(Maeve introduces a game that is more of an interactive digital installation than a game. The work lets you exercise your judgement and causes you to think about issues of free will. –the artblog editors)
The Stanley Parable is not quite a video game**(see note at bottom). Now, the reason this piece is hard to talk about is the same reason it’s hard to talk someone into seeing Waiting for Godot because, although the play is a few guys sitting on a stage waiting for some dude to show up, the existential play is brilliant. And I highly recommend seeing it. On the same note, The Stanley Parable, an existential digital installation, is literally exploring an empty office building while a sarcastic guy with a British accent talks to you, and I highly, highly recommend it.
Free will in a Kafka-esque office
The Stanley Parable (need link) is a journey exploring the meaning of free will in fiction. It is a piece of interactive fiction structured similarly to a choose your own adventure book. You explore the different plot twists and endings held within the confines of the story.
The story is told to you by an unseen narrator who narrates in real time, the actions of Stanley, a dull office employee who pushes buttons on a computer. One day Stanley realizes that he is no longer receiving instructions to push more buttons, and looks outside his cubicle to discover that his office is completely empty and devoid of both clues and other employees.
From this starting point you have the option of finding over a dozen different endings. And I could literally write an essay about every single one of the idea-filled, existential endings of this narrative web.
Interactive existential fiction – choose your own ending
Fundamentally The Stanley Parable is a piece of existential fiction. All of the different endings explore different aspects of existentialism. One ending that is an example of this is the “coward ending” where you simply close your office door and then never leave. The narrator just goes on and tells you how Stanley just stayed there because the world outside is too scary. That’s it. The game just lets you do that. You just opt out and stop participating. To me this evokes some of the same narrative subversion as Samuel Beckett. For example in Waiting for Godot you assume that a play in which the characters are waiting for something or someone will resolve itself. The non events become the most interesting part of play. In the same way that Godot is a non play Stanley is almost a non game.
Subversion of standard storytelling
The Stanley Parable is covered in layers and layers of irony and sarcasm. One of the most obvious endings is the one where you simply fallow all of the narration and instructions and do exactly as you are told. This is the course of action that gives you the “Free Will” ending.
Another subversion of standard game storytelling is that the main character of the game is not really Stanley (the character you play in the game and use to interact with the world around you) but is the narrator. The fantastic characterization of this faceless entity is primarily the result of the truly phenomenal voiceover work by Kevan Brighting. The range of emotion in his performance literally makes the game. The narration is so good that it could make sitting in a janitorial closet fun and enjoyable.
By all accounts The Stanley Parable shouldn’t really work. A game in which you walk around an aggressively dull office building while someone talks to you should not be as enrapturing as it is. One successful aspect to the game is how extremely normal everything looks, it somehow captures the gestalt of boring office building in some profound and bone deep way. So when everything starts to go sideways on you it chills you in a way that only extremely realistic dreams and certain kinds of successful existential literature can.
**NOTE – Some people classify The Stanley Parable as a digital installation. Digital installation is a category used to describe visual digital experiences that don’t fit into the established categories (games, digital animation, movies, video games, digital graphic novels, or html fiction). Digital installation takes technical elements of these established categories but doesn’t really fit within any one of these parameters. Digital installation is usually associated with higher attention to intellectual details. Games like Dear Esther are often slotted into this category.