The Stanley Parable

The Power of Choice in a Closed System

This article contains spoilers for The Stanley Parable.

The first time I played it, The Stanley Parable managed to put me through the five stages of grief in eight minutes flat. I was in denial that the game actually ended that way, I got angry at the design, I bargained for a different ending, got depressed from my perceived failure to play it correctly, and finally accepted that this was just not the type of game I was used to playing. I regrouped, and after I spent the next hour investigating every in-game choice available to me, I realized that The Stanley Parable is complex in a way that very few games achieve. On the surface it’s witty, entertaining, and has a wonderful story, but there are sinister, unsettling overtones that hint at a whole new level of meaning underneath the surface, just begging to be explored.

That is, if you don’t play by the rules.

The game opens in a dreary, fluorescent office, with an omniscient narrator guiding the player through a deserted office building. Everything has been recently abandoned, there are no people to be found, and no obvious explanation for the sudden disappearance of every employee in the building. As gamers, we’ve been conditioned to expect the unexpected at every turn — running headlong through blind corners and into dark rooms rarely ends well, and taking the time to explore can often have huge rewards. In The Stanley Parable, the narrator continually tries to rush us along the “correct” path, and if we don’t acquiesce quickly, he injects snarky (and thoroughly amusing) commentary to fill the time.

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Hurry along, don’t ask questions, be a good little sheep. Your free will is an inconvenience to the narrator if it does not align with his agenda. If you take your time but follow the narrator’s, well, narrative, the game comes to a short and unsatisfying conclusion, clocking in at just under eight minutes on my playthrough. If, however, you take the road less travelled and blatantly disregard the narrator’s instructions, the game becomes much more interesting.

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“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
“The Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost

Aside from the narrator’s increasing frustration, the conflict between your choices and the path you “should” have chosen also begins to destroy the game world itself. This may feel like success, but really, you’re just going down with the ship. You’re being destroyed too, just because you feel helpless and frustrated and it’s the only other option you can see. Is that really any better than being a sheep?

You can make things difficult, but you can never beat the system entirely. You can never actually win.

The Stanley Parable is not alone in exploring this paradox. Sword Art Online, a fantastic manga (and later anime series), tells the story of a group of teenagers who become trapped in a virtual reality MMO. Kirito, the main character, is obsessed with finding his love Asuna, who has been captured by the evil architect of the game. Kirito is relentless in his search, but no matter how powerful he grows or how bravely he fights, he cannot escape the overarching question in everyone’s mind — why even try to fight in a world where the omnipotent god figure hates you? What chance do you possibly have?

Image credit The Armchair Madcap, copyright Aniplex

The answer, in both scenarios, is because choices have moral weight regardless of the futility of their outcome.

Is it really a choice if all outcomes are predetermined? Yes. The moral weight of a decision does not disappear just because you have a set number of paths to take; there is inherent value in the journey. This is a difficult concept to swallow for an American audience. We are told in innumerable ways since birth that anything is possible if you just try hard enough, and as a result we disdain impotence above nearly all else.

As gamers, we are also conditioned to dislike feeling powerless, which is why The Stanley Parable (and weaponless games like Amnesia) are so fun, frustrating, and thought provoking. The Stanley Parable follows in a long line of recent indie releases with experimental narrative formats — Gone Home, Dear Esther, and The Novelist, just to name a few. One might argue that these are not even “games” in the traditional sense, and that’s an article for another time. The value in these games does not lie in their groundbreaking graphics or legendary weapons, but rather in the minds and lives of their players long after they’ve finished the game. Like the now infamous Milgram Experiment, games like The Stanley Parable question societal norms and make players think twice about the implications of blind obedience to an authoritative voice.

Will you take the road less travelled?

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