At one point in The Stanley Parable, I opened a door labeled “Broom Closet” and stepped inside. I could see, by the look of the objects in the tiny room, that this was indeed a broom closet—though I’d learned by this point to distrust just about everything—and, in fact, the prissy British narrator (voiced by Kevan Brighting) piped in to explain that, yes, this was a broom closet. Only a broom closet. When I made no immediate effort to leave the broom closet, the narrator impatiently urged me to get on with the game, emphasizing the irrelevance of the broom closet and the lack of broom closet-related achievements, before impatiently encouraging me to leave, and then finally bellowing, such that I was glad my roommate wasn’t home: “Hello? Anyone who happens to be nearby? The person at this computer is dead.” After all, how else could you rationally explain my decision to stand in a broom closet, wasting everybody’s time?
Of course, this, like much of The Stanley Parable, was merely another battle of the wills between the Narrator and the player—the equivalent of a staring contest, if you will. In this game of choices (and the futility of said choices; fatalists will be pleased), I had opted out, and yet the game had accounted for that, belittled me for it, and now proclaimed me dead on account of it. My attempt not to play the game was, in fact, playing the game, which only plays into the point of The Stanley Parable, which is all about an office worker named Stanley who spends his days following his computer’s instructions, tirelessly pushing a sequence of buttons. You, as Stanley, have the “choice,” then, of either following the instructions of the Narrator (computer), or disregarding them…often with the consequence of “breaking” the game (in entirely scripted ways).
It’s easy but pointless to criticize The Stanley Parable for not being more of a “game” when it bills itself (correctly) as a parable and, in one ending, acknowledges that it offers neither the freedom of Minecraft nor the puzzles of Portal. And it actually is a game, just a different sort, falling somewhere between the storytelling of Dear Esther and the brain-bending of Antichamber. It’s the sort of concealed-puzzler that would make the designers of Monty Python’s Complete Waste of Time grin, and the logic is of the “tea/no tea” variety…which is to be expected, given developer Galactic Cafe’s Hitchhiker’s Guide-evoking name.
Without veering too far into spoilers, suffice it to say that my Stanley discovered a narrator narrating the Narrator’s story, committed suicide, was killed, went crazy, found a transcendental state, was forever alone, and achieved freedom (by sacrificing it). None of these were any more “right” or “wrong” than the others, and if that makes this more of a philosophical think piece than a game, doesn’t that also make it more of a game than a philosophical think piece? The infamously obtuse The Stanley Parable trailers (and ingenious, unique demo) suggest that the game cannot be defined; suffice to say that even if The Stanley Parable could be described, it shouldn’t be. Or then again, perhaps I’ve just described it perfectly.