The Stanley Parable
Originally a mod built in Valve’s Source Engine, The Stanley Parable was first released in 2011. The developer Davey Wreden then joined hands with modeler Will Pugh for a remastered version with new environments, which was released on Steam in 2013. Though the game adopts the first-person perspective common to shooters, the game largely relies on observation and exploration, similar to Dear Esther. Interaction is mostly limited to opening doors and pressing buttons.
The sardonic narration by voice-actor Kevan Brightning as The Narrator is key to unlocking and experiencing the game. In the main game, the player guides the protagonist Stanley through the office in which he works. His decisions and actions are commented upon by The Narrator. The player can go against the instructions of The Narrator and choose from various paths which lead to numerous endings of the game.
The Stanley Parable is a game that reflects upon games, control and choice. But how does it achieve this type of “metagaming”? How does it use narration to guide its players and make them reflect? Let’s have a deeper look. I’ll also unpack some of the secrets in the game. I suggest that the female narrator that appears in one ending is actually key to understanding this narrative.
How Dissonance and Narration Work in The Stanley Parable
Narration in The Stanley Parable is characterized by its interactivity. While the narrator is not a character embodied in the story (as opposed to GLaDOS for instance) he has an agency of sorts. He is often portrayed as the Author and Designer of the game environments. He can control or rewrite the story and the environment when Stanley acts against him.
The Narrator is often portrayed as a conscious entity who also has to learn to understand the story that he is in. He makes every effort to change it when the player disobeys. For instance, when Stanley refuses to go to his boss’ office, The Narrator reluctantly adjusts his story:
‘But Stanley just couldn’t do it. He considered the possibility of facing his boss, admitting he had left his post during work hours, he might be fired or that. And in such a competitive economy, why had he taken that risk? All because he believed everyone had vanished?’
Dissonance is important in this game, a friction between the narrator and the story, and between the narrative and the game play. According to literary critic Cohn (1978), dissonance creates a gap between the narration and the thoughts and actions of a character (p. 21). This device often proves the narrator to be superior to the characters (e.g. the narrator knows more). Game designers and scholars have revised this term as ludonarrative dissonance, a tension between the game play and the story. This is what The Stanley Parable is all about.
Dissonance is not a storytelling choice in this game, but as a game mechanic. The Narrator goes against the player’s actions, and vice versa, which leads to unexpected twists. Thereby, the game reflects upon the consciousness and agency of both character and player. Similar to Portal, the avatar can search for freedom in the system by taking alternative routes or ending up in the “back-office” of levels. In both games, the player is subjected to surveillance and disciplines. Another parallel between both games is that the humor is self-deprecating. It stems largely from shaming the player when s/he deviates.
There’s no way of putting this gently. Just like GlaDOS, The Narrator is obviously a sadist, who mocks, taunts and downright abuses the player.
‘Ohhhh! It’s a puzzle! Critical thinking, Stanley. Your forte!’
But unlike in Portal, there is no real solution to The Stanley Parable, no true ending or one that leads to safety. There are some that mock the idea of comfort and true endings, though. The player can obtain a “heaven ending” with many colorful buttons to choose from and push. The game also has a “freedom” ending by discovering mind control machine at the heart of the office. The player can go to a room with hundreds of television screens, all assigned to individual workers. The room is a large panopticon, where players were observed and even brainwashed without their knowledge ‘eternally monitored in this place where freedom meant nothing’.
When Stanley turns off the machine, he is praised by The Narrator for not messing with the plot and obtains the freedom ending. This is an eerie ending that echoes the final scene of Portal where Ciel reaches the outside world. Still, something seems off. The alternative to this ending is death: ‘You wanted control this world; that’s fine. But I’m going to destroy it first, so you can’t.’
Control and choice are key themes in the game. In another ending, the player is confronted with a red and blue door created by The Narrator. When complying with the instructions, and going through the red door, The Narrator muses:
Do you see that I really have wanted you to be happy all this time? The problem is all these choices, the two of us always trying to get somewhere that isn’t here, running and running and running, just the way you’re doing right now. Don’t you see that it’s killing us, Stanley?
