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App Awe: The Stanley Parable

In video games, there are choices. In life, there are choices. How does one reconcile and draw meaning from trajectories and narratives in games and reality? This question inspired a recent entry in WID's editorial series App Awe.

App Awe is a WID essay series exploring the transformative potential at the intersection of gaming, science, education and society.

By Keari Bell-Gawne, a student at WID’s Games+Learning+Society research group.

Keari Bell-Gawne

Keari Bell-Gawne

“This is the story of a man named Stanley.” The narrator informed me as I stared at my computer monitor.

“[Stanley’s] job was simple. He sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard.” I too began to peck at my keyboard, figuring out which keys did what.

“Orders came to him through a monitor next to his desk, telling him what buttons to push. How long to push them and in what order.” I started to explore the outer recesses of my virtual cubicle and incessantly clicked on anything that seemed interactive. Frustrated with a lack of response from my myriad clicks, I awaited the narrator to tell me what to do next.

The narrator told me, “Stanley regained his senses… and walked out in the hallway.” So I did. I walked out into the hallway.

A game view from The Stanley Parable

A game view from The Stanley Parable

From that point on, the voice mockingly chronicled any action I took that deviated from the narrator’s commands. When I started to click on the computer monitors in the main office area, the voice responded, “No matter how hard Stanley looked, he couldn’t find a trace of his co-workers.” When I explored a broom closet, the voice mocked me “It was baffling that Stanley was still just sitting in the broom closet.” Upon my extended stay in the broom closet, the narrator became frustrated and snapped, “Stanley was fat and ugly and really, really stupid.”

This was the beginning of my experience playing “The Stanley Parable,” a game that traverses the boundary between gaming and traditional narratives. The Stanley Parable highlights a common problem that exists for video games: the dissonance between having an intended, linear narrative structure and player autonomy that allows one to become sidetracked from that intended narrative.

The Stanley Parable emphasizes this dissonance between linear structure and player autonomy by making the player’s choice to follow the narrative explicit. The voice would narrate, “Stanley went through the door on the left,” when I was presented with two doors. If I was always obedient to the narrator — I received a clean cut story arc and a fairytale ending. I found out I was being held captive in a mind control facility, escaped, and the game ended with me walking through nature, content and happy with my life (or perhaps I was still under mind control). Any deviation from the intended story causes a convoluted path, satirical narrative and an alternate ending. During one play-through the narrator told me he would give me a line to follow so I would not be so distracted from the intended story. But the line became increasingly curved, eventually twisting and tangling off the ceiling and over the walls. These twisted, convoluted stories that evolve from disobeying the narrator have led some to believe the original creator Davey Wreden intended the game to be a jab at traditional narrative structure in games.

A game view from The Stanley Parable

A game view from The Stanley Parable

The tension between game mechanics and narrative is hardly new. In 1997 Espen Aarseth started to explain the distinction between traditional literature and what he called “Cybertexts,” or digital narratives. Aarseth explained that “Cybertexts,” like adventure games, were similar but categorically different from traditional literature. Gonzalo Frasca (1999) further articulated this difference. He emphasized that games could not be understood under the umbrella term “narrotology,” or studies relating to narrative. Instead, Frasca argued that games uniquely contained the interplay of Ludus and Paideia, with Ludus being a goal-oriented behavior (e.g. save the princess) and Paideia being an open-word design for exploration (think Minecraft). Frasca likened Ludus in games to moving the plot, and Paideia to the setting. He proposed it was the interplay of the two that creates video game narratives. While games offer new ways to construct narratives, few games have successfully implemented them.

Games, and their designers, have long been criticized for their awkward and primitive narratives. As a 90s kid, I grew up with games largely based on game mechanics with little narration besides the weathered old “damsel in distress” bit that loosely guided Mario and Donkey Kong.

As gaming technology matured, so did the ability to add narrative and story, but in retrospect, it was more laughable than worthy of applause. PlayStation’s three-dimensional worlds extended the first-person experience, but the narration remained poor. The original Resident Evil was littered with awkward dialogue and misplaced emphasis, such as when one character interjects “Wow! What a Mansion!” as the team clearly enters a large mansion.

Entering into the early 2000s Morrowind offered players a glimpse of truly meaningful decisions. Players were no longer constricted to a premeditated plot but rather could create their own story. While Morrowind was one of the first to offer a storyline that didn’t cause snide chuckles, it didn’t pack a whole lot of meaningful punch. The player could make decisions that impacted the storyline, but those choices and the endings that came from them often didn’t feel profound or introspective to the player.

The Stanley Parable is one of the first games to create an emotionally resonant and reflective experience for the player. The game feels like an allegory embedded inside of a choose-your-own-ending book, with even the most absurd endings feeling deeply poetic. Perhaps the most appropriate example of this is “the baby game” ending. The game is simple: The baby will crawl towards the fire and you must click the red button to reset it. “It’s a very meaningful game,” the narrator coyly informs you, “…all about the desperation and tedium of endlessly confronting the demands of family life.” And then you are left there to monotonously click a button for four hours, or let the baby die. It is your choice.

Screenshot of The Stanley Parable

Screenshot of The Stanley Parable

It wasn’t in isolation that I was able to get to this “baby game” ending. Each decision I made as a player started a tangent that led me there, leaving me to grasp how my actions caused this particular story, and to try to understand how the meaning of the ending was related to the set of choices I had made to get there.

It was this dance between game player and creator that most inspired me about The Stanley Parable. Original creator of the game, Davey Wreden, told his own epiphany of this phenomenon when he was creating the game. “This whole time I had this idea of what I thought the game was,” he explained at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). “Then…[I] started showing it to people and they started explaining it back to me, and I realized I didn’t have any idea what the game was.”

After his surprise, realizing people got different meanings from the game, he told the crowd this piece of advice: “Your game should not exist except as a connection between yourself and the people who play it. And if you come at it from any other angle, you’re just going to end up talking to yourself and speaking to no one.”

Meaning in The Stanley Parable lies between the author’s intent, the game mechanics, and the player’s personality and life experiences. How did my actions lead me here? What was the author intending me to get out of it? And what do I think it all means? The answers to these questions are inevitably connected to the player’s personality. Did you really escape the mind control facility or was it all in your head? Well, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

The Stanley Parable is a game of paradoxes. It is a game. It is not a game. It is a story. It is not a story. It has a meaning. It has no meaning. The Stanley Parable only exists in the co-constructed space by game and player.

So what will you do in the game? What will your parable be?


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