Nearly the first thing said of The Stanley Parable’s titular protagonist is that he is “a man who pushes buttons”. Decades of ingrained gaming instinct may initially prevent players from making the connection to the keyboard or gamepad in front of them. “Ah, a satirical comment on the crushing grind of office work,” they might exclaim, “how clever! Lucky I’m not monotonously pushing buttons like this chap is!” But make no mistake: Stanley is you, the gamer, and you are Stanley: just someone who pushes buttons.
Indeed, The Stanley Parable is a game about the relationship between the game designer and the player, and an imaginative and humorous one at that. Loosely speaking, it can be described as a first-person exploration game. You play as Stanley, a man trapped in the drudgery of office life, who arrives at work one day to find all his co-workers missing. As a disembodied voice narrates, and congratulates or berates your every move, you explore Stanley’s building, ostensibly to find out what happened to everyone.
You will never find out what happened to your co-workers. Instead, the game quickly swerves into a postmodern and occasionally savage riff on gaming clichés. It carves into tropes such as silent protagonists, linear storytelling, and considerably more. When resetting the game becomes a major gameplay mechanic, you know you're in for something a little bit transgressive.
Not content merely to observe, this game’s narrator will question your actions, order you around, and make you feel bad if you don't comply. Should you go off the beaten path, he will spin stories about the glorious gameplay experience you missed out on.
A significant portion of The Stanley Parable’s success rests on Kevan Brighting’s sterling voice acting as the narrator. Brighting’s wry delivery is reminiscent of and every bit as strong as Logan Cunningham’s work in Bastion or Ellen McLain’s in Portal.
He’s aided by a fantastic script that would be a joy for any actor to perform, presenting the narrator as a fully-fledged, witty character with emotions and obsessions that get deeper with every new tidbit of content discovered. The writing ranges from amusing Douglas Adams-style absurdity to more pathos-ridden, cynical humour reminiscent of the work of Chris Morris.
A single playthrough of The Stanley Parable can take as little as five minutes, but the real fun is in finding the many endings and the narrator’s responses. The sheer volume of possible outcomes (some of which are even determined at random) invites players to keep going as the story loops around on itself over and over.
It’s a game of iterations, where even the most insignificant player action can result in a new ending, and the whole thing has the feeling that it's a practical joke on gaming completionists.
One ending sees the player slowly go insane; another features The Stanley Parable equivalent of a boss battle; another has the narrator sing endless insulting limericks about the player. The tones of these endings vary wildly, but they all fall under the same general heading: they’re all satirical jabs at the way games are made.
The satire even extends to common glitches – one ending involves intentionally falling outside the map – which makes the emergence of actual bugs all the more difficult to detect. There are some – mostly cosmetic in nature – but the second-guessing that players are bound to do when encountering glitches in this particular game almost provides developers Galactic Cafe with a get-out-of-jail-free card. Otherwise, the presentation is highly polished, with bespoke models and textures intermingling with common Source Engine assets in imaginatively-designed levels.
As detailed in the Stanley Parable development history museum that one ending reveals, there was at one point to be a full-blown first-person shooter ending, which got cut because the developers didn’t want to make fun of a specific genre.
And that’s what sets the satire in The Stanley Parable apart: it isn’t a spoofy collection of cheap gags, but a more intellectual deconstruction of gaming down to its essential building blocks.
Ironically, the audience this game seeks to court – seasoned gamers familiar with the medium’s conventions – are an audience that may grow frustrated with its structure. But perhaps that frustration is less to do with the game itself than with how trained we are to follow certain patterns of gameplay.
The Stanley Parable forces players to put a critical eye to their button-pushing, and that’s something to be admired.