The Stanley Parable Review
Well, it's finally been done. After thirty years or so of game criticism - twelve or so of which I've been a part of - they've finally gone and done it.
They've made a game that's almost impossible to review properly.
It's not even the notion that The Stanley Parable is incredibly difficult to write about without spoiling it or screwing up the entire point of the game - which it is - but it's that even if I do make the dubious choice to ruin the game for you, it's still immensely difficult to write about, although I really, really want to write about it. Even the game's own free demo on Steam, despite being highly entertaining, does a poor job of representing the full game. There are two reasons for that: one, it's an entirely separate mini-game containing basically no content from the actual game, and two, the game itself is so unique that the demo's main purpose seems to be to get you accustomed to the idea that The Stanley Parable is going to be toying with the player in ways that other games don't really try.
But it's not for everyone. The challenges The Stanley Parable brings to our sense of what a game is, how it tells you a story, and what part we play in it, will be rejected by some gamers. Some will simply fold, insisting that this is part of a small-but-growing selection of games - ones made by the same types of very smart people that made all of our alien-shooting testosterone explode-a-thons - aren't actually games because there's, well, no "gameplay".
What's amusing is that The Stanley Parable actually takes on that notion directly, breaking the fourth wall to challenge your view of story, narrative, narrators, the illusion of choice inside of the locked complexes we call a video game, and much more. If you can get past the idea that it's OK for this game to not have a killing implement swaying around at the bottom-right of the screen and give it a chance, it'll confuse you, delight you, make you laugh, and it might even make you stop and think about your own life. It'll make you wonder why you play video games. It might, just for a second, make you consider quitting playing video games.
But it's my opinion that the payoff in The Stanley Parable comes, it just comes late. First, you'll wonder what you just spent your fifteen bucks on, especially if you just do what you're told. Then hopefully you jump back in, this time insisting on rebelling against that. Eventually, you'll think you get it, that the multiple paths through the game are some fake "depth" but ultimately an empty experience that's admittedly narrated by a really great British voice. But as you keep exploring new options and see how the narrator and the game itself start to break down people's motivations for playing linear, corridor-based shooting games - and what better way to do this but in a game set in an office building with actual corridors - well, you might start to think hard about what you're doing with your life. But eventually, I think the intention is that you come out with the conclusion that the best fun in games is the fun that you make, not the fun that the developers so carefully crafted to have unfold with perfect timing and the just-right camera angle to see that explosion or that squadmate's head get blown off.
But will The Stanley Parable even be played by those who so desperately need what it teaches? Unlikely. And even if it is, who's to say they'll play long enough to get to those endings? I can't help but go back to rapper Soulja Boy's "review" of Braid from years ago and wonder: have we, as gamers, gotten any less shallow about the games we play overall? Maybe. Maybe not. But at this point, despite The Stanley Parable's brilliance, it's also not pushing the boundaries that it needs to, because those of us enjoying this game - those of us who know that Braid actually has a point, those of us who don't stomp around furiously calling games like Gone Home an affront to the gamer mindset - well, we already know. We also enjoy The Stanley Parable, but this isn't just a game meant to be enjoyed. I refuse to believe something like this is just meant to be something we goof around with for a couple of evenings and dumped into our hundreds-strong Steam libraries, never to be thought of again.
I'm sure that The Stanley Parable is intended to be something more meaningful than any of that. I'm just not sure who will get far enough to actually realize it.
And so I've made an attempt to review this difficult-to-criticize game, and if you thought what I've written was just a bunch of mindless drivel, well, it might just be. But in that case, I have a feeling you won't like the game that this review's about, either. Unfortunately, I'm not so sure that the converse is true - that if you enjoyed what I wrote, you'll probably like The Stanley Parable. You might not like it. But it's probably worth a shot.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a bought copy of the game on Steam.