Time Ex­tend

A look back at The Stan­ley Parable, the game that’s all about play­ing videogames

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ALEX WILT­SHIRE De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Ga­lac­tic Cafe For­mat PC Re­lease 2013

This is the story of a man named Stan­ley. It’s also the story of a player named you, and two game de­vel­op­ers named Davey Wre­den and Wil­liam Pugh. It’s at once a med­i­ta­tion on choice, free­dom and au­thor­ity, on what videogames are, and on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween de­vel­oper and player. And it’s ex­tremely funny. In fact, The Stan­ley Parable is one of the fun­ni­est videogames you can play, bear­ing the weight of its themes with ab­sur­dist light­ness.

Stan­ley has started an­other day at work, push­ing but­tons on his key­board as he al­ways does – only to­day is dif­fer­ent. No one is in the of­fice. So he goes to the meet­ing room to see if his col­leagues are there; they are not. He goes up to his boss’ of­fice and it’s empty, too. But he man­ages to open a hid­den door, which leads to him dis­cov­er­ing the ter­ri­ble se­cret be­hind his work­place. Stan­ley knows his pur­pose now, and de­stroys the fa­cil­ity that’s been gov­ern­ing his life, al­low­ing him to es­cape into the real world. If you do what you’re told in The Stan­ley

Parable, you ex­pe­ri­ence a story that you’ve played hun­dreds of times be­fore: you’re on a hero’s jour­ney, the no­body who be­comes the some­body, the star of a world gen­er­ated just for you. On a planet of 7.5 bil­lion other peo­ple, you get a fleet­ing sense of feel­ing spe­cial. But in The Stan­ley Parable, the cred­its don’t roll when vic­tory comes. The view re­turns to Stan­ley’s dingy of­fice and the Nar­ra­tor, in his per­fectly mod­u­lated, BBC-an­nouncer voice, once again says, “All of his co-work­ers were gone. What could it mean?” So starts an eter­nal loop, a Gar­den Of Fork­ing Paths, where you’ll choose your own path through Stan­ley’s wind­ing of­fice. Choose this cor­ri­dor or that door; sub­mit to or dis­obey di­rec­tions; make this choice or that one, tak­ing wildly dif­fer­ent plot­lines, each re­sult­ing in one of 19 pos­si­ble end­ings. Which­ever way you go, you’ll al­ways be ac­com­pa­nied by the Nar­ra­tor.

Voiced by Kevan Bright­ing, the Nar­ra­tor is the fo­cal point of The Stan­ley Parable, a con­stant through­out the sur­real, sur­pris­ing, dis­turb­ing and con­fus­ing events that you’ll set into ac­tion. Though Stan­ley’s of­fice feels dis­tinctly Amer­i­can, the Nar­ra­tor is res­o­lutely Bri­tish, com­ment­ing on all you do with the au­thor­i­ta­tive tone of a doc­u­men­tary voiceover. He lends grav­i­tas to Stan­ley’s mun­dane sit­u­a­tion, a pres­ence that you’re ini­tially in­clined to obey, or at least to take se­ri­ously. But as you be­gin to defy him, he starts to be­come a char­ac­ter, turn­ing from talk­ing about Stan­ley in the third­per­son to ad­dress­ing him di­rectly, be­com­ing by turns pride­ful, in­jured, sneer­ing, dom­i­neer­ing, wheedling, chummy, re­crim­i­nat­ing, an­gry, cal­lous.

The Nar­ra­tor is, af­ter all, not only the an­tag­o­nist of The Stan­ley Parable but also the ar­chi­tect of its night­mar­ish maze of choices. The dif­fer­ent sto­ries you fol­low are all his, and your de­ci­sion to fol­low them or not will delight or en­rage him. The Nar­ra­tor and Stan­ley are in­ex­tri­ca­bly tied to­gether, each un­able to ex­ist with­out the other. Take the Zend­ing, where the Nar­ra­tor is try­ing to get you to re­main in a room filled with a starfield and light pat­terns. “Don’t you see that it’s killing us, Stan­ley? I just... I want it to stop. I would – we would both be so much hap­pier if we just… stopped,” he says. “If we just stay right here, right in this mo­ment, with this place… Stan­ley, I think I feel… happy. I ac­tu­ally feel happy.”

