The Stanley Parable is a game unlike many others in that it, for one, exists almost solely as a narrative. To say it is not a videogame would be an inadequate analysis but to say it is a game like others would be false. Stripped down to about two controls, walking and pressing things to open them or activate them, TSP is reminiscent to a postmodern novel written by Kurt Vonnegut or William S. Burroughs, however this is a game.
Stanley, the main character, is boring, relatable, drab, and plain. When I first started this game, I was, in a way, thrilled to see a game so bleak, so soul crushing, and so normal. However, to my surprise, this game is not normal. Everyone in the office where Stanley works, and loves working there above all else, disappears one day and Stanley is to find out what happened to everyone. Given the numerous amounts of endings within the game I am going to stick to one that stuck with me the most, an ending I will call the “press the wrong button” ending.
Stanley walks throughout the office, guided by the narrator. Stanley takes a door on the left to enter into the meeting room, to which he finds no one. He then walks into his boss’s massive office and is told to put a code into a number pad to enter into a secret door. Stanley does so and enters into a room full of screens. These screens show the offices of every single worker within the office. Everyone is being monitored and watched and calculatedly controlled. Stanley rides an elevator up and out of the screen room to find a choice at his hand. He finds two big buttons controlling the mind control machine controlling everyone (just for a point of reference, we do not know anything about this machine other than it controls people. We do not know if it is responsible for making everyone leave.) Stanley must choose to turn the button off, or on. To turn the machine off and set everyone free, or to turn it on and enslave everyone again. I decide to press the “on” button, because I do not care about anyone of myself (send me back into sweet unknowing bliss). The narrator then harasses me telling me I hit the wrong button and threatens to blow up the whole office and me, a threat he keeps. I die. And then the game starts over.
Clearly, according to the game, I was not supposed to make this decision, but I could still do so. The narrator, while taunting me once I hit the button, describes my own futility in the game and that I have literally no control. While my control may appear to be true, the narrator proves that I have no idea what is going on within the game, Stanleys life, my life. The narrator, as mentioned before, threatens to blow up the office and me. The narrator places a, I believe, two minute time limit until the bomb goes off. Within the room next to the buttons, I notice five buttons scattered throughout the room. Playing other games, thinking this could be a puzzle to defuse the bomb, I run a linear order all of the room hitting the buttons in order. 1,2,3,4 and then 5. Once I hit the fifth button I expected something to happen, nothing happened. The narrator comments on how I am just running around the room thinking I have a plan to stop this all but my plan means literally nothing to the world, my co-workers, the narrator, the office, or me. My running around and waiting is meaningless, I am basically already dead.
If you have read this blog post up to this point you are probably thinking, “what the fuck kind of fucking game is this.” And that is the react reaction this game is supposed to spawn. TSP is about 2 things, commenting on the nature of modern videogames and death. I will break down the two concepts as briefly as I can (although I could see writing multiple long essays about it).
- Commenting on the Nature of Modern Videogames
TSP breaks down every convention about modern first person video games. Not only are the controls absurdly simple, commenting on the complicated nature of modern videogame controls, the player is literally directed in every situation, commenting on the ways modern games achieve teaching information and how, similarly, complicated modern games may be in teaching (As an example, the tremendous learning curve in Dota 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, any Gears of War multiplayer format, and others). The game looks like and is reminiscent of Portal, a famous puzzle game by Valve, and comments on such puzzle games by allowing the player to “make” their own decisions and follow the path and find the ending they want, not by necessity what the game wants. I could go on but I do hope this is somewhat convincing, I will answer far more in the comments if necessary.
Dying in TSP is necessary for the game to continue. In order to achieve most, if not all, possible endings, the player MUST die. There are multiple times the narrator “kills” Stanley in order to restart the narrative and the game. Stanley is killed over, and over, and over again, and the game restarts. Death is both incredibly meaningless and meaningful within the game. Death allows the player to continue. Death allows the player to find new information. Most, if not all, videogames never incorporate death and the act of dying into necessary gameplay because why would the player want to die? TSP not only wants, but it needs Stanley to either be killed or so totally fucked and hit a dead end (effectively dying within the game). TSP loves death, as we all should and do.
Now, down to the meat and potatoes. Is this game Art? I am sure you could guess my answer from the long winded post already but yes I do think TSP is art, and a damn good piece of it. In fact, is a piece of art that would have never existed if it was not for modern video games, video games, and existentialism. According to Becker, “All art works . . . involve some division of labor among a large number of people”(14). If it was not for the existential works discussing death and dying, such a piece of art would likely not exist. If it was not for the vast collection of other video games and their industry defining conventions, this game would not exist. As a game commenting on other games, the comment can never exist without a previous statement to respond to. Therefore, simply put, TSP is a piece of art, and it exists solely because all other video games and other pieces of art have come before it.