Over ten years old, The Stanley Parable still holds up on consoles in its new form, and feels deeply relevant. Both a remake and a sequel, The Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe functions as a critique of videogames, choice, narratives and agency, just like the original, which I analyzed here. Ultra Deluxe also adds new endings, which comment on the reception of the original, its fandom, and more.
At the center of Ultra Deluxe is a new item – a bucket. That’s also the central theme and item I’d love to explore. Each ending can be replayed while holding a bucket, and let me assure you, this is worth it! A character, an item, a piece of art – the bucket is all of these things and more. In this Game Theory, I address why the inclusion of the bucket works so well, and what its significance is.
A Commentary on Sequels and Fandom
Before we get to the bucket, let’s first talk about how it’s introduced. This is important to fully get the new endings and the context of the game. The Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe starts as a comment on remakes and sequels. At first when crossing the door with new content, you are treated to a broken jump circle among others.
Disappointed in the new content, the narrator takes you to the memory zone and reminisces about all the things that made The Stanley Parable great. You are taken to a tasteful room full of awards, concept art and Stanley merchandise and memorabilia. There’s cards reminding you how great the original game from 2013 was. Screenshots of good memories. Awards that the game designers won. Critical, glowing reviews are framed as posters on the wall. “Back then, videogames had integrity,” the narrator muses. When first entering this space, it reminded me of the museum from the original – a virtual but distinctively tangible homage to the game (read more here).
The memory zone is a space of nostalgia. The narrator is proud of the game and describes it as perfect. “It was literally every game ever created. It was Skyrim! It was Persona 3! It was all of them.” Taken in by the game, the narrator does not want to see it changed. His responses are similar to how fans cherish a beloved franchise, say Star Wars or Ghostbusters. No new entry can compete, because fans have an imagined, highly affective response towards their favs. (Totemic nostalgia is a term used in fan studies to describe this).
Disappointed in the new content, the narrator emphasizes that the developers should have never “messed with a beloved franchise”. The original was pristine, and should have stayed intact. But then you pass containers filled with negative fan responses and Steam reviews, which deeply upset the narrator. Gamers want a button to skip narration, they want achievements and so much more. “I feel like a failure. Like I let these people down. Perhaps it’s not as The Stanley Parable is not as sturdy as I always remembered”.
When restarting the game, and accessing the new content door again, the narrator decides that the gamers should get what they want. What they desire. (“This is what fans have truly been asking for!”) When you pass new content sign again, you are taken through a tour of The Stanley Parable 2, as envisioned by the narrator. A sequel, he insists, that’s fundamentally different from Ultra Deluxe. His game is “future-oriented. It’s progress, innovation!” Fans want to jump? Sure, let’s jump. They want achievements? Let’s roll them out. After all, the narrator insists, game design is a fuzzy, irrational process.
In this level you can admire the narrator’s ideas for little collectible Stanleys (figleys), have a go at the jumping circle, and look at concept art for bucket until you finally see the Reassurance Bucket. This is an item that is meant to ground you in the game, and help you through the chaos. “Any time you hold the bucket, a sense of calm will fill your mind.” Eventually the narrator implements his ideas in the game. When you return to the game, you now can find the bucket on a pedestal and replay each ending with it.
This introduction of the new content, and the bucket, act as a commentary on gaming, and an update as well. Whereas the original game primarily comment on game design, choice and narration, the new endings comment on videogame culture itself. The disappointment around sequels, which is all too common in fan culture, is one clear theme. Ultra Deluxe mocks transmedia culture, where we remix content and characters endlessly.
The pressure of giving into fans as a designer or artist is clearly touched upon. The narrator introduces the jumping circle, skip button, and collectibles in an act of fan service, to appeal to the more negative fans. It’s a clear comment and critique on how creatives pander fans by creating another sequel or remake with their favorite characters, weapons, levels while doing justice to their precious memories. It’s a creative process that is bound to fail, as Ultra Deluxe also reveals, because these memories are fraud and colored, and because an artwork can never have that same impact again.
We are not fine if we are always in this memory zone, the game emphasizes, and blinded by nostalgia. Nothing can ever live up to those original experiences, and those experiences are colored. In the collectibles ending, the memory zone changes and has fake memories inserted in it. The game’s commentary is clear. If we always do the same things, it leads to a monoculture of content, a world of slightly tweaked productions, without innovation or progress. Through different endings, all highlighting the quirky aspects of the memory zone, the game warns us for these sentiments. But there is one character that provides comfort in these changing times.
The Bucket as an Item
“You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will make a choice, and you will have your choices taken from you. The game will end, the game will never end.”
When I first read this statement about the new edition of The Stanley Parable, I was riddled. Turns out that it’s a great way of summarizing the game. The bucket completely warps the experience of The Stanley Parable. You are at once Stanley, as well as a new character, the bucket.
The bucket is perhaps best compared to Portal’s companion cube. It is an item and a prop. In some endings, the bucket is anthropomorphized heavily by the narrator, and becomes a companion character. The intertext with Portal and its beloved cube is quite explicit in the game. For instance, you are forced to destroy the bucket in a bucket destroying machine. This ending clearly riffs off the moment in Portal where GLaDOS forces you to burn the companion cube in an incinerator, before you can continue the game. (If you love it, you have to let it go.)