But you can’t stay there. Well, you tech­ni­cally can, but you’re play­ing this game to be able to do some­thing, and so you walk out, find­ing a se­ries of stairs that lead up to a point you can throw your­self off. “Oh, no! Stay away from those stairs! If you hurt your­self, if you die, the game will re­set! We’ll lose all of this!” the Nar­ra­tor ex­claims. You’ll sur­vive the first fall, but pre­sented with lit­tle else to do other than stand pas­sively un­der the starfield, you’ll try it again. “My god, is this re­ally how much you dis­like my game?” he says. “I just wanted us to get along, but I guess that was too much to ask.” On the third at­tempt you fi­nally die, and the game be­gins anew.

The Nar­ra­tor is many things, from mo­ti­va­tor to ex­po­si­tion-dealer, but most of all, he’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of The Stan­ley

Parable’s de­vel­op­ers – or, at least, their re­la­tion­ship with play­ers. His mood swings are an ex­pres­sion of the strain that lies be­tween de­sign­ers’ in­ten­tions and play­ers’ free will, the way that nar­ra­tive-driven

games are de­signed around se­cond-guess­ing the ways in which play­ers will do the wrong thing or go the wrong way, whether in­ten­tion­ally or be­cause they weren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion. He frets when the player breaks se­quence and sees ar­eas he hasn’t built, over plot­ting that doesn’t make dra­matic sense, and over the game it­self: would it be more pop­u­lar if it was Minecraft or Por­tal 2?

Some­times the Nar­ra­tor con­flates Stan­ley and you, the player, talk­ing to both at once. Near Stan­ley’s of­fice is a closed door with a sign read­ing ‘Broom Closet’. Al­most ev­ery door is ei­ther closed or con­trolled by the game de­sign, but if you should try it, this one will open. “Stan­ley stepped into the broom closet, but there was noth­ing here, so he turned around and got back on track,” says the Nar­ra­tor. Stay in there, and he tries again: “There was noth­ing here. No choice to make, no path to fol­low, just an empty broom closet. No rea­son to still be here.” If you per­sist, the Nar­ra­tor be­comes in­creas­ingly frus­trated and be­gins to mock the idea of you brag­ging to your friends about get­ting the “broom closet end­ing” and sneers at Stan­ley for only get­ting his job through fam­ily con­nec­tions. Even­tu­ally he starts to fantasise that you, the player, has died and will be re­placed by some­one else who’s filled in on “the his­tory of nar­ra­tive tropes in videogam­ing”.

Hav­ing the game re­spond so richly to your ac­tion (or, here, in­ac­tion), feels greatly re­ward­ing. If you reen­ter the cup­board on an­other playthrough, the Nar­ra­tor will re­solve not to re­act, know­ing it’d only en­cour­age you. And then, on the next playthrough, you’ll see the door is boarded up so you can no longer get in­side. The

Stan­ley Parable knows how some of the great­est re­wards in videogames come from notic­ing de­tails you weren’t pointed to­wards, like the scrib­blings on a white­board in a meet­ing room or the dis­play on a mon­i­tor, and that there’s magic in hav­ing a game re­spond when you do some­thing you think wasn’t ex­pected. So when the Nar­ra­tor spends some three min­utes re­mark­ing on you stand­ing in a cup­board you had the no­tion to en­ter, or re­acts when you have the wild idea of try­ing to jump off a plat­form on to a gantry, it’s like a spark has jumped be­tween you and the game, a re­ward be­yond an XP bar go­ing up for do­ing what you were told.

