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The Stanley Parable calls shenanigans on narrative-driven design

Friday, 25 October 2013 14:43 GMT By Brenna Hillier

The Stanley Parable isn’t just another experiential, exploratory indie; it’s a love letter to and a daring critique of a trend that has both liberated and bogged down gaming as a medium.

Where a narrative-driven game like BioShock: Infinite goes out of its way to make sure that the “psychopath” player cannot deviate from the developer’s intentions, The Stanley Parable joyfully embraces the fact that its players come to games to play – to fiddle around with interactions, to push the boundaries of what is possible, and to ask inconvenient questions like “why can’t I open this door?”

The Stanley Parable is a game that would not exist without a whole range of influential precursors. The one-time Half-life mod is a reaction against, commentary upon, critique and celebration of narrative-driven game design, specifically as it has existed since Valve created a place for narrative-driven first-person shooters.

With Half-Life, Valve popularised a then-rare kind of storytelling which has since proliferated and evolved; stories in which the narrative is built right into the heart of the game, happening around and to your character, rather than in cut-scenes and text slabs sandwiched between the action – and routinely skipped by bored players. This style of narrative is now found in games as diverse as Call of Duty: Ghosts and Beyond Two Souls, interspersed with more traditional cinematic-driven storytelling, and the medium is richer for it.

Narrative-driven games rely on the player doing what they’re told to – pressing buttons on command – and that’s less than ideal in a medium that differentiates itself on interactivity. The more you poke at these kinds of games, the more problems you find. The Stanley Parable pokes at them, relentlessly.

Where a game like BioShock: Infinite goes out of its way to make sure that the “psychopath” player cannot deviate from the developer’s intentions, The Stanley Parable joyfully embraces the fact that its players come to games to play – to fiddle around with interactions, to push the boundaries of what is possible, and to ask inconvenient questions like “why can’t I open this door?”

Doors that won’t open are a real litmus test of how experienced a gamer is:

  • Total beginner: hanging over your shoulder while you play a video game asking “why does that door open, but not any of the others?”
  • Pretty clueless: insists on pressing the interact button in front of every door.
  • Getting there: recognises at a glance which doors are textures or otherwise locked props and which are interactive objects.
  • Veteran: becomes frustrated with newbies who complain about the fake doors because “that’s how games work, geez”.
  • True veteran: jaded by games which consistently railroad the player, complains about the fake doors.

The Stanley Parable is loudly complaining about those doors. It’s a perfect foregrounding of all the things developers normally want you to forget about games.

When designing a narrative-driven video game with voiceovers, timed events, and story progression linked to geographical progression, the designer is constantly challenged by the knowledge that the player – that bastard – doesn’t always do what they’re told. “Walk from A to B,” the designer cajoles, “And I’ll reward you with something to shoot, a bit of witty dialogue and a spectacular explosion.”

They use all sorts of tricks to try to get players to obey the basic A to B imperative. Take a look at the lights in a non-linear environment; the correct path is usually brighter. Ambient events litter the most direct route. NPCs drift in the direction of the level goal. Rooms are shaped, ever so slightly, like rhombuses, to funnel you on. Some dude is constantly shouting in your earpiece that they’re waiting for you at the pick up zone. They’re waiting for you at the pick up zone, soldier. Soldier, they’re waiting for you at the pick up zone. Your pick-up’s waiting, soldiers; get to it. Don’t keep the pick up waiting. They’re waiting for you at the pick up zone.

Despite all this, players don’t always do what they’re told, do they? The flashing lights and sirens above the correct door pound out their message in vain; you’re over in the corner, asking – what’s down this path? Is there treasure here? Why are all these other rooms empty? Can I pick up this cup? Why can’t I pick up this cup? How come I can pick up that cup? I wonder what happens if I throw the cup at an NPC? What happens if I do this? Oh hey if I run at precisely this angle I can clip right through the wall. What’s over there? How did I get so lost?

This obstinate desire to explore and interact can be met in three ways. First, the developer can meet it head on, by providing outcomes for all the things the player might try. This is really, really hard, but very satisfying when it works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work, and by providing realistic, non-linear environments and systemic interactivity, you’re often leaving yourself open for players getting lost, breaking the game, and then complaining about bad design.

