Teaching Stanley

The Stanley Parable and Other Videogames in the Classroom

I tell my class, “We’re going to play a videogame today.” Cheers, uproar, what you’d expect to hear from students thinking about platforming instead of reading. “And we’re going to beat it six times in six different ways before the end of class.” A palpable calm. Looks like we’re not playing Super Mario.

I have thirteen aspiring fiction writers in the room (fourteen, counting me), and we’re talking about the relationships between the author and the reader, and between the narrator and his/her/its characters. What are the responsibilities the author has to a reader and how do they go about fulfilling them? The classic road in to this discussion with teenagers would be reading The Turn of the Screw, talking about unreliable narration and the fear through uncertainty James creates. It’s short, it’s approachable, it’s canonical, it’s high school. It’s also a bit stale. The slightly more progressive approach to that class would be to ask whether a book written in the late nineteenth century by a white man also fails in other respects to establish and hold the author-reader relationship with a twenty-first century audience. But this class isn’t happening in a school with state-defined or -curated reading lists and standardized tests. This is summer camp. Creative writing summer camp. We can teach just about anything. But I want to argue here that using videogames—and especially Stanley—ought to be fair game, so to speak, for regular school, too.

Writing about The Stanley Parable feels almost like a required extension of the game itself. It’s the last level, so to speak, the decompression exercise. And because the game inevitably leaves one with more questions than answers (but also asks so many probing questions about the narrative possibilities of the game form), it seemed like a memorable jumping-off point for the class and a good use of our hour-and-a-half that morning.

What The Stanley Parable is really about doesn’t become completely clear until the first cutscene ends and you’re presented with your first choice (other than starting the game, of course, but I’m getting ahead of myself here). The cutscene tells us that Stanley, employee number 427, works in a place where he pushes buttons all day, a place that seems to echo that children’s song about a poor, servile button-masher named Joe:

“Hi. My name is Joe. I got a wife and three kids and I work in a button factory. One day, my boss came to me and said, ‘Joe, are you busy?’ I said, “No.” ‘Push that button with your right hand.’”

And the verses repeat with the boss asking him to push buttons with his left hand, right foot, left foot, and so on until The Evil Industrialist has Joe using every (decent) body part to press as many buttons as possible, contorting his body to do a job better suited to a machine, while poor Joe feigns happiness and job satisfaction in a cold factory. Stanley is another Joe. And, while you’re playing, Stanley is also you. Which, by extension, means that you too work in a button pushing factory, so long as you consent to working there. I think you see where this is going.

Thing is, The Stanley Parable is as heavy-handed a metaphor about videogames as that little ditty about Joe is about the industrial revolution. Where factory workers submitted (and submit) themselves to egregiously long hours spent doing tasks as mechanical and menial as pushing buttons for pay, videogame players often do work as disempowering and pedantic as pushing buttons that appear on a screen under the guise of fun. When we play games, we’re showing the side of ourselves that’s most similar to Joe, the side that likes being told that we’re doing the right thing at the right time, the side that likes micro-rewards, pleasant sounds, blissful productivity. This familiar, gamey plucking of the reward center is The Stanley Parable‘s in-road and also its trapdoor. But, of course, if you want to play this game, you have to allow the floor to be dropped out from under you, which my students happily did.

The classroom was set up with a hot seat in the middle, mouse and keyboard, facing a projection of the game up front. Other students who weren’t playing were scattered throughout the room, staring intently at the screen as the person playing for that round made their choices, moved through the company’s bleak and unpeopled hallways. From a pedagogical standpoint, one of the great things about The Stanley Parable is the fact that the player is never in danger. Or, to be truthful, the player is never in danger from which they could protect themselves by playing better. You can take as much time as you like in making a decision, but once you make it, there’s no turning back. This was great because it’s a low-stakes proposition, especially for people who are uncomfortable with or have never played games before. Stanley is immediately accessible, unlike a lot of other great chin-stroking games in recent memory. For example, I would love to lead a group play session of Spec Ops: The Line, but the problem with that is that it wouldn’t be accessible to anyone in the classroom except those who already have skills in first- and third-person shooters, the very group which that game takes as its subject to interrogate and criticize. Thanks to Stanley’s mechanical simplicity, it was great to see students who admitted to never having played games before jumping up to take the hot seat after seeing others play, knowing that they risked little and had a lot to gain in learning the ways of WASD.

Once the scene was set and the students had started playing, a seasoned gamer took the helm. After the introductory cinematic, the game introduces its foundational binary—obedience versus free will—by presenting its first choice: a fork in the road, two open doors. The friendly-sounding British narrator, cued by the player’s moving into the room with the fork, says, “Stanley walked through the door on the left.” In a deft bit of voice acting, the word “left” is said with just enough force to imply that the player really ought to go to the left, that it’s a foregone conclusion, a verbal waypoint, what you’re supposed to do. To echo a line the narrator says in one of the possible endings, it becomes clear at this moment that “This is a videogame.” We expect to go where we are guided; we expect to be guided to where we ought to go. All the signs are here: the narrative artifice, the keyboard and mouse, the screen. You’re being guided around by a disembodied, unexplained, yet highly knowledgable voice that seems to know both where you are, should be going, what you are thinking, what you know. A writer, in other words, of your character. But the use of the past-tense in the narrator’s speech as well as the overt symbolism of that first choice—to obey, left, or disobey, right—gives the player the opportunity to re-write the story, so to speak. And this is where Stanley gets interesting.

