Before I get into any discussion I must first say that the game is wonderful and you should play it. If you have already played it, don’t plan on playing it, or just don’t care about spoilers, then you should feel free to read on. Otherwise you should go and play The Stanley Parable and then come back. Go ahead and read Jim Sterling’s review as a way to motivate yourself.
If you’re still unmotivated to go and play before I go into my analysis, then consider this: How much choice do you really have when you play a game? Do your actions truly affect whatever narrative you are participating in? Does deviating from the defined path truly do anything? The Stanley Parable experiments with these questions in a fantastically intimate way.
Now that I know you have hopefully played the game I also know that you’ve experienced the often hilarious conflict between the player and the in-game narrator. As he describes what he wants you to do you can either follow the instruction or counter with an opposing choice (or choices) which then either prompts further instruction or scrutiny. The narrator is nearly omnipotent. The only things he can’t control are your behavior and a few silly jokes. This supposed omnipotence is where one of the central conflicts of the game occurs, because while the narrator can’t directly control your actions, he has total power over whether or not the game continues. See, if you decide to follow the prescribed narrative you are praised for finding your own free will and breaking the shackles of automated behavior, but at the same time you merely followed a set path and arguably exerted no will of your own. Alternatively, if you disobey the narrator and purposefully go against his wishes you are told that you have no choice in the matter and must restart so that the story can be properly told. Not only this, but the narrator also gets upset if you follow the predefined narrative too quickly and forces you to wait once he’s had enough of your tomfoolery.
So what is The Stanley Parable doing in its design to promote this experience? For one, the player is heavily restricted in their potential actions. There is no way to interact with the world in a way which isn’t predefined by the designers. This is done simply by not allowing the player to jump or possess a means of interacting with objects at a distance or in a destructive manner. This means no obstacle can be accidentally bypassed due to clipping errors and the linear paths put before the player can’t be avoided. These paths then feel more natural because the game is set in an interior space (so there aren’t any invisible walls) and the lack of destruction is allowed because the player is in control of an office worker rather than a gun-toting space marine. The limited ability to interact with the environment then also feels more natural because the player is at least presented with a sound effect when they try (like the sound of a jiggling door handle that’s locked). These aspects allow for the player to remain immersed despite the heavy restrictions placed on their potential actions.
But the player can still feel in control, right? The player still can feel as though all of their actions are special snowflakes which no other player may have considered? Well… not really. The fact that there is a fully voiced narrator means that the design team knew of each and every action the player could take, and decided to let the player know exactly that at every turn. See, even if you disobey the narrator it is quite obvious that you have not disobeyed the game designer. This message becomes crystal clear if you discover the game design museum which discusses a few of the paths which you can take. At this point the question of free will and choice becomes quite meta as the designers are the true omnipotent beings as opposed to the narrator, and they make it excessively clear that everything you have done is something which they deliberately put before you as an option. There is nothing the player can do in The Stanley Parable which the designers did not want the player to do. It is here that the player can then begin to extrapolate the information they have learned in this particular game, and extend it to other games. The Stanley Parable presents the player with the realization that when playing games you are forced to live according to the rules of another being, and there is no way to violate them (we’re ignoring cheatcodes).
Oddly enough this is also a commentary which demands a definition for “game” similar to the one I presented in my article on games as art which stated that a game is anything in which player actions were restricted according to a particular ruleset. In the case of video games these rulesets can be/are the construction of the games themselves (and as such Minecraft, Gone Home, and Proteus are games in the fact that to play them is to operate under a strict set of interactivity rules). But this is a tangent, and we shouldn’t veer too far off course.
I already mentioned the fact that the game’s narrator can force the player to restart in order to try and force the player to complete the narrative properly. This design choice continues to establish the inescapability of the narrator’s (and the designers’) power. Unlike games by Bethesda where the player is allowed to kill off nonplayable characters who are key to completing the primary story and then continue on in a technically unbeatable game (if you consider story completion to be beating the game), The Stanley Parable instead forces the player into a situation where they only way to continue playing the game “wrong” is to not play at all, and even in this case inaction is often actually plotted and narrated. The narration of inaction also strikes home the idea that inaction is still a form of action (choosing to choose neither A nor B is still a decision).
Really, I think The Stanley Parable is a wonderfully crafted piece of media which explores the ideas of illusory choice in some of the most sophisticated ways I have thus far had the pleasure of indulging in. To plug again my love of games as an artform: no movie has actively put me in the position of feeling as if my choices were meaningless, no book has made me feel as if all of my potential actions were already known, and no painting has ever made me giggle as I pissed off the God of the world just as the gods above that divinity had planned.