There is a particular undertow of unease that comes with working all day at a desk and then playing video games at night. They are simply too similar: the glassy stare, the troublesome posture; tasks, buttons, screens. (Worse, of course, under Covid, when you might not even change rooms, or chairs, or screens.)
This is, more or less, the first joke of The Stanley Parable, a game packed full of them. It’s the opening image: a man named Stanley at a desk in a drab little office, with a keyboard and a monitor that tells him, according to the voice-over narration, exactly “what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order.” What, after all, is the difference between this sad little white-collar existence and what you, playing the game, are choosing to do, sitting in front of a screen, watching this scene? Between the buttons we press for money and the ones we’re about to press for fun? Not that we need to worry about Stanley. His activity might seem “soul-rending” in its tedium, but, the narrator assures us, “Stanley was happy.”
Stanley is also, as soon as this brief introductory scene ends, us, in the strange, partial, unstable sense in which a video-game player and the character he or she controls are one. We see through his eyes, we steer his movements—or some of them, at least, most of the time. We can make him walk and crouch and press buttons and open the occasional door, but not run or jump or speak. All we know of his thoughts and feelings and memories, if he has any, is what the narrator tells us. (That the narrator is concerned at all with the player character’s mental state already makes this game unusual.)
The structure of the game is simple. The narrator—voiced in a ripe, pompously authoritative English accent by Kevan Brighting—tells us the story of the day that “would forever change Stanley,” when Stanley suddenly realizes that all of his coworkers have disappeared and leaves his desk to find out what’s happened. And we pilot Stanley through it: walking to the conference room to see if he’s forgotten about a meeting (he hasn’t), then upstairs to the boss’s office to see if he’s there (he is not), then stumbling upon a “terrible secret that lay buried below his feet” (a giant mind-control machine hidden in the basement) before triumphing rather easily over this subterranean evil (there’s an off switch) and heading outside for a sunlit happy ending.
Or not. You soon realize you don’t actually need to do anything the narrator says, for all his sonorous certainty. When he declares that Stanley turns left, or walks up the stairs, you can turn right, head downstairs, or do any number of other things. You could, for instance, just hide in a nearby broom closet instead of pursuing the plot at all.*
If you do, the narrator will grudgingly acknowledge your deviation, while attempting to steer you back toward the “real” story: “Stanley stepped into the broom closet, but there was nothing here, so he turned around and got back on track.” If you nonetheless remain standing in the closet, he progresses through a kind of narratorial version of the stages of grief, slipping between third-person storytelling and directly addressing the player. First comes bewilderment:
It was baffling that Stanley was still just sitting in the broom closet. He wasn’t even doing anything…. Are you really still in the broom closet? Standing around doing nothing? Why? Please offer me some explanation here. I’m—I’m genuinely confused.
Stanley was fat and ugly and really, really stupid. He probably only got the job because of a family connection, that’s how stupid he is.
Then vengeful fantasy:
Well, I’ve come to a very definite conclusion about what’s going on right now. You’re dead. You got to this broom closet, explored it a bit, and were just about to leave because there’s nothing here, when a physical malady of some sort shut down your central nervous system and you collapsed on the keyboard….
HELLO!! ANYONE WHO HAPPENS TO BE NEARBY!! THE PERSON AT THIS COMPUTER IS DEAD!!… PLEASE REMOVE THEIR CORPSE FROM THE AREA AND INSTRUCT ANOTHER HUMAN TO TAKE THEIR PLACE AT THE COMPUTER, MAKING SURE THEY UNDERSTAND BASIC FIRST-PERSON VIDEO-GAME MECHANICS, AND FILLING THEM IN ON THE HISTORY OF NARRATIVE TROPES IN VIDEO GAMING, SO THAT THE IRONY AND INSIGHTFUL COMMENTARY OF THIS GAME IS NOT LOST ON THEM.
Then, finally, acceptance: “I’ll just be waiting for when you’re ready to pick up the story again.”
Stanley is not so much a character as a battleground, a rope that the player’s actions and the narrator’s words tug back and forth. Depending on how disobedient you decide to be, the narrator will adjust his story, nudge you back into line, improvise, berate, beg, or break down entirely. He might try to tempt you with a phone call from Stanley’s “wife,” obviously invented on the spot, or summon a bright yellow “Adventure Line” to guide you down the correct path. Eventually you come to some sort of ending—Stanley’s death or escape, or some other impasse—and the game simply starts over from the beginning. You can play through again and again, making different choices each time.