The idea that the bucket is a meaningful, grounding item is explored throughout the game. In one ending, Stanley loses his bucket, and goes insane without its presence. He is haunted by other buckets. He keeps looking as he goes through the basement of the office, taunted by the narrator: “None of them were his. None of them were his special bucket.” The bucket is an important possession then. At any time in the game when you go into the broom closet, and try to store the bucket, the narrator insists that Stanley should keep the bucket. It belongs to him. You are even given stickers as proof of ownership of the bucket (Property of: Stanley).
But Ultra Deluxe also reflects on the bucket as a virtual and artistic representation. The No Buckets ending explores these questions. The narrator stops Stanley when he enters a door “NO BUCKETS PAST THIS POINT”. The narrator is confused why Stanley brings the bucket and assumes that he does not know what a bucket is. To educate you, the narrator forces you to play a game about what buckets are. (You will often lose this game, because the same bucket is presented as a hologram and in other varieties.) Through these jokes, the game also raises a question: Is a bucket that’s depicted even a bucket?
The bucket game is a comment on art and representation. It strikes me as the gamer’s equivalent to Magritte’s iconic painting The Treachery of Images, a depiction of a pipe stating ceci n’est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe). Like Margritte’s original, this game comments on how artistic representation and reality are not the same.
The bucket is reflected on as an artwork, then, which is further amplified in the new museum ending. This time, the museum features a bucket exhibition, showcasing different artworks with buckets. There’s historical artworks as well and even cave paintings centering around buckets. This ending rewrites history as one in which humans always used buckets as tools, and glorified buckets. The ending augments the idea that in-game objects are art and design. And as in the original ending, the female narrator / critic does a great job guiding you through the museum, and explaining the significance of buckets.
The bucket gets different contexts as an item in the game. It is presented as a virtual, non-existent object; an artwork; a possession and more. While Portal coined this trope, The Stanley Parable takes it a step further. Our longing for material objects in games is explored deeply, and affectively. We want to feel, possess and even anthropomorphize in-game objects, and through different endings Ultra Deluxe addressees these quirks in game culture.
The Bucket as character
The bucket, however, is also a new character in the game that you are supposed to be attached to. Like other companion characters and items, like the companion cube, you are supposed to feel affected by it. Of course the game is a parody of such objects, and the fact that you have hold a very plain bucket makes for fantastic comedy.
The bucket is an object, then, that is presented at times as a character. Mostly this is done through narration which describes the bucket as a sentient character. A clear example of this is the new mind control ending, for instance, where the narrator continuously describing the thoughts and feelings of Stanley and the bucket. “The bucket had never seen anything like this, and it very nearly burst into tears!” After this bit, Stanley cradles it gently. By wording the bucket as a character, it becomes one.
Your own affect and attachment of the bucket also adds to its personality. In one of my favorite endings, the companion characters and items from the previous game return, like the statue of your wife, the baby from the art game and the broom closet. While these were very plain objects in the first game, they are now presented as sentient. They stage an intervention because you have become too close to the bucket and also force you to destroy it. You have become too dependent on the bucket, this ending suggests, and need to be independent. The bucket is almost addictive and you have grown co-dependent of it.
Of course there are endings in which you are in a relationship with the bucket as well. The new apartment ending replaces your wife with the bucket, suggesting that your relationship is at the heart of the game. This banal item now acts as a suitor and romanceable character, reminiscent of Boyfriend Dungeon – the infamous dating sim in which you date your weapon. Or think of Hatoful Boyfriend, where your virtual romance with pigeons turns surreal and dark pretty quickly.
Perhaps the most character depth is added in two endings reveal the bucket to be possessed by Gambhorra’ta, an evil wizard contained in the bucket. It introduces a smidge of Dungeons and Dragons and Lovecraft into the game. The bucket suddenly becomes a full-fletched, named character, and evil to boot. The vent ending, for instance, introduces tapes by a rambling Stanley, who goes on and on about this wizard. In the Out of the Map ending, you can confront and defeat the bucket (Gambhorra’ta) until it’s completely crumbled.
Sometimes a bucket is not a bucket
Ultra Deluxe is as self-reflexive as its original. The addition of the bucket, and its spoof of non-playable characters, works well. As an item, the bucket is presented as virtual, an artwork, a concept, a totem and more. Other times, it’s an almost sentient character. The narration, voice-acting and comedy really contribute to this. The fact that the bucket is a silly and banal item only makes this more charming. What I appreciate about this game is also that it made me question, as a media scholar, what a character really consists off, and what the bare minimum is to make them work. It’s a fantastic examination of different tropes in pop-culture.
Most strikingly, Ultra Deluxe ventures far beyond the original theme of agency. The game examines game culture fully and critically – our relationships with game characters, the industry’s obsession with achievements, the nostalgia industry, and more. In essence, this is a testament to affect, characters, and fandom.
Read More Game Theories Here
Dear Esther | The Last Guardian | Deltarune | Night in the Woods | Oxenfree | Abzu | To The Moon | Contrast | Thomas was Alone | Final Fantasy VII R | Final Fantasy VIII | Death Stranding | Stanley Parable | GRIS | The Witness