This is the story of a man named Stanley.
The Stanley Parable is a game about endings. The Stanley Parable is also a game about beginnings. It is also a game about the bits in between those beginnings and endings. In truth, I’m still not entirely sure what The Stanley Parable is about, but that’s what’s so wonderful about it.
Reviewing The Stanley Parable in the traditional way would be to defy what it is aiming to achieve. Much like Gone Home and Dear Esther, games which it will inevitably be compared to despite them all being tonally disparate, The Stanley Parable has you doing little else other than walking. As is the case in reality, walking isn’t all that fun, and the environment in which you, as Stanley, are walking in—a selection of sparsely decorated rooms—is not much fun either.
But that’s the point. Your journey in The Stanley Parable is narrated by, well, the Narrator. The Narrator tells you where to go. If you don’t follow his suggestions, he will condescendingly react to your attempts at independence. All we know about the Narrator is that he seems to have some form of control over Stanley. All that we know about Stanley is that his life is mundane. He spends it sitting in an office, tapping away at a keyboard. For all we know, he has never left the confines of those four walls. But then, suddenly, the rooms surrounding that office become empty of life. His co-workers are gone, and Stanley should set out to find them, says the Narrator. So you do.
The outcome of this journey you embark on is dependent upon the choices you make in the game. No matter which path you take, be it one the Narrator indicates that you should follow or one which you choose to create yourself, there will be an outcome, and these outcomes are what form the basis of The Stanley Parable. Each path you choose has a different effect upon the tone of the game, with the outcome of these choices asking just as many questions as they answer.
Is Stanley having an existential crisis? Is he having a breakdown? Or is he just another character inhabiting the pointless world of another pointless video game? The Stanley Parable remains just as much of a mystery upon “completing” it (and I use that word very lightly) as it does when you first load it up. Many games linger in the memory long after you complete them because of their technical accomplishments or their compelling narratives, but The Stanley Parable remains ingrained in my mind because it’s so utterly, brilliantly flummoxing.
Its looping, twisting world would mean nothing, though, if it wasn’t for the Narrator. The Narrator is one of the best comic creations we’ve ever seen (or, in this case, heard) in a video game. Do you remember that bit at the beginning of Portal 2 when Wheatley asks you to speak, but the onscreen prompt tells you to press ‘A’ and so you jump instead, and then he hilariously chastises you for it? That is essentially the basis of all of The Stanley Parable’s humor. Developer Galactic Café acknowledges the ludicrousness of video games, and vocalizes this through the Narrator. He’ll laugh at you for randomly pressing buttons in an area which would typically require you to press buttons randomly and sarcastically commend you for killing yourself in a futile bid to prove that you are in control.
But The Stanley Parable doesn’t just play him for laughs, and his eloquent put-downs aren’t the only facet of his personality. If GLaDOS is Louis CK, acerbically witty but ultimately charming, then the Narrator is Doug Stanhope, dropping that charm at a moment’s notice in order to criticize ruthlessly the mundanity of Stanley’s life or the pointlessness of life in general. I would safely assume that at least one of Galactic Café’s two-man development team sees themselves in Stanley, as the Narrator’s dialogue feels far too personal and sincere to have been penned by someone who hasn’t spent at least three years sitting behind a computer in a grey room pushing buttons.
The Stanley Parable is a game which isn’t really applicable to the standard rating system. It’s a game that achieves what it has set out to achieve perfectly, and though it could be longer and have more endings, it doesn't need them. It’s a thought-provoking and intelligent game which should be experienced by everyone, and one which will be referenced for a long time to come.