Sustained bouts of uncooperativeness can result in the game world itself sliding into glitchy chaos, or the narrator hastily attempting to add new features to please you, or even dropping you into another game entirely (and the game does, in fact, insert brief levels from several other very real, very different games). “At last,” the narrator announces bitterly, “the one thing you’ve always desired: a game I had absolutely nothing to do with.” Or he might decide to kill off the uncooperative Stanley, using a set of enormous metal jaws—“As the machine whirred into motion and Stanley was inched closer and closer to his demise, he reflected that his life had been of no consequence whatsoever”—only to be replaced at the last second by a new, female meta-narrator, who notes that “it would be just a few minutes before Stanley would restart the game, back in his office, as alive as ever,” and asks, “What exactly did the narrator think he was going to accomplish?”
The Stanley Parable first came out in 2011. This initial version was a “mod,” meaning that it was made by modifying and repurposing elements of a pre-existing game, in this case the enormously popular sci-fi first-person shooter Half-Life 2 (2004). It was released for free, as mods generally have to be. Apart from Brighting’s impeccable voice acting, the game was entirely the work of a young USC film student named Davey Wreden; he was just nineteen when he started writing it, having never made a game before, and it was posted for download shortly after he graduated. Despite being an experimental game with ramshackle graphics, no action, and no marketing, made by a complete unknown, it was an immediate hit, downloaded almost 100,000 times within a couple weeks of its release.
Wreden was soon joined by another young mod-designer, William Pugh, a teenage dropout of the Leeds College of Art, and in 2013 they released an expanded, polished version, this time as a stand-alone product available for purchase. This was an unusual period in the economics of video games. New online marketplaces had given small, independent studios access to widespread distribution for the first time, and starting around 2008 a string of narratively ambitious, modestly produced games became unexpected hits—suddenly, you could become a millionaire by making a 2D game about time manipulation and toxic masculinity, or an intentionally stressful simulation of totalitarian border bureaucracy. The Stanley Parable sold over a million copies within a year, a remarkable number for such a small game.
Now, almost a decade later, Pugh and Wreden have produced a third version, further expanded, further polished, and bombastically subtitled: The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe. It makes the game available on current platforms—games, like gardens, require periodic renewal—and also allows the designers a deserved victory lap. Their vertiginous metafictional comedy has been enormously influential, and has still not been matched.
Wreden has said that much of the game feels “more like something I discovered rather than something I created.” He started without a plan, just “a desire to know what would happen if you were able to disobey the narrator” of a game, and “went about making it to find out.” Playing it feels similar, a hectic cascade of discoveries and surprises, hilarious cruelty and unexpected tenderness as the game wrings an incredible variety of changes out of its limited materials—a few bland corporate rooms and hallways, a single disembodied voice.
People often talk about the video-game medium as offering the player freedom. Perhaps the most widely cited definition of a good game, attributed to the designer Sid Meier (the creator of Civilization, among many other games), is “a series of interesting decisions.” Unlike books or movies, games let you participate in the story, reshape it, express yourself. But it is a very dependent, paradoxical kind of freedom that they provide. Every “choice” has to be coded in advance—each option something the designer planned for, lets you do, most likely wants you to do, to display this aspect of their creation. And this, for all its joyous inventiveness, is the central subject of The Stanley Parable: what it means to be “free” in a tightly constrained simulated world.
It also refuses to offer most of the traditional pleasures of games, the mix of slowly escalating challenge and repetitive activity that is central to nearly all of them. The Stanley Parable does not involve challenge at all; you can’t lose the game, or win it, or get better at it. It is interactive, obviously, but far less so than most other video games: beyond walking around, opening the occasional door, and pressing a button or two, you can’t actually do anything. The challenge, as Wreden later said, is not in playing the game, but “in trying to figure out what all of this means.”
In this, it is part of the odd, controversial video-game subgenre known as the “walking simulator” (a label, like Fauvism and Impressionism, that was coined as an insult, resented by many of its practitioners, and stuck nonetheless). These games radically pared back the elements of the first-person shooter, removing the guns, the enemies and other characters, and most forms of interaction and challenge, leaving only the act of moving through a space. (As Janet Murray noted some years earlier in her groundbreaking study of interactive narrative, Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997), one of the fundamental pleasures of video games is simply “mov[ing] through virtual landscapes.”) Instead of action or puzzle-solving, walking simulators tell their stories through direct narration, and through exploration, atmosphere, and fragmentary environmental clues—walking.