The first player, fluent as he was in the language of videogames and understanding the basic conceit of (dis)obedience, immediately disobeyed, going for the door on the right. Everyone laughed. That was his personality, a script-flipper, owning the trait quite literally in this case. After you pass the fork, the narrator gives you one polite chance to correct your mistake, throwing wide a door in the hallway that would lead you back on the correct path, politely assuming that you simply mixed up your right and left at that last choice. Our intrepid hero—the player—barreled on past that door, into the elevator. This is where the narrator starts to get disappointed, where it starts to get personal because you are messing up his story. “Oh, Stanley,” he laments, his clear disappointment almost a reward in itself for the disobedience. The level goes on like this, and, without dropping too many spoilers, let’s say that there was a lot of screaming at this particular ending.

Lights up in the classroom, and I did a quick survey to see how people were feeling. Without my saying a word, the first player had jumped out of the hot seat and traded places with the next Stanley. And so the story pressed on, with each successive Stanley trying to correct the mistakes of their past incarnation. The whole session had aGroundhog Day feel to it.

As I mentioned earlier, Stanley has six possible endings, each representing an extremity of obedience or disobedience and varying shades of each. Only one of those endings is followed by the words “The End” (and Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film”). I’ve seen playthroughs of Stanley where “The End” comes first and it doesn’t carry any of the emotional oomph it’s owed; those words are merely an absence in the next five endings. Luckily, our session that day ended with “The End,” and the students really felt like they’d won something because of it. They’d earned their freedom from the oppression of Stanley’s narrator, made choices independent of the narrative needs of the story, read between the lines and found hidden doors, escape routes from seemingly fixed choices. And it was kinda fun.

But then we had to address the purpose of our play, to decompress. We journaled generally about the experience for a few minutes (remember, writing is the last level), recording impressions and thoughts, and then came back to a group discussion about the relationship between Stanley and his rather forceful narrator. Each of the fiction writers pitched an explanation of their relationship, motivating Stanley’s silence, and what psychological traumas might have affected each to find satisfaction in pushing buttons and forcing characters to do things they shouldn’t want to do, respectively. But the question we always came back to was this: Why would an author craft his or her story with the appearance of choice but the absence of agency? Or, on the other side of the coin, why do we pretend that there is free will in an authored work? It was a jumping-off point for a few heated arguments about free will and fate, their role in fiction, and an author’s responsibility to let their characters be themselves, to the greatest extent possible. We talked about irrational choices we’d seen characters make in books, movies, and TV; about the anger we’d felt when one of those characters or one from our own lives seemed to contradict themselves or compromise one of their values simply to push the story along, so to speak.Stanley offers a great in-road to Borges’s Garden of Forking Paths and, I think, provoked some thinking about what an author owes his or her characters.

Recently, I caught up with a few of them about what they remembered of the lesson. Here’s what they had to say

First Stanley: Well, I’ve never trusted authoritative voices from the sky telling me what to do, so as to my thoughts to the game, it was mostly, disobey as much as possible. But, in more detail, I liked the binary story telling. That the story hinged on you choosing a or b, and the endings where you didn’t die revolved around either completely following the voice or completely ignoring the narrator.

Second Stanley: What I remember about the relationship between Stanley and the narrator:The fact that the narrator had a personality made the game, for me anyway, much more human and therefore engaging. It also made it much more terrifying as we realized that the “narrator” was going to use any means necessary to get Stanley to go where he was told.I also liked that there really were no ways to win, at least if you were new to the game, which I was. No matter what choice you made, you were going to lose, and it was actually stressful to the player as the lights went red and your character was seconds from dying; you yourself actually got scared.

Third Stanley: That was my favorite lesson because it was very VERY scary! I remember when we got to the last “option” of the game and it was dark and you didn’t really know where you were and then you would just hear the narrator, in this knowing smug voice say “Stanley…”, but it was like he was talking to you. So creepy! I wrote a short response after that class that explained how the Stanley Parable pretty much told us we had no free will under societies watchful eye.

Fourth Stanley: It’s certainly not like most games. If it could be compared to anything in terms of game play the closest I can think of is slender man. After watching the situations I remember feeling guilt as an author for killing of characters. At the same time it made me aware of social conceptions such as “bad things happen to you if you don’t become extreme”, which is to say that in life you can get my reasonable unscathed if you follow all orders given to you without question or once you’ve freed yourself from they hierarchical system. That creates a whole branch of other questions about free will and how best to not only live with it, but also portray it in our characters as they interact with their society.

Fifth Stanley: It was simultaneously chilling and delightful to have a narrator who didn’t want the best for us, but instead a rigid system of conformity and ignorance. His goal was to keep us in the dark about keeping us in the dark. And when his attempts to do so failed and the class realized his true motives, it was as isolating as it was entertaining. Navigating a dystopia together, in my mind, unified the class in one understanding: that to be without authority or control of our surroundings leaves us incapable of living, and without character. I didn’t feel like Stanley because I knew that he had never experienced freedom; we controlled him, and in a way, he was under our jurisdiction as much as he was under the narrator’s. Stanley wasn’t a person; he was a concept, an empty shell, and to both control him and inhibit his body only made me feel more powerless; there was no clear division between puppet and puppeteer anymore. So the voice of the narrator guided us as we attempted to both understand our limits and make impossible choices, and we hung on for dear life. And it became clearer that there was no clear answer to any of our questions about who was really in charge.

This post originally appeared on www.8bitscholar.com