Blockbuster, big-budget video games always seem to revolve around the same general themes: guns, aliens, fast cars, sports, explosions, mythical creatures and epic adventures. Adrenaline is the order of the day and it’s happy hour. Gamers can do battle with hordes of Nazi zombies, surf standing on top of airplanes, BASE jump without fear of the law, and use up a battalion’s worth of bullets in an hour. Storylines are fast going by the wayside, left in the dust of slick marketing and neglected by developers spending weeks on making eyebrows look five percent more realistic than last year’s version.
Enter “The Stanley Parable.” Released in October of 2013 by the Galactic Cafe development team, “The Stanley Parable” challenges the mainstream concept of what video games should be. Built from the Source engine–a software framework that serves as the backbone to many well-known first-person shooter franchises such as “Half-Life,” “Counter-Strike” and “Left 4 Dead” (as well as hundreds of obscure games)– “The Stanley Parable” will have a familiar feel to many veteran gamers. However, unlike the majority of Source games (and non-sports, non-racing games in general), there are no weapons, no health bar, no inventory and, most telling, zero enemies. The game consists solely of a mysteriously empty office building, a man named Stanley and a soothing British narrator.
As the player starts exploring, one thing becomes very clear: this is no ordinary narrator. When faced with two doors to go through, the narrator explains how Stanley goes through the door on the left to continue the search for his coworkers, but the choice of which door to go through is up to the player. If the player chooses to go through the right door, the narrator expresses annoyance at Stanley’s unwillingness to follow directions and attempts to coax Stanley back on track. The premise of “The Stanley Parable” quickly becomes clear–the player is faced with a choice, the narrator makes his wishes clear, and it’s up to the player to follow directions or rebel.
With many choices to make, this isn’t a game played just once, and there is plenty to explore. Stanley’s workplace is home to many mysteries – office buildings usually don’t have a huge room walled with TV screens showing every employee’s desk adjacent to a Mind Control Facility. Above all, “The Stanley Parable” is a surreal game. It pushes the boundaries of storytelling in a medium seriously hurting for something thought-provoking.