Some of this was a matter of necessity: virtual characters and interactions are complex and time-consuming to program, and walking simulators were generally made by solo developers or very small teams, working with minuscule budgets. But it was also, as the video-game scholar Jesper Juul wrote in Handmade Pixels: Independent Video Games and the Quest for Authenticity (2019),
a response to a foundational contradiction in conventional games: On one hand, games fill the role of aesthetic experiences comparable to other art forms (and art), being quite un-work-like by serving no obvious utility…. On the other hand, playing a video game tends to involve rationally optimizing our strategy in very work-like fashion, playing toward goals and evaluating game objects exactly for their utility.
Walking simulators resolved this contradiction by removing the second half: no goals, no challenge, no strategy; they are all experience and no work.
Beyond not featuring other characters, they were often about absence itself—loneliness, abandonment, alienation. The ur–walking simulator, Dear Esther (2008/2012)—like The Stanley Parable originally a Half-Life 2 mod—had players explore a deserted, windswept Scottish island, piecing together a story of grief, madness, and self-destruction from graffiti on the rocks and fragments of monologue that play as they walk.
All these aspects clearly apply to The Stanley Parable, with its empty hallways and first-person minimalism (not to mention its frequent poking at the tension between work and play). But where walking simulators were generally melancholy, The Stanley Parable was antic. And where most told a single, predetermined story, The Stanley Parable was essentially concerned with player choice.
In this respect, it is actually an odd, low-budget version of an almost diametrically opposite subgenre: the so-called immersive simulation, or “immersive sim.” This is a form of action game that got its start in the 1990s and reached its peak with the near-future conspiracy thriller Deus Ex (2000), which has occasionally been named the best computer game of all time. Immersive sims were essentially first-person shooters with more options: in addition to the usual shooting and blowing things up, you could solve problems by setting traps, finding alternate routes, talking to people, sneaking around, or improvising with objects you found nearby. Whatever you did, whether you were nonviolent or maniacally destructive, the game was meant to react and adjust rather than simply force you to play the “intended” way. Immersive sims are essentially a form of realism, not in plot or setting (the games are the usual sort of sci-fi or fantasy), but in moment-to-moment interaction. Players could approach this simulated world with their own ideas and common sense, instead of, as Warren Spector, Deus Ex’s creator, put it, “hav[ing] to play Guess What the Designer Had in Mind.”
Even the plot was meant to adapt to how the player behaved. Deus Ex introduced several villainous characters early on who were meant to be fought near the climax of the game, but could, if the player was especially skilled and aggressive, be killed when they first appeared, in which case the story would proceed without them. One scene near the middle of the game features your character’s brother heroically sacrificing himself to save your life; you would later find his corpse laid out for dissection in a secret underground lab and take revenge. But though this was clearly the way the story was intended to go—there’s a very convenient open window for you to escape through as your brother repeatedly shouts for you to flee—you could, in fact, stand your ground and save his life, in which case he’d be alive for the rest of the game. (Learning this as a teenager was the first time a video game made me feel genuine shame: I had, of course, beelined for the window without a second thought.)
All this might seem a long way from an actionless meta-game about refusing to let a narrator get on with his story, but The Stanley Parable and the immersive sims are driven by the same ideal: a commitment to honoring the player’s choices, recognizing and reacting to them as much as possible. Video games present themselves as virtual worlds, but they are always Potemkin villages, full of invisible boundaries, hidden absences, and blind spots: buildings you can’t reach, doors you can’t open, things you can’t do or that the game will not respond to. Only so much can be simulated, after all, and in most games, anything outside of the main path—the story the game wants to tell, the challenges it wants the player to overcome—is simply omitted. Players are used to being deceived and ignored and to probing the game’s limitations as they play: not just Guess What the Designer Had in Mind, but Guess What the Designer Forgot and Guess What the Designer Is Hoping You Won’t Notice. (In many action games, for instance, if you simply stop moving, the apparently vast and chaotic battle around you will slow to a standstill, waiting for you to proceed.)
One of the pleasures of both immersive sims and The Stanley Parable is in having these expectations subverted, in being recognized where you thought you’d be ignored, obliged where you thought you’d be denied—sometimes even in the most minor ways. There is a famous moment early in Deus Ex when you, playing as a male special agent named JC Denton, walk through the headquarters of the powerful security agency you work for to meet with your boss; if, as video-game players generally do, you explore every accessible room on your way, your boss will begin his dramatic counterterrorism briefing by chastising you for entering the women’s restroom. Similarly, if you spend a few minutes at the beginning of The Stanley Parable fiddling with the computers at the various cubicles you pass and trying to open doors, the narrator will note that “Stanley went around touching every little thing in the office. But it didn’t make a difference, nor did it advance the story in any way.”
