It's not rare for game journalists, bloggers or fans to criticize and critique the video game industry. Indeed, it seems to be common practice. Most of these people only have the slightest idea of how video games are actually made and the amount of work and effort that goes into them, but as the people who buy these products, we do have a say if we enjoyed the experience or not.
In contrast, video games commenting on other video games is a more relatively recent trend, mostly found in small independent games that can take the risk to alienate those who aren't deeply invested in the industry. Such games are often biting and cynical, dismissive and disrespectful of their peers, regardless if they deserve it or not.
The Stanley Parable, an HD remake of a Half-Life 2 mod, is one of the few games that has a thing or two to say about the video game industry, particularly about illusionary choice and linearity that some modern video games claim to have. The writing and game design is sharpened to a fearsome point where the message comes across, but at the same time is embracing its peers. The Stanley Parable has some problems with games nowadays, but it doesn't use that as an excuse to be an asshole about it.
The game begins with setting up the back story of a man called Stanley, the character you control in the game. Stanley is a humble office worker whose job it is to press whatever buttons on his keyboard that his monitor tells him to push. He is content with his lot in life until the unthinkable happens: the orders stop coming. He waits a long time, long time, but still his monitor is blank. Finally Stanley takes a peek outside of his office and sees that the office building is empty. Everyone has disappeared.
This is all told to us by a mysterious, nameless narrator (voiced by Kevan Brighting) who not only describes what is happening around Stanley, but what he will do next. This is the central act of play in The Stanley Parable, as you have the ability to decide if you want to follow through with the narrator's commands. The tone of the narrator is very formal as he does his narrator thing, but takes a sharp turn when you start disobeying his story. All the narrator cares about is the story, and you interfering with it really upsets him.
It's hard to talk about The Stanley Parable in much more detail, as the primary joy of playing the game is discovering the various ways to play with the narrator and finding ways out of and around his planned story. Mechanically The Stanley Parable is paired down to movement and an interact key, and that's really it. It is incredible how much mileage the game gets out of such a minimal amount of interaction, but it really does. After having played through the game many, many times I was still finding many, many different pathways and endings, all lovingly handcrafted, and some truly insane moments that made my blood pumping in the ways that only true #shotsfired things can.
After you reach the end of a chosen path, either by the hand of the narrator or someone...greater...the game will quickly reset Stanley back with him standing in his office, and you can begin again and pursue a new path. You have to be aboard to replay The Stanley Parable over and over again if you want to get the maximum amount of value from it. The strong, funny writing and fantastic vocal performance of the narrator kept me going for a long time. It's incredible how many different paths that you can go down, and developer Galactic Cafe almost always rewards you for every little thing you can think of to subvert the experience.
But one of the ways that The Stanley Parable lost me was that I could only replay the same content over and over again. Normally The Stanley Parable does a great job in changing things a little, having new bits of narration while going through the same environment again, but at some point even that runs out and everything just felt like a chore to me. The other thing is how heavily The Stanley Parable relies on other video games and an explicit understanding of the industry for more than a decent chunk of these jokes to land. That's not to say that The Stanley Parable isn't funny on its own, but frequently it felt like its best and most interesting content used other video games as a crutch a little too much.
The Stanley Parable is a powerful experience that comments on modern video game design in a smart and loving way. Galactic Cafe enjoys video games just as much as the rest of us, and it's unfortunately a little too evident. My favorite moments of The Stanley Parable are when its funny on its own, bringing up philosophical and existential subjects that will resonate with everyone, and while the inside jokes about the video game industry are well done, sometimes it felt a little too pandering for me.
But what really stopped my enjoyment of The Stanley Parable short is that while I had a ton of ideas in how to possibly uncover a new path in the game, playing through the same opening content over and over again quickly wore thin on me. The Stanley Parable is still a great, smart and funny mind bending experience, but eventually it just became too monotonous and its brand of magic was lost on me in the process.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)