My son Miguel introduced me to The Stanley Parable video game yesterday. A-ma-zing. I’ve never been into video games, probably because I’ve never had the time to play them. And my son knows this, so when he said “Mom, I want to show you a video game I think you’ll like”, my surprise and curiosity produced a “Sure!”. And he was right, I was completely blown away.
The Stanley Parable is not an action game. No guns, lasers or fast cars. It is about… mind control. Really. On a very meta-physicial, “whoa”, kind of level. It’s about… video games. What is a video game, and what should it be about? Who decides the constructs? As the narrator asks you, the protagonist, “Do you have any idea what your purpose in this place is?” And, in a way, it’s about life. “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same,” we are told, as the game scene becomes a museum of the game itself. Yes, you can walk around a Stanley Parable museum in the Stanley Parable game.
Some other very mind-bending features: First, you have a break in the fourth wall. The what? I had no idea what that meant when Miguel mentioned it, so I pressed. It turns out that some video games treat you as the main player, others as the audience. The audience is behind the “fourth wall” of the theatre (the other three being the sides and back of the stage). In Stanley, you are “inside” Stanley, you are Stanley, but at the same time you are being told what Stanley is doing in the third person.
Second, I have never come across a game that makes me laugh so hard. The absurdity and theatre of the narration are brilliant, and the snide cajoling and histrionics turn the narrator into a delightful antagonist. “Stanley obviously thinks I have nothing better to do with my time,” the narrator deadpans if you (=Stanley) take too long to respond.
Third, while many video games have stunned me with the artwork, none before have left me open-mouthed at the plot twists. In one of the endings, when you follow the narrator’s instructions, you enter a vault which reveals that all of Stanley’s colleagues, as well as himself, have been under mind control all this time. Doing what they were told to do. And then you realise that this is just what you have done. Things get interesting when you choose to not do what the narrator says. The plot gets whacky, and the narrator’s dialogue gets surreal.
Fourth, the detail is as interesting as the plot. In the meeting room which the narrator wants you to go through, there are charts on the wall that suggest things like making charts more “hip” to appeal to the teenage demographic, and then finding teenagers to put in a demographic (“big nets?” is one suggestion). There is a PowerPoint slide show in motion, with slides like “Number of slides on this slide”, and “The Boss Appreciation Minute”. Hilarious.
In short, a game with humour and whimsy, and a twisted sense of right, wrong and happy endings. I’m not about to become a video game player. But my appreciation of the art form has just been moved up a level.