The second, much more easily-implemented solution is to shut down as many non-essential options as possible; you can’t get lost in one corridor, and you can’t trigger bizarre AI behaviour if there isn’t any AI. Really good games tend to walk a line between the two, the third option, giving you limited freedom within a linear context, and hoping like hell you don’t find something the testers missed.

In every case, the developer mostly wants you not to think about it. You’re there to enjoy whatever the game’s core mechanic is – usually combat or puzzles – and to listen to a story which somebody is very proud of, even if it was written in the last six months of a three year development cycle and hastily shoe-horned in around the level designer’s quota of explosive set-pieces.

The Stanley Parable wants you to think about it. The Stanley Parable, despite its very limited inputs (you can’t even jump, and very few objects are interactive) looks at those parts of first-person gaming that are least easy to design for – exploration and messing with the game’s engine – and foregrounds them. It takes the very limitations of traditional gaming narratives and uses them to ruthlessly expose their own flaws.

The Stanley Parable has a wide collection of “endings”, none of which are really the end – and players are still uncovering secrets. If you’re the sort of person who pokes at things, you’ll discover most of its content for yourself simply by keeping your eyes open and asking “what if I…?” Pitting your brain against the game, you may find yourself questioning aspects of design you’ve never even noticed before.

Afterwards, you won’t be the same. Gaming won’t be the same. And that’s a good thing.

The Stanley Parable is available for PC on Steam for $15. A Mac version is on the way.

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5 Comments

  1. G-Sama

    good read , enjoyed it :)
    i agree that stanley parable is a masterpiece in narration , interaction and player choices … i was completely amazed by the possible ways you can take and the secrets you can uncover ..
    in stanley parable … it’s not about the main character , it’s about YOU .. alot of times i felt the narrator was speaking directly to me as a player not as a character .. it was both fun and enjoyable experience ..

    my only complain is that the game was no longer than 2 hours max with every secret .. i really wished it could be tad longer but that would require alot of work i guess … still really well done to developers for creating this unique experince ..

    also brenna , try jumping with space button 5 times to see what happens :p :D
    and … did you get the broom closet ending ? “the broom closet ending is ma favourite “

    #1 1 year ago
  2. AmiralPatate

    Well, about doors, you know, that’s how games work. It’s like a movie set, most of it is just a facade. There’s only that much you can work on within a budget and a deadline. Video games like the real world have finite limits.
    So some games are blatant corridors, and I don’t really have a problem with it as long as it’s entertaining enough. Not everything has to be a masterpiece to be fun after all.

    That being said, The Stanley Parable is awesome even if I only scratched the surface, and I agree it’s a clever reflection on game design.

    Also, there’s an “inetractivity” somewhere. I’m guessing it’s a typo and not a word that just entered the dictionary yesterday :P

    #2 1 year ago
  3. DSB

    Whatever you do, don’t forget to hang around the broom closet.

    I’m not sure Stanley changes all that much though. It’s still a tightly controlled game with triggers and rules and A-B-C. It just really really wants to remind you that it’s all bullshit.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Erthazus

    My favourite part was when I was able to jump to another platform from another and it was not the most obvious way.

    that is exactly the same thing I tried to do in every Portal game and all of the doors were closed.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. digitalAngst

    This is gaming journalism!

    #5 1 year ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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    Job Simulator is the first game to be announced specifically for SteamVR, Valve’s virtual reality tech. Shoot Many Robots and Aaaaa! For the Awesome! developer Owlchemy Labs is the first team to put its hand up and say it’s worked with SteamVR. In a blog post, the studio unveiled Job Simulator, which will be playable […]

  • HTC, Valve partner for Vive VR headset

    The first SteamVR announce is a headset a manufactured by HTC, the Taiwanese mobile company revealed over the weekend. Valve told us last week it planned to unveil virtual reality hardware at GDC, calling it “SteamVR” at the time. Now HTC has pre-empted Valve by revealing Vive, a headset developed thanks to a collaboration between […]

  • Watch the Evolve Chappie Challenge tomorrow on Twitch

    Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2K and Turtle Rock Studios have announced a tournament being hosted by ESL, which will see Evolve players take on newest movie robot, Chappie. The ESL has teamed up with Twitch for the live 4 on 1 competitive event, and you can watch as it all unfolds tomorrow, March 1 at 3pm […]