It’s much qui­eter than the Nar­ra­tor, but it’s the level de­sign that’s mak­ing th­ese mo­ments re­ally work, nudg­ing your at­ten­tion to­wards them while mak­ing them feel like se­crets. An­other di­men­sion of The

Stan­ley Parable’s grand joke about videogames is that un­der all of its sub­ver­sion it’s very strictly con­trolled, fun­nelling you into rat runs that only let you move one way. Doors open and close at the level’s whim and most of the choices you’re pre­sented with are bi­nary, let­ting you go one way or the other and clos­ing off the


en­trance af­ter you go through. Its first mo­ment of choice is a master­class in spa­tial and nar­ra­tive de­sign. Be­gin­ning at Stan­ley’s desk, you make a few turns through the bland and de­serted of­fice and reach a room with two open doors op­po­site its en­trance. “When Stan­ley came to a set of two open doors, he en­tered the door on his left,” says the Nar­ra­tor, and you im­me­di­ately be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate what this game might be. Go left and the Nar­ra­tor con­tin­ues his story, leav­ing you won­der­ing what would’ve hap­pened had you gone right. Go right and he says, “This was not the cor­rect way to the meet­ing room, and Stan­ley knew it per­fectly well. Per­haps he wanted to stop by the em­ployee lounge first, just to ad­mire it.” And we’re complicit in the ruse, know­ing the game’s primed to re­spond to ev­ery choice we make.

“The pac­ing of this open­ing sec­tion was im­por­tant to get right – this cor­ri­dor has been moved and al­tered to make sure the player reaches the two doors in a good time,” says a plac­ard in a mu­seum that lies down one of the game’s routes. This place is a lit­eral record of the game’s de­vel­op­ment, ex­hibit­ing level plans, 3D as­sets and trail­ers in mon­u­men­tal white halls. It’s a mo­ment in which the cir­cle be­tween game, de­vel­oper and player is fully com­pleted, and then, once we’ve toured all of its gal­leries, we’re left with no other op­tion than to al­low our­selves to be swept back into the of­fice and let the cy­cle move on.

The Stan­ley Parable rests on this ten­sion: of how nar­ra­tive-based videogames can’t pro­ceed with­out our in­put, and how they strug­gle to make this in­put mean­ing­ful. When you have too much choice, no de­ci­sion has any par­tic­u­lar value, and yet when your path is en­tirely pre­or­dained there’s no real con­se­quence to your in­volve­ment. Play­ing games is so of­ten a con­tra­dic­tion: in pick­ing up the con­troller we want to sub­merge our­selves in the world of a game de­signer, and yet we con­stantly wish to break free of the de­ci­sions they make for us. Like that of the Nar­ra­tor and Stan­ley, it can be an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship, but in it can also lie the rea­son we play – those sparks of con­nec­tion where a game ac­knowl­edges our in­di­vid­ual pres­ence. “I’m not your en­emy, re­ally, I’m not,” says the Nar­ra­tor. “I re­alise that in­vest­ing your trust in some­one else can be dif­fi­cult. How­ever, the fact is that the story has been about noth­ing but you all this time.”

One of the end­ings fea­tures a nail-bit­ing count­down to the fa­cil­ity ex­plod­ing. But­tons placed around the con­trol room sug­gest you can stop it if you can only fig­ure them out, but the Nar­ra­tor sneers at your hope to save your­self

The mu­seum pro­vides in­sights into the game’s de­vel­op­ment, show­ing the ideas Wil­liam Pugh sub­mit­ted that landed him the job of co-de­sign­ing it

When you’re re­turned once again to the bland re­al­ism of the of­fice af­ter com­plet­ing an end­ing, its fa­mil­iar­ity is a de­press­ing re­minder of the loop­ing night­mare you’re in

The meet­ing room is filled with send-ups of cor­po­rate cul­ture, a sleight of comedic mis­di­rec­tion that lends the real theme greater sur­prise

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