I could go on for hours about The Baby Ending in which the player simply enjoys a mini-game (the baby game) that The Narrator designed for four hours. And what about the Real Person Ending in which The Narrator realizes that you are a real person, incapable of making logical choices. One of the more amusing, self-conscious endings is one in which The Narrator sees a script pinned to the wall that explains how many the times The Narrator will restart the game. He is disappointed that everything is predetermined and that he too is being controlled.
The Stanley Parable is clearly about agency, control and systems. But is there a way out?
The Importance of The Female Narrator
But of all endings, The Museum Ending stands out the most. Near the mind control facility, the player can choose a route to “escape”. The player then falls into a level with machinery that nearly crashes him. ‘And so he resigned and willingly accepted this violent end to his brief and shallow life. Farewell, Stanley.’ The instance for his death, though, a female voice can be heard. ‘”Farewell, Stanley,” cried The Narrator, as Stanley was led helplessly into the enormous metal jaws.’ Like the previous narrator, she sounds British. ‘In a single, visceral instant, Stanley was obliterated as the machine crushed every bone in his body, killing him instantly.’ Stanley then finds himself in a dark room with white letters that spell “The Stanley Parable”. In the distance, there is a door.
‘And yet, it would be just a few minutes before Stanley would restart the game, back in his office, as alive as ever. What exactly did The Narrator think he was going to accomplish?’
Stanley enters a white room that turns out to be a museum. The female narrator adds: ‘When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same. Do you see now? Do you see that Stanley was already dead from the moment he hit start?’ The player can walk through the museum and see different objects on display: a scale model of the cubicles in the office; the computers and buttons on display; the button sounds and on the second floor, concept art, cancelled endings and soundscapes of unused voice material. The museum has informative signs that the player can look at and is prototypically arranged as a white cube.
By ending in “the white cube” of a museum, the game aligns itself with high art in a poignant and ironic way. After the tour, the player can decide to take the door to the exit. This is again a dark room with “The Stanley Parable” spelled in a white font. Beneath it, there is a switch to turn off the game. The female narrator starts to laugh:
Oh, look at these two. How they wish to destroy one another. How they wish to control one another. How they both wish to be free. Can you see? Can you see how much they need one another? No, perhaps not. Sometimes these things cannot be seen.
The female narrator draws attention to the relationship between the two main characters. This scene again brings Portal to mind, about which Bonnie Ruberg writes: ‘It represents complexities of affection and power in same-sex bonds through the lens of parody, but it does not attempt to disavow these bonds’ The same applies to this case. The Stanley Parable is about a queer, power relationship that functions as a proxy for player and designer. The Museum Ending reveals the importance of this relationship.
There’s more. The female narrator continues:
But listen to me, you can still save these two. You can stop the program before they both fail. Press ‘escape’, and press ‘quit’. There’s no other way to beat this game. As long as you move forward, you’ll be walking someone else’s path. Stop now, and it will be your only true choice. Whatever you do, choose it! Don’t let time choose for you! Don’t let time- [Crushing sound]
After this narration, the player is forced to manually restart the game.
The scenario with the female narrator is a highly interesting one. She discusses The Narrator as a character and views him as part of the story. The female narrator even adopts a different style from that of the male narrator though. Particularly her dramatic repetition of sentences like “do you see?” and “can you see?” press the player to observe, reflect and interpret the game. In this sense, she may not be a second narrator at all. She is a tour guide, a curator of the museum space. Her voice almost sounds like that of a critic or a scholar. (No wonder I enjoy this ending best!) She is the interpreter that provides a framework for the player within an appropriate place of knowledge production – the museum.
The Critic suggests that the player needs the author to provide a story. Her interpretation is that the player and designer depend on one another. The Narrator’s position quickly changes here as he too becomes a narratee (someone that is addressed in the narrative, rather than writing it). At this point, The Narrator is not a voice, designer-author or ploy, but a character constructed to match Stanley.
The relationship between Stanley and the narrator, between player and designer, is key in this ending. That’s what The Critic draws attention to. I also find it meaningful that this is the only ending that you have to shut down yourself. The Critic begs you, the player, to make a final (“your only true”) choice – a choice that is not completely engineered.
That is to say, the only true ending is the choice to end the game when you want.
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