Stanley is an analogue of adult life. He has a boring job, an apartment and a wife, and he seems content with it all. At first glance, he's everything we're told we should strive to be in life. Work hard and you'll be happy and all of that.
It doesn't take long, however, before Stanley is presented as much more than a simple office drone. He's an iconoclast, a character whose wildly varying experiences throughout The Stanley Parable challenge established notions of storytelling. The result is a series of entirely unexpected events that feel varied and wholly original – a ride that uses a familiar first-person vehicle to reach thrilling, uncharted destinations. Kevan Brighting shines.
The narrator tells you where to go, where Stanley wants to go, and you can choose to follow his lead or ignore him. Making these choices drives forward a roller coaster ride of commentary on things great and small, from life's quandaries to traditional gaming conventions.
In one scene, Stanley's inner voice asks why he can't see his feet when he looks down. The narrator then goes on to ask why doors close of their own volition when Stanley walks through them. When I try to open the door to a closed office, the narrator sighs and says I must be after some achievement. He questions whether I really want it, then sets Stanley off on an exciting and escalating quest of trying to open other office doors, interacting with copy machines and climbing on top of desks before awarding me the achievement with much exuberance. Together we had truly achieved something, he boasts.
In a less accidental scenario, Stanley comes upon a mind control facility and sees a separate hallway where he may supposedly escape to freedom. Heading down that hallway, the narrator warns that the escape is certain death; turning around to head back, the narrator expresses relief at Stanley's newfound zest for life. Turning around again, and accepting the impending doom, the narrator expresses great frustration, lamenting Stanley's indecisiveness.
I don't want to ruin some of the more enlightening revelations at the heart of The Stanley Parable, but know that the game tackles subjects both great and small. In one playthrough, Stanley is found dead near a train platform. Apparently he was running around town, screaming like a mad man, only to have his corpse discovered by a woman on her way to work. As the narrator explains, this poor woman's life is changed forever by stumbling upon this sad, dead man.
It's this bouncing between serious tone and irreverence that makes The Stanley Parable so special. You never know what to expect and the thrill of discovering something new is reinforced by great narration and often capricious events. But more than anything, it's this choice at the center of it all that makes The Stanley Parable a game about self-discovery.
I ultimately concluded that it's not so much about the end as it is the journey itself. At first I was curious just to see where a new path would lead, but eventually The Stanley Parable became more than that - it was about finding answers to the questions left by my previous experience.
This brings up my only complaint: There are sections of The Stanley Parable that you'll inevitably be forced to play again and again. Blazing your own path can bring about a sudden end to the game, thrusting you back into Stanley's office to start the adventure once more. There is a benefit to replaying sections, though. For one, it's fun to rush through an area and incite the ire of the narrator, who gets peeved when you don't give him enough time to belt out his cherished lines. How dare you be so impatient?
It's unfair to call The Stanley Parable short. It's kind of unfair to even call it a game, in some respects. The Stanley Parable is an experiment conducted on the player, an attempt to help you discover who you are. Are you the kid with a toy box, happy to simply interact with things and see how they work? Do you want to break stuff? Are you the kid who shuts the toy box and walks away? Do you want to be told what to do? Do you hate being told what to do? Do you just want Stanley to be happy? Do you want to rule the world?
The conclusion of my own personal experