Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Second Look – The Stanley Parable (+ Demo)

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Stanley Parable and The Stanley Parable Demo.

Back in 2013, we reviewed The Stanley Parable, the first game commercially released by developers Davey Wreden and William Pugh under Galactic Cafe. I would later feel embarrassed by the original review and rewrote it a year later, but I still never really felt satisfied with it. As such, I decided to once again revisit The Stanley Parable and give it more of a proper review that explains why I still love it after all these years.

To prepare players for the experience of The Stanley Parable, Galactic Cafe released a playable demo consisting of an original experience rather than an out-of-context slice of the game.

In The Stanley Parable Demo, the player finds an office and receives a number so they can play the demo of The Stanley Parable. The Narrator greets the player and guides them towards the demo, but something goes wrong, so he decides to show the player the behind-the-scenes of the demo instead.

At this point, the demo turns into a humorous take on game demos in general. Despite the Narrator’s best efforts, the player never reaches the actual demo for the game and instead only the elements of a demo. There’s even a sign in the environment that’s basically a checklist for what to include.

In a meta sense, however, the player has still played the demo, as it gives you the idea of what they can expect in The Stanley Parable. As in the main game, the core of the gameplay is walking around and interacting with objects, mostly buttons and doors. Unlike the main game, the experience is also more linear, but the Narrator does still respond to some of the player’s actions and you can explore the rooms in one section in any order you wish or even skip straight past them. You also get a taste of the mind-bending nature of the main game in how the world gradually changes around you while Kevan Brighting’s stellar narration keeps the atmosphere light and playful. All of this within what’s appropriately just a few minutes long.

If you have an interest in The Stanley Parable but aren’t sure if you want to spend the money to play it, try this demo first. It makes the decision much easier.

For many years, Stanley has worked in an office building as Employee 427 and received orders on his computer that told him what button to push, how long and in what order. Unlike his other co-workers, Stanley loved his job and couldn’t get enough of it. One day, however, he stops receiving orders from his computer and actually leaves his office to investigate. He immediately notices that all of his co-workers have mysteriously gone missing. As he explores the building, a Narrator attempts to guide him on the right path.

Every playthrough of The Stanley Parable starts exactly the same, with Stanley exploring the building in search of his co-workers, but the real magic lies in the presentation. Though the Narrator suggests a story and the choices Stanley makes, the player can actually obey or disobey the Narrator at every turn if they so choose. Whether or not they do, the Narrator adjusts the story to compensate for the player’s actions across multiple branching paths and attempts to get them back on track, sometimes completely failing and going off on a different track altogether. Whatever the player chooses, they’ll eventually reach one of at least 16 different endings. Clever and witty writing keeps the atmosphere light and delves deeply into its deconstruction of the nature of narrative structure, as well as the occasional philosophical observation about life itself, without ever once feeling pretentious or overwrought. Even the achievements themselves are snarky jabs, such as one that you earn by trying to jump or another for not playing The Stanley Parable for five years.

What I’ve found particularly interesting about The Stanley Parable across multiple playthroughs is that the minimalist gameplay of walking around and interacting with buttons and doors, plus an abundant voiceover, would qualify it as a “walking simulator”. However, its core design feels relatively deeper than its contemporaries and, to some extent, actually solves the inherent issues in games of its genre. For one thing, Stanley walks at a brisk pace, meaning that on top of creating a fast-paced experience, you’re never too far away from another choice and walking between two ends of a hallway doesn’t take very long. This also means that, with one exception, discovering a new ending takes mere minutes instead of hours. It also helps that the level design takes player curiosity into account and facilitates this by subtly indicating the available choices.

It doesn't take too long to reach the first choice
(or anything beyond).

Unlike many games in its genre, however, The Stanley Parable also has a lot of replay value thanks to how it handles player agency and its connection to the multiple branching pathways and endings. Just about every action the player could perform has narration that accounts for it, like speeding through the Boss’ Office, standing around in the Broom Closet or unplugging a phone. Even attempting to cheat through console commands unlocks an ending of its own, which shows that Galactic Cafe really put a lot of thought into anticipating what players might do. Galactic Cafe also put in several hidden easter eggs that are worth the effort to figure out, including ones hidden behind console commands.

Of course, the number of times the game naturally resets during a session means that players will see the same opening hallway over and over. Thankfully, Galactic Cafe also took this into account and introduced random events that occur on each reset. These include new narration for repeats of the same opening sections or other changes like spreading papers all over the floor or changing the first hallway’s layout. Some are actually spread across multiple resets. For instance, you can answer a randomly ringing phone to accept an order of boxes and, on the next reset, the office will be filled with boxes.

Among the different endings, I particularly liked the Museum Ending, which you’ll naturally hit as part of another ending. Here, you enter a museum that shows some insight into the development and marketing for The Stanley Parable, including content that got cut for one reason or another and an explanation why, as well as a marker of the game’s credits. It’s always fun to see what went into making a game and this museum could prove useful for those trying their hand at game development.

Since the Narrator has a constant presence, it’s fortunate that he’s fun to listen to. Kevan Brighting speaks a lot more here than in the demo and really shows off his vocal range here, easily going from light and humorous to convincingly sad and desperate or outright sadistic. The Stanley Parable wouldn’t be quite the same experience without him.

The Boss' Office is an important area.

I’d almost consider The Stanley Parable a flawless game, but a couple things stood out this time around. There are actually a couple scenarios that Galactic Cafe didn’t plan for, including Stanley falling into a specific pit where resetting the game is the only way out. Notably, one of the endings requires players to press a button for four actual hours (unless you cheat), but the final screen displayed a black monolith. It should say something if players originally interpreted this as a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference, but this didn’t get fixed for three years since the developers didn’t properly test it due to how long each run would take.

While The Stanley Parable holds up pretty well for a Source Engine game, the visuals have aged somewhat, which may explain the switch to Unity for the Ultra Deluxe version. I also noticed that you can outrun the subtitles in a couple places, cutting off the narration, but the subtitles do still linger until they’re overwritten.

After several years, it’s truly amazing how out of all the “walking simulators” that came about in the wake of some early successes like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable has best stood the test of time and remains a shining example of its genre. Its messages never feel pretentious and the game design doesn’t abandon player agency or great core gameplay, all while remaining laugh-out-loud funny. Even if you miss a sale, this game is absolutely worth every penny.

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