Critical Play: The Stanley Parable

My brain hurts.

The Stanley Parable is a walking simulator developed by Davey Wreden and Galactic Cafe that breaks every rule of the video game world while delivering a smooth, chilling narrative in each of its multitude of endings. To effectively analyze the design decisions that make The Stanley Parable such an enjoyable experience, it’s important to think about the challenges that walking simulators face in general, and what tools can be used to solve these challenges.

One of the biggest challenges faced by walking simulators is the balance between delivering a compelling narrative and offering the player a sense of agency. This tradeoff has been talked about in other readings for this class, but it presents itself more explicitly in walking simulators. The focal point of the game is the story –– if the story is not interesting, or if the player feels like they don’t have a true impact (press ‘b’ to advance the story) –– then the game can lose its appeal quickly.

The Stanley Parable gets around this tradeoff by its unique use of a narrator. Instead of directly telling the player what to do, the game presents a narrator that describes the player’s actions. The player can choose whether or not to fulfill some of the narrator’s descriptions, which leads to an evolution of the relationship between player and narrator as the game progresses. This is an ingenious move from a development perspective, as it allows for a cohesive narrative to be unrolled while still giving the player complete control over their actions. Instead of a flow such as this:

First part of story -> Player is prompted to take an action to advance the story -> second part of story

We get a flow of events that looks more like this:

First part of a story -> The player is described as advancing the story in one way -> The actions may or may not match the description -> The narrator reacts and the story unfolds in response to the player’s actions

This decision makes the narrations feel so much more natural, and it makes the player’s decisions feel more impactful. In a very counterintuitive way, giving the game such a meta, self-aware feeling actually makes the story feel much more immersive and consequential.

This setup allows for a lot of really interesting stories to be written, which is where the second big design decision comes into play: write a whole lot of really good stories. This isn’t a complicated step, but without it the game wouldn’t be playable. Here’s a chart showing the different outcomes of the game:

I won’t go into detail about why exactly the writing is so good, but each and every one of the endings is written in a way that leaves you questioning your life while you continue on in the never-ending cycle of The Stanley Parable.

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