Contrary to what the fawning critics say, The Stanley Parable doesn’t share anything insightful about gaming. Instead, the game functions as a facile lecture on choice and freedom in video games. Rather than encourage you to think, The Stanley Parable barks and expects you to laugh.
As a mute protagonist, you either follow or ignore the directions of a narrator (played well by Kevan Brighting) who rarely shuts up. Based on the choices you make, you might satisfy, antagonize, disappoint, or even “hurt” the narrator. The metatextual approach of The Stanley Parable recalls movies like 8 1/2 and Being John Malkovich. If this alone doesn’t excite pop culture experts, the game’s references to Minecraft and Portal surely will. The Stanley Parable seems to be designed for gamers who “get it.” Jim Sterling’s review epitomizes this decidedly uncritical mindset. For privileged journalists, the game’s tricks and references are a refreshing distraction. For average Janes and Joes, the game is clearly overpriced at $15.
With its overwhelming emphasis on artifice, The Stanley Parable wants to take the piss (and fun) out of gaming. The narrator provides constant reminders that you are playing a video game specifically designed to amuse, frustrate, or confuse you. While the humor (that sometimes works) prevents the game from being condescending, the endless yammering about the limitations of choice denies the freedom that gamers legitimately feel when playing the Fallout or Grand Theft Auto series. In fact, developer Galactic Cafe seems positively envious of games like Fallout 3. Galactic Cafe’s limited imagination is especially apparent in The Stanley Parable’s marketing, which takes on an unforeseen level of smugness:
The Stanley Parable is an exploration of story, games, and choice. Except the story doesn’t matter, it might not even be a game, and if you ever actually do have a choice, well let me know how you did it.
Although the Stanley Parable isn’t as dismal as Papers, Please, it operates under a similar nihilism, forgetting the catharsis of classics like Contra and Earthbound (the latter is also much funnier than The Stanley Parable). Like Papers, Please, The Stanley Parable lacks the humanism and visual punch of Will You Ever Return? 2 as well as the sense of adventure in Hero Quest, another game that plays with gamer choice and freedom. The limitations of The Stanley Parable are lost on game critics like Sterling, who claims that “Stanley Parable strives, and then succeeds, to be every game ever created.”
The Stanley Parable tries to play mind games but can’t stop explaining its tricks. At one point the game offers a yellow line that is supposed to keep you on the “right” path. Initially, this idea is an enjoyable jab at terrible games like Fable 3. As always, however, The Stanley Parable runs the idea into the ground with the narration. The Stanley Parable could have been a great parody, but it often doesn’t allow you to catch the jokes yourself. Imagine if the movie Airplane! provided detailed explanations of its gags and plays on movie tropes.
The Stanley Parable draws comparisons between pushing buttons in an office as a worker, pushing buttons in a video game as a character, and pushing buttons on a keyboard or controller as a gamer — a pointless commentary in every sense. Beyond that, the game demands replaying so that you can explore all of its paths. Should Galactic Cafe be praised for providing different sights and narratives in a brief package, no matter how devoid of joy and insight they are? That question might answer itself, but allow me to play the pushy narrator: make a better move-and-click adventure, Galactic Cafe.