  • If you’re attending PAX East, stop and have a look at Necropolis

    We haven’t heard much on Harebrained Schemes’ latest since it was announced in November, but today, the team has seen fit to release some interesting gifs of its a new project, Necropolis. Necropolis is a third-person action rogue-like with procedurally generated which can be “re-rolled mid-playthrough” and is headed to Linux, Mac and PC sometime […]

  • Dragon’s Dogma Online really is lovely, as these screenshots prove

    More Dragon’s Dogma Online screenshots have been released, and this batch is just as lovely as the last gallery we posted. Since this game will likely never leave Japan, the images are a bit of a salt rub for fans of the IP, but hopefully another entry in the series will be released at some […]

  • Action-RPG Death’s Gambit has a classic-Castlevania feel to it

    How would you like to become an agent of Death and rid the world of immortals? Then Death’s Gambit may just be the game for you. Announced by LA-based studio White Rabbit, the action-RPG with platforming elements tasks players with fighting gigantic enemies on an alien, medieval planet. Players will also encounter formidable beasts, knights, […]

  • Modder adds offline co-op into Resident Evil: Revelations 2

    PC users lamenting the lack of local, offline co-op in Resident Evil: Revelations 2 will be pleased to know a modder has remedied the omission. The mod, created by FluffyQuack, adds offline co-op mode to Episode 1 but the only caveat is players will need to use gamepads instead of mouse and keyboard (via Gamespot). […]

  • Number of Steam accounts with Dota 2 installed hits over 42 million

    Dota 2 has seen its installation rate jump 85% year-over-year, resulting in the MOBA now having close to 43 million installations worldwide. The figures were published via a report from video game research and consulting firm EEDAR, which studied Steam accounts daily to better understand the service’s player behavior and title performance. According to statistics […]

  • Nintendo issuing Eon Ticket codes for Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire

    Nintendo is handing out an Eon Ticket to Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire owners which will allow them to visit the Southern Island. Once a player arrives, depending on which version of the game they own, Pokemon Latios and Latias are able to be caught. The Eon Ticket was originally issued via StreetPass, but […]

  • Here’s a couple The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt screenshots to brighten your day

    Two images for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt have surfaced on the game’s Facebook page. Grabbed by Gamekyo, the images show Gerlat and Vesemir chatting with a fellow, and the other shows Geralt riding up to some ruins where some people have been hanged. CD Projekt Red will make an appearance at PAX East next […]

  • Hyrule Warriors Boss Pack DLC contains unlockable character – potential spoilers

    While you already know the next DLC for Hyrule Warriors will allow you to play as the gigantic beast Ganon, there’s a rather humorous unlockable character contained in it as well. Potential spoilers follow below. When the DLC arrived in Japan February 26, YouTuber moccos-tan IsedelicaAs posted a video of the unlockable character, which is […]

  • Star Trek Online players gather on Vulcan to pay respects to Leonard Nimoy

    Star Trek Online players paid tribute to Leonard Nimoy yesterday by gathering around a fountain on Vulcan, the home planet of Spock in the Star Trek series. According to a post by barnacle999 on reddit, when he logged into the MMO “there were around 20 full instances and several partial,” culminating in around 1000 players […]

  • Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin gameplay video shows invasion of The Forlorn

    A new Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin gameplay video has been released, and provides the viewer with a look at the NPC invader system. Watch below as The Forlorn hunts down the player through the game with “with deadly skill and tenacity.” He even teams up with other enemies, making your fight […]

  • Visual upgrade for Wasteland 2, improved modding tools in the works

    A visual upgrade and improved mod tools are in the works for Wasteland 2, according to a blog post from inXile Entertainment. The upgrades will come about as the game’s codebase is migrated from Unity 4.5 to Unity 5. “A major benefit of moving to Unity 5 is that 5 will include many of the […]

  • Battlefield Hardline brings “Hollywood crime drama” to single-player campaign

    In the fifth developer diary for Battlefield Hardline, the team discusses how it’s bringing “Hollywood crime drama” to the shooter’s single-player campaign. The video was released a couple of days ago, so apologies are in order if this has been posted already, but I promise I searched the site and never found it. Visceral Games […]

  • Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a pause for tactics isometric RPG coming in 2016

    Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a 2.5D isometric RPG, built in the vein of Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age in the works at Withing Hour Studios. The game allows the player to pause combat to plan party tactics. “Set in the Venetian-inspired fantasy city of Ombre where rare masks are the key to casting magic, […]

  • Underworld Ascendant surpasses Kickstarter goal

    Underworld Ascendant which was launched on Kickstarter earlier this month, has met its  $600,000 funding goal. With six days left 10,786 backers pledged $610,541 In light of being funded, the team has also switched up the stretch goals as bit, as you can see in the image below. The studio, OtherSide Entertainment, is fronted by Paul Neurath, […]

  • Latest Evolve patch fixes progress and save game data loss on Xbox One

    A patch for Evolve has been released on Xbox One which fixes lost progress and save game data users had reported. The patch also fixes an issue with shadows and flashlight, makes incremental improvements to matchmaking, invites, and rejoining, and there were progressions balance changes. “The issue with lost progress and saved games was mostly […]

  • Online servers for Ridge Racer Unbounded shut down in Europe

    Online functionality for Ridge Racer Unbounded is no longer available, Namco Bandai Europe has announced. Solo mode and the track editor are still playable, minus the sharing options. Ridge Racer Unbounded was released on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in March 2013. Thanks, MCV.

  • OlliOlli will be a cross-buy title on 3DS and Wii U

    Curve Digital has announced OlliOlli will be a cross-buy title when it releases on 3DS and Wii U. The Roll7 title will be the first third-party title to offer the functionality on the systems. OllliOlli will be released on the eShop March 5 The game launches on Nintendo’s eShop on March 5th, followed by Xbox […]

  • Darkbeast electrifies latest Bloodborne video

    The latest Bloodborne video shows off another monster in the game. This one is Darkbeast and he’s full of electricity. The video is the last of IGN’s month-long coverage of the title.

  • Future Assassin’s Creed games will have greater focus on modern timeline

    Ubisoft plans to focus more on modern timelines in future Assassin’s Creed games, the company suggested during its latest community livestream. During the Twitch stream, one of the lead writers for the Assassin’s Creed series, Darby McDevitt, said the modern timeline for Brotherhood’s town of Monteriggioni could inspire future development. “That only came about because […]

  • Fruit Ninja Kinect 2 is coming to Xbox One next month

    Halfbrick has announced Fruit Ninja Kinect 2 for Xbox One will release next month. The mobile title made its way onto Xbox 360 garnering 1 million downloads as of March 2012. It has a new multiplayer mode for up to four players with Battle and Party modes along with a new progression system. An announcement […]

  • New GTA 5 PC screens – shit the bed!

    Rockstar has pumped out 15 new screens for the PC version of Grand Theft Auto 5. Don’t touch them, because they’re electric. And if you touch them, you’ll get shocked. The PC version of GTA 5 has been delayed until April 14, which both sucks and blows. BUT! There’s a new trailer coming between now […]

  • Sony Japan accidentally erases 20th Anniversary PS4 contest entries

    Sony Japan has accidentally erased all information obtained from PlayStation owners who entered to win a 20th Anniversary PlayStation 4. Those who purchased PlayStation 3, PS4, Vita or Vita TV between December 4 – January 15 were handed a calendar with a code which entered them into the contest. Somehow, all data collected from the […]

  • Hearthstone datamine suggests Blackrock Mountain expansion on the way

    Hearthstone’s next update may be based on World of Warcraft’s Molten Core raid, if datamined information posted on Hearthpwn is spot-on. According to files mined from the latest patch, three new cosmetic card backs are on the way, one of which is called Molten Core. The data suggests that pre-ordering the Blackrock Mountain expansion will […]

  • Using Battlefield Hardline single-player gadgets increases your metagame rewards

    Gadgets contained in Battlefield Hardline’s campaign mode have been detailed, and each provides the player with various ways in which to solve crimes. According to design director Scott Warner, one way to “diffuse” a conflict when confronted with criminal activity is to flash your badge and ordering the criminal to freeze. Putting your gun on […]

  • Mortal Kombat X video is all about story mode, new characters

    After promising a new Mortal Kombat X reveal “soon”, NetherRealm Studios has made good on said promise by releasing the story trailer. The video shows parts of the story mode featuring Mileena, which takes place 25 years after the events of 2011′s Mortal Kombat. Outworld has become a larger threat and new fighters joining the […]