentially an eighteenth-century piracy simulator, the historical portions of the game are broken up by a near-future framing device: you, the player-character, are a video-game developer playing a beta version of a game called—of course—Black Flag. You work from the Montreal-based office of large corporate game developer Abstergo Entertainment, a not-at-all-thinly-veiled parody of Ubisoft’s own Canadian operation. The office environment is a perfect skewering of the post-Google workplace mocked by Slavoj Žižek as ‘liberal-communist’: bright colours, open-plan, staffed by affluent twenty-somethings who probably think they’re doing the right thing. Where Black Flag succeeds is in the positioning of this development environment within the broader context of the culture industry. Abstergo Corporation, the fictional developer’s parent company, and a rough analog to Ubisoft’s authoritarian publishing wing, is a front for the modern incarnation of the Knights Templar, a shadowy Illuminati-esque cabal intent on controlling the world’s population, both through literal mind control (another surface parallel with Stanley), but also through the production of cultural commodities for mass consumption that reinforce their preferred ideology.
Like all good conspiracy theories, this is essentially a critique of capitalism. The message of Black Flag is thus: no matter the freedom you think you have—roaming the Caribbean as a fictional super-pirate, as in the core of the game—it is ultimately mediated through the ideological filter of those in control of its creation. The difference between this and The Stanley Parable, then, is that this truer position can only be admitted from a state of unavoidable, blatant complicity. Stanley needs its Art status, as that is the elevated platform from which its critique is launched, but in distancing itself from capitalism as a reified, aesthetic object, it ends up inadvertently propping it up. Black Flag makes no such pretensions to subtlety, but in articulating, in the basest of ways, the tension between aesthetic object and its mediation, and between artistic labourers and capitalist management, its own commodity status is weaponised.
Of course, this logic only goes so far. The fact remains that £6 spent on The Stanley Parable will probably do more good for the maintenance of critical thought in gaming than £45 on Black Flag ever would. Also, the fact that Ubisoft’s corporate publishing arm put out a game that brazenly presents themselves as evil conspirators bent on world domination and people still flocked to give them money is, I’m sure, a cause of much cigar-chomping laughter in their numerous, well-appointed boardrooms. This unfortunate irony, though, can be appropriated as a call-to-arms. It should not be that the most effective critique of capitalism in the medium comes from its most viciously profit-driven corporation. Equally, it should not be that alternate positions are only articulated along problematic postmodern lines. The debate about whether games are art has more-or-less been settled; it only remains for the medium to step up to art’s hardest challenge: effective ideological critique.