The pleasure of being anticipated can become a little queasy as it is repeated; wherever you turn, the game rises to meet you, one step ahead. The Stanley Parable has a lot of fun with this creeping sense of benevolent imprisonment, reminding players as often as possible that there is no way out of its labyrinth of self-reference. Wreden and Pugh have even incorporated what were once genuine mistakes back into later versions of the game, rather than removing them.
For instance, a quirk in the geometry of one cubicle near Stanley’s office makes it possible to walk up onto the desk, despite not being able to jump or climb, and from there make your way through a window. Outside, you find yourself in a featureless white void—this is what is known as a “boundary break,” a glitch that allows players into what were meant to be inaccessible parts of the level and view the game, in a sense, from backstage. Or rather, it was a glitch, in 2011, which a few players found and then spread word of online. But in every subsequent version of the game, if you clamber out into the void, you are met by the narrator’s voice:
At first, Stanley assumed he had broken the map, until he heard this narration and realized it was a part of the game’s design all along. He then praised the game for its insightful and witty commentary into the nature of video-game structure.
In the late 1960s, attempting to describe the postmodern fiction then emerging in the Americas, the novelist John Barth invoked Borges’s definition of the baroque: “That style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody.” Around the same time, the critic Hugh Kenner wrote about the triumphant “dead end” of Joyce’s later work, its “comedy of the closed system”—which could be followed only by Beckett’s even more claustrophobic “comed[y] of the impasse.” This is basically where you end up after a few hours of playing The Stanley Parable. The game gleefully anticipates every possible response, undercuts every moment of feeling, undoes every glimmer of progress or development. Buried deep in Ultra Deluxe, in an area from which even the narration is absent, is a declaration: “The Stanley Parable cannot end. It can only spiral in on itself forever.”
Of course, the solution to that for the player is simple. At some point, you just stop playing (an action the game itself acknowledges, naturally: it includes an award called “Go Outside,” which can be earned by quitting the game and not opening it again for at least five years—Ultra Deluxe ups that to ten). But the question remains: Where could this possibly go next? How do you follow an infinite spiral?
Wreden and Pugh stopped making games together after the 2013 version of The Stanley Parable was released, and in their subsequent careers one can see two very different possibilities. Pugh’s games after Parable continue its self-consciousness but turn it more fully in the direction of comedy. They are slapstick, goofy, not so much labyrinths as charming doodles. In the brief Dr. Langeskov, the Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist (2015), for example, players find themselves “behind the scenes” of an action-packed heist game that someone else, ostensibly, is already playing; instead of confronting the tiger or fleeing with the cursed emerald, you pull levers and press buttons to help an increasingly frazzled “stage manager” keep the game running.
Wreden’s path was a little darker. He formed a new studio last year and announced that he was working on an as-yet-unrevealed new game, but so far the only work he has released since The Stanley Parable is The Beginner’s Guide (2015)—one of the most unusual, nakedly emotional games ever made. In it, the voice of Wreden, playing a version of himself, guides the player through a series of brief, fragmentary levels ostensibly designed by a friend of his named Coda, who made them a few years before and then, apparently, quit game design. As you play them, Wreden explains where they came from and what they mean. The early parts of the game are a kind of interactive essay on how virtual spaces can express feelings and ideas, and how a designer can progress from relatively crude modifications of pre-existing games to more personal, original work.
But as things proceed, it becomes clear that Wreden is a far from reliable narrator—the game is, in fact, a kind of interactive Pale Fire, with Wreden himself as Kinbote. His interpretations take on a creepy proprietary tone, he interferes with the levels to make them more conventionally functional and adds elements to give them more symbolic coherence. And the levels more and more clearly express feelings of loneliness, confinement, and alienation. By the end, they include text addressed directly to Wreden from Coda, asking him to stop demanding answers about what the work means, to stop showing the levels to other people, stop changing them, and “not to speak to me again.” “When I am around you,” Coda writes, “I feel physically ill. You desperately need something and I cannot give it to you.”
Wreden, in voice-over, has a kind of breakdown, pleading with Coda, who he hopes will see or hear about this guided release of his games: “If I apologize to you truly and deeply, will you start making games again? Please, I need to feel OK with myself again, and I always felt OK as long as I had your work to see myself in.” As the player wanders through dim, almost featureless rooms, Wreden declares that “I want to know how to be a good person, I want to know how not to hate myself.” After admitting that “the thought of not being driven by external validation is unthinkable,” he abandons the narration entirely. The game’s final image, accompanied only by music, is a bird’s-eye view of an endless maze, extending to the horizon in every direction.
