Platform: PC (Steam)
Developer: Galactic Cafe
You have a choice here, dear reader.
You could continue reading the next several hundred words to discover exactly why The Stanley Parable is one of the most thought-provoking, insightful and genuinely hilarious games of recent years, but that would seriously undermine your enjoyment of this mod-turned-standalone-download. What's more, who has the time? You're busy, a go-getter, too important to waste your valuable downtime on these witterings.
Instead, why not just try the free demo and sample The Stanley Parable for yourself? I'll even spoil it for you: I'm giving it 9/10 and an Editor's Choice Award. There we go. Nothing to see here. Whatever you do, don't read the rest of this review.
Oh dear. If you're reading this sentence, that's either because you've come here via a direct link or refused to take my perfectly good advice. You made a choice and frankly I'm not convinced it's the right one. Never mind, though, because the rest of this review has been written in a white typeface, and you're not going to press Ctrl-A to highlight it. Clearly the reviewer is just being incredibly pretentious and trying to make a cackhanded point in the most clumsy and roundabout way possible. What an obnoxious git. Go on, just click that demo link instead...
Fine, no more evasion. The Stanley Parable, at a basic level, is a playful playable commentary on choice and storytelling in videogames today that dissects some of the tropes - both successful and clichéd - that developers use to create the illusion of agency. Except that it absolutely isn't. One last chance: get out now, get out while you're still relatively unsullied by the knowledge of what The Stanley Parable is trying to achieve, and can experience the joy of working it out for yourself. That's it, click the demo link or scroll down to the score before closing the tab.
Okay? Still here? Let's do this then. Starting off in a nondescript office, we take control of a data entry clerk named Stanley who has the most boring job in all existence, tapping away at his keyboard for all eternity. One day, however, he discovers that his co-workers have disappeared and he's forced to think for himself for the first time. As we walk through the abandoned office, a friendly narrator commentates on our every action and tells us exactly what to do. Turn left here. Press this key combination. Discover the secret behind the mysterious workplace. You'll stick to the script, encounter a happy ending and blithely step out into the sunshine as the achievements pop. Game complete. That was a fun use of fifteen minutes.
The end is never the end, though. In fact, it's barely the beginning of this masterful interactive parody.
See, you absolutely don't have to follow the narrator's directions. You can hang out in a broom closet if you want to. Walk through the door on the right instead of the door on the left. Whatever you do, the narrator has something else to say, more choices for you, while the story and even the world itself derails in deeply unpredictable and frankly hilarious ways. Sometimes you'll find reality itself twisting and distorting, occasionally your own sanity will be called into question, you may even end up in a product testing alpha or inexplicably playing Minecraft, and all the while The Stanley Parable keeps you laughing long and hard. Whatever happens, though, you'll eventually end up back at your desk and ready for another clean run. Maybe. To say more would be telling.
It's a genuine thrill to discover how your choices - a right turn instead of left, jumping off an elevator rather than staying for the ride, unplugging a phone instead of answering it - can totally throw the story into disarray, and lead to all manner of bizarre and shockingly profound diversions. Finding all of these endings, and experiencing them for yourself, provides an inordinate amount of replay value in this uniquely recursive effort. Sometimes the narrator is your enemy, sometimes your friend, occasionally a sympathetic or even pathetic object of ridicule who so desperately just wants you to stick to his script. More often, he'll break the fourth wall and challenge us to think about the difference between us, the players, and poor old Stanley... and whether there's really a difference. in the grand scheme of things.
Most importantly, you'll often feel utterly overjoyed at being able to flummox or even 'defeat' the narrator at his own game, and feel like your choices actually matter, more so than any number of AAA games we've played over the last few years.
But as The Stanley Parable is often quick to point out, you don't really have any choice whatsoever. Every 'decision,' every 'choice,' has been mapped out and accounted for in advance, meaning that you don't actually have any meaningful choice at all. It's a neat reminder that the most successful choice-driven games are actually meticulously planned, and that 'linear' isn't a dirty word. The Stanley Parable is the most 'linear' game you'll ever play, only the line splits, diverges and totally plunges into insanity every once in a while, but always takes you back to that dingy cubicle for another wildly different attempt. If you're willing to take the time to think about it, The Stanley Parable more than lives up to its name, throwing the spotlight on some of the lazy shortcuts that developers use to tell stories and give us the illusion of choice, and forearming its players against them. Yet always funny and playful enough to be enjoyable rather than worthy, smug and dry.
The Stanley Parable is as much of a statement as you want it to be. It's a cutting and insightful parody, if you like. An exploration of the medium at its best and worst, poking fun at the cynical ways in which many games try to sucker you in, a commentary on the fact that videogames never give us any real decisions to make. Or just a supremely fun little adventure that provides laughs aplenty and numerous water cooler moments to discuss with your mates down the line. Though the price tag might initially seem a little steep, you'll still get several hours of enjoyment out of both playing and thinking about this superb little gem, even if you own the original mod. Thanks to a full rebuild, an incredibly apt office setting that beautifully sets off the lack of choice some of us actually feel in our daily lives, it's an essential purchase whether you've experienced it before or are coming in fresh and ready for something truly new.
Indeed, you'll never look at games quite the same way again, and will always be looking deeper (if not over your shoulder) while playing them.
Does knowing all that actually help your enjoyment of the game? Not at all. You're looking for it now, you're aware of the gambit, and that's a crying shame. You should have made the right choice at the very beginning and just played the demo.
- Recursive, addictive, anarchic and utterly brilliant
- Side-splittingly hilarious
- Playful and mischievous, yet shockingly insightful and profound
- May change your outlook on videogames and storytelling tropes (if you want it to)
- Small range of screen resolutions
- Can be a little smug in parts, especially the achievements (oh well)
- There are no guns or QTEs. We love those things, right?
The Short Version: The Stanley Parable is one of the bravest, most anarchic, funniest and worthwhile games you'll play this year; as incisive, cutting and profound as you want it to be. An unpredictable recursive gem in which player agency is both supremely important and entirely non-existent.
Once you've experienced it, you'll never look at videogames - or play them - in quite the same way again.