For a few years now, the indie scene has been interested in the role of narration in video games, even if it means giving it more importance than the game itself. Games like Dear Esther were about story only, for example, and the new version of The Stanley Parable shares quite a few similarities with what The Chinese Room proposed in 2008 - and again about a year and a half ago in their own remake. Note: We strongly advise those who might be interested in the game not to watch the two gameplay videos, the other two extracts are more than enough to get a feel of the atmosphere.
Originally, The Stanley Parable was a mod based on Half Life²'s Source Engine which was released back in 2011. Much like Dear Esther, which also was a mod based on Source Engine, Davey Wreden's title is a true narrative experience where gameplay is rather limited. It may sound odd for a video game, but like we said in the introduction, that's something which has become quite common in the past few years, and when it's done well, it's pretty damn effective. You play the role of Stanley, an anonymous office clerk like any other who finds himself trapped at work while all his colleagues have suddenly gone missing. Your goal is to find your way through empty corridors, choosing directions from time to time as a very talkative narrator comments on your every move and decision. Closer to Glados' sarcastic tone than it is to Dear Esther's poetic narrator, Kevan Brighting's voice is without a doubt one of the game's strengths. His British accent is indeed absolutely perfect for the game's tone and Brighting's performance brings a lot to the whole atmosphere. Writing is also another key element in The Stanley Parable. The game is so smartly written that it makes you think about your own condition as a player and your relationship with the game designer.
To make the game even more interesting and deep, Davey Wreden imagined a good number of different paths and stories leading to multiple endings, each allowing you to discover another part of the message conveyed by the game. Let's be clear, there is really no point in giving The Stanley Parable a try if you don't intend to play the game several times, looking for every possible route to see all the different endings that are available. There actually is a lot to see and listen to in the game, and it takes a few hours to do so. Playing The Stanley Parable is a strange experience, as it feels we are trapped in a time loop, the game starting from the beginning over and over again when you reach an ending, as if it was asking you to go for another playthrough. Sometimes it even tricks you into thinking that you're back to square one, when in fact it's just the narrator trying to fix one of Stanley's (or maybe your) mistakes. That's why we think there is a bit of Phil Connors in that mute office worker we control. The result of all this is that everything that happens cannot be expected, which makes the game very addictive even though gameplay mechanics are basically non existent. The way Wreden manages to break the fourth wall is so nicely done and it urges the player to find out more about this strange world, to hear more of the narrator's witty comments. Needless to say that the game's replay value directly serves its message.
A Clockwork Orange
If you're used to playing independent titles, you know that most of them don't rely on shiny graphics to appeal to the player. That being said, when compared to the original mod, this new version of The Stanley Parable has been improved quite nicely in terms of visuals. The 3D engine obviously shows its age, but the game's graphics now look more similar to Portal's than Half Life²'s. Of course, you cannot expect an office building to impress much graphically speaking, but some of the rooms you'll come across are quite nice anyway. The few lighting effects which can be found are also sufficiently well done to render a good atmosphere, but it's true that the textures are a bit lacking and that the environments are rather cubic, giving the game an old school look. That being said, thanks to the high resolutions a PC can handle and a pretty efficient antialiasing, the game's visuals are more than acceptable for an indie game. It is also worth mentioning that The Stanley Parable is not just about offices, there are a bunch of very nice surprises and you'll love the tongue in cheek references when you find them.
Finally, although we've already mentioned it in the first part of this review, we cannot fail to praise once again the tremendous work achieved by Kevan Brighting. The British voice actor is obviously the keystone of the narrative experience proposed by The Stanley Parable and his performance is as memorable as the ones found in Portal, Dear Esther, The Cave or even Alan Wake. Voice over work can be a double-edged sword though, as some people may find the presence of a narrator commenting on everything they do very intrusive. It may be true when not done well, but when it comes to The Stanley Parable, the absence of a narrator would completely ruin the whole thing. Well, unless it has been decided by the author himself. Indeed, on some rare occasions, the chatty observer disappears, leaving the player on his own, which feels both soothing and completely out of place. For that matter, the soundtrack is rather discrete, which is in keeping with the importance the narrator serves in the game. It makes it even more surprising when there is a sudden burst of music coming from nowhere because the narrator has decided it's time for a small interlude. Silences are rare, but as everything else in the game, they all serve a purpose.
Explaining the concept behind The Stanley Parable without giving away too much of the experience is a difficult exercise. Because its main interest relies on its narrative and not on its gameplay mechanics, it is not a title that can be easily described. Suffice to say that it is a very witty game which you should definitely try for yourself if you're after a little bit of introspection. The Stanley Parable may not appeal to everyone but if you're anything like us, you'll enjoy every bit of it for its intelligent writing and its irresistible humor. Contrary to Montague's Mount, which implemented some more classic gameplay mechanics and subsequently lost some of its narrative strength, The Stanley Parable fully embraces its stance and manages to offer a true mise en abyme (aka the droste effect) shown as early as the title screen. Now that's the kind of journey we don't get very often in video games, wouldn't you say?
In case you're still wondering
A demo of the Stanley parable is available on Steam, and, though it doesn't have much to do with the final game, it's clearly the best way to test the water and see if you enjoy what this game has to offer. Very few of you seem to have noticed, but we also posted a bunch of videos of the demo last week.