This ground-up remake of the cult Half-Life 2 mod expands The Stanley Parable in a dozen directions without altering its fundamentals. You are Stanley, or someone rather like him, an office worker whose job pushing buttons on command makes him happy until the day those commands abruptly stop. Leaving his desk to investigate, his subsequent actions are directed by a plummy narrator who guides him through the office facility and beyond to discover the truth. Alternatively, your actions are commented on, objected to or encouraged by a plummy game designer whose attempt to tell a straightforward story is derailed by the tricky agency of the person pushing the buttons.
The Stanley Parable is a game about walking from A to B that acknowledges the existence of the rest of the alphabet. As you approach a pair of doors, the narrator will indicate that Stanley takes the left one. Whether you do, and how you decide to follow up your revolt or acquiescence, tilts the game towards wildly different conclusions. A playthrough may only take minutes, but The Stanley Parable places you in a vast branching maze of choices that will take hours to map out.
Certain endings are discovered by following whichever critical path you settle on. A few are secreted away as jokes or Easter eggs, and may be stumbled upon by accident or treated as puzzles to be solved over multiple attempts. The most surprising are those that come when you ‘break’ the game by ducking into somewhere you shouldn’t be. Galactic Cafe’s attention to detail is astonishing, and when the narrator chimes in on what you’ve just done, the result is something like the payoff to a magic trick. There is little you can do that the developer hasn’t prepared for.
This responsiveness gives The Stanley Parable a sense of life that few games achieve. The relationship between player and designer is played out in realtime as a lively argument. And because The Stanley Parable is a dialogue, it feels far less didactic than a game about game design otherwise might. It is fun, even as it acknowledges that fun can be one of the most insipid concepts in a developer’s toolbox.
Moreover, The Stanley Parable is brave. It’s brave because it offers the freedom to define the parameters of your experience. It’s brave because it’s willing to explore the ways in which games manipulate players, and to extrapolate that point into a discussion of the way we are all manipulated by the structures of real life. It’s brave because it’s willing to make fun of itself. Are you interested in game design? Play it. Did you enjoy Portal’s sense of humour? Play it. Are you David Cage? Please, please play it.
The Stanley Parable is out now on PC.