Forget the “hype train”, walk instead: The story of The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is one of the biggest success stories in the indie development scene, but how exactly did the game beat the hype train?

Forget what you know about games — The Stanley Parable messes with your perception right from the title screen.

In 2011, 22-year-old Davey Wreden released a free mod for Half-Life 2 called The Stanley Parable, a story-driven experience featuring multiple endings and narration from British actor Kevan Brighting. Wreden had never made a game before and taught himself how to use Valve’s Source SDK as he built the mod. It was a huge success, downloaded over 90,000 times in the space of two weeks, and received honourable mentions at the 2013 Independent Games Festival (IGF) Awards.

Wreden was then approached by fellow developer William Pugh, who offered to help him develop it into a full game. Following a successful Steam Greenlight campaign, The Stanley Parable was released as a fully-fledged standalone game in 2013. The game was not only critically acclaimed (earning a Metacritic average of 88) but also sold extremely well, with over 2 million copies sold by the time of writing. The game also won the IGF Audience Award and received 3 BAFTA nominations.

This extraordinary achievement from a first-time developer was made all the more improbable by the fact that The Stanley Parable isn’t an ordinary game. It’s what some critics have called a “walking simulator”. Driven by narrative rather than gameplay, it’s a first-person story that the player unravels by playing it. There’s no shooting, there are no platforms to jump across, no cars to steal and only the lightest of puzzle solving.

Don’t be fooled — the office setting is more mysterious than you think.

“It’s not like a Call of Duty or anything, it’s not mass-market,” says Pugh. “But I do think games like [The] Stanley Parable have more of a potential to be mass-market than games like Call of Duty, because… there’s so many specific mechanics that you’ve got to learn to become good at the game… whereas when you strip mechanics back… it allows you as a creator to do a lot more expression and put a lot more of your weight behind the weird interactive ideas that aren’t mechanic and skill-based.”

This says a lot about the success of walking simulators. The lack of complexity makes it much easier not only for casual gamers but also non-gamers to pick up the game and just… go. This applies equally to the development process — the vast majority of developers in the genre are small indie developers. Indeed, both The Stanley Parable and another popular walking simulator, Dear Esther, both started as Source mods by tiny teams. Only one walking simulator has been released by a big publisher — Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture by Sony.

PhD student Cody Mejeur, who studies the walking simulator genre, concedes this: “From a development perspective, it’s a much more contained genre. It’s certainly not like your MMORPG or your first-person shooter where you have to have a ton of game modes and a bunch of different systems to reward the player. The implicit reward of a walking simulator is just getting through that narrative experience… here’s a lot less resources, whether it be time or assets you need to put into the game… you need to make less objects to put into your world. It’s much more manageable.”

The thing is, the genre hasn’t quite cracked the mainstream yet. Casual gamers aren’t exactly shouting from rooftops about walking simulators compared to huge games like Fallout 4 and Horizon Zero Dawn. An average teenager’s top five isn’t going to have The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden’s latest game) amongst Battlefield and Uncharted. So how exactly did a game like The Stanley Parable end up selling 2 million copies?

“You’ve got to make sure that anybody coming in and playing the game can dig in and explore it but it’s also very accessible to the kind of traditional gamer audience,” says Pugh. “I think Stanley Parable does a good job at appealing to a wider end of people.”

“One of the things that stands out about the genre is that it’s a very narrative genre and that in almost every case that I’m aware of, it’s about putting you in a particular situation where you’re going to have a particular experience,” says Mejeur. “That’s a huge part of the pull to them. You go to experience something to make you feel something.”

Unfortunately developers don’t have access to a mind control facility. It would probably make their jobs much easier.

But without the marketing budget of a AAA game, games like this have to rely mostly on one thing: word of mouth. “Word of mouth is everything,” says Anthony J Agnello, senior social editor at GamesRadar+. “Word of mouth is far more important than the biggest advertising budget in the world. You need people to know that a thing exists but after they know it exists, you need the audience to carry it forward for you.” Luciano Sgarbi, lead designer on Witchmarsh, says: “Even a game made almost entirely by one person can sell upwards of a million copies if there’s enough hype spread through word of mouth.”

The Stanley Parable had several strands to taking advantage of word of mouth. First of all, the game was launched on Steam Greenlight, a service which allows players to vote for smaller games to be released with the approval of Steam owners Valve — the description asked: “Why do you NEED to know what’s in the game?” and descended into the existential crisis of a fictional questioner.

They also released a demo — but unlike usual demos which contain a segment from the full game, the team opted to create what was essentially a different narrative, breaking down the concept of game demos and promotion. Pugh speaks fondly of the demo: “I’ve never been happier with any execution of PR and game launch… people were doing YouTube playthroughs of just the demo… that was the biggest part of what boosted our numbers day one.”

Another component of The Stanley Parable’s success is the narration by Kevan Brighting — Pugh says: “I’m still convinced that he’s responsible for the vast majority of the success of that game.” The irregular nature has attracted more “outsiders” to the video game industry, such as Pugh’s successive collaborators, Justin Roiland (of Rick and Morty fame) and British comedian Simon Amstell. Mejeur says: “These outside spaces are really great experimental places that can be really welcoming to outsiders to the industry.” Pugh agrees: “The nice thing about it is it’s not necessarily star power, but you want somebody who can do the job well.”

No, this is not how to track Patrick McGoohan.

Should it be this easy though? Video game development is a different beast from other mediums, but the walking simulator attracts a different sort of clientele. With a lesser focus on interactivity in favour of narrative, one could make the argument that walking simulators are barely games at all.

Developers would readily disagree with this though. “If it’s all about a game has to have mechanics well then you start to go, well, Space Invaders, is that less of a game than Far Cry because it’s got fewer mechanics?” Dear Esther co-creator Dan Pinchbeck told Polygon, “Or, if a game is about having a fail state then does that mean that a game that doesn’t punish you for dying, like a Far Cry game where it happens really trivially, does that make it less of a game than Bloodborne where the stakes for death are higher? Whichever way you come at it, you start unpicking those strands and it doesn’t really make sense apart from the ‘feeling’ of what a game ought to do.”

Mejeur says: “There are people who play and they’re not necessarily interested in the narrative… that’s just not what they come to games for. So they come to a genre that is profoundly narrative, it makes sense that they would go, ‘Oh, this isn’t a game, I don’t care about this, get this out of my sight.’”

Part of The Stanley Parable’s narrative even examines this criticism. One of the game’s branching paths features the narrator dragging you away from the main storyline because you’ve decided to ignore him. Thrust into a tedious mini-game involving saving a baby from a fire, the narrator continuously comments on artistic expression.

(Credit: OuttaSpace)

Pugh says: “I think that anyone who’s played my games going in, they usually expect a degree of subversion, they expect to be surprised in some way, whether it’s in the structure or the content of the game.”

The Stanley Parable spawned several spiritual successors by Wreden and Pugh. Wreden went on to make The Beginner’s Guide, while Pugh set up his own studio, Crows Crows Crows, which has made a number of free games including Dr. Langeskov, the Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist and Accounting, a VR game made in collaboration with Justin Roiland. These also feature commentary and subtext on video game structure and culture.

The bright future depicted in The Stanley Parable (sometimes) may be the path for the walking simulator genre.

The walking simulator genre is an odd paradox in the video game industry. Nowhere in the AAA mainstream market would a game like The Stanley Parable sell 100,000 copies in its first week and rise to well over 2 million in the space of three years. Perhaps the rest of the industry could learn something from the sometimes-ridiculed “walking simulator”.