In 2014 Wreden posted a note on his blog, since deleted, titled “Game of the Year,” in which he discussed his periods of depression following the wildly successful release of The Stanley Parable, and how the attention and acclaim he received made him “less sure of my own opinion of it” and of “why I liked the game. I was losing the thing I had created.” The Beginner’s Guide does seem to express an almost violent discomfort with having one’s work interpreted, or even encountered, by other people, and playing it—not to mention writing about it—can be a deeply uneasy experience. Yet it is also an oddly hopeful one. The game is, like The Stanley Parable, a kind of formal dissection of its own medium. But it is suggestive rather than exhaustive: a sketch of game design’s obscure satisfactions and potential for expression, however fraught.
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe adds a great deal of, as the narrator repeatedly calls it, “new content.” Much of it turns its attention not to video games generally, but to The Stanley Parable itself. After you’ve played through most of the original game, the narrator invites you into a new “Memory Zone,” a virtual museum dedicated to its release: the awards it won (or didn’t—a trophy for the 2014 BAFTA for best video-game story is prominently included, with the real winner’s name crudely taped over); shrines to its positive reviews; a dump out back full of negative ones. A “Stanley Parable 2 Expo” makes the case for a sequel, with “long-term franchising potential” and various comically threadbare new features. Balloons are now scattered throughout Stanley’s workplace to spruce up the decor, though for some reason they all read “Get Well Someday” or “Happy 12th Birthday, Step Niece.” And you can finally make Stanley jump, though only thirty-six times and only within a special “Jump Circle” marked out on the floor with tape. “The game was perfect,” the narrator exclaims in disgust; now it’s been “sullied with a cheap re-release.”
It is consistently funny, but it is also, for the most part, more of the same—a further spiraling inward, this time on the subject of its own cash-in superfluousness. In a few places, though, Ultra Deluxe pushes through the self-consciousness to find something new. One of the negative reviews behind the Memory Zone—apparently based on a real review left by a player—complains that the narrator’s “patronizing voice droning on and on just isn’t fun…. I wish there was a skip button.” The narrator, hoping to “strike these negative reviews from the record,” decides to give the idea a try. A windowless concrete structure suddenly emerges from the ground, and inside, on a little pillar, is the button. It will, the narrator explains, “pop you forward in time…the second my incessant droning starts to bore you.” He then starts rambling nonsensically so you can test it.
The first few times you press the button, it works as you’d expect: the game leaps forward, and the narrator ruefully acknowledges how eager you were to cut him off. But it soon becomes clear that the amount of time skipped is increasing each time the button is pressed. As the room around you deteriorates—a potted plant in the corner withers and dies, the overhead lights start flickering and going out—the narrator shakily informs you that the gaps are now hours, then days, weeks, years, and that he, unlike you, experiences them in their entirety. He begs you not to press the button anymore, to “sit with me and just stay here.” He says that he has realized, for the first time, that the one thing he really needed was “to know that someone was listening,” and that without that, he “can feel the edges of my reality curling inward and decaying.”
This is delivered with a smirk—it’s still the same self-important, rhetorically overblown narrator, swinging from emotion to emotion as the game demands. But in the moment, the main joke is how real it starts to feel. All its ironical distance can’t quite hide the fact that this is a frightened voice in a dark room, begging not to be abandoned. The skip button is an obviously stupid feature, temporarily added to the game out of spite and insecurity in response to a single crabby review, and the designers use it to express the deep fear underlying the urge to tell stories, the way an audience, even a hostile, uncooperative one, can keep the void at bay.
Inevitably, you press the button again: if you don’t, the game won’t continue. (For all the game’s talk of free will, the only options here are quit or see things through.) The narrator announces that, in the year of absolute isolation he just experienced, he transcended “the question of free will that you and I have squabbled over for so long,” then felt “the most unyielding fear I have ever known.” You press the button again, and again. The narrator goes mad—rants to himself, mutters repetitively—then goes silent. The room begins to crumble until finally the wall collapses enough for you to clamber out. You emerge into a vast, empty desert. You wander for a little while, alone. Eventually, the game restarts.
Here I should note that, more than most games, The Stanley Parable depends on surprise and discovery for much of its effectiveness, and so is difficult to discuss without ruining. If anyone reading this feels a stirring of desire to play the game at any point, please give in to it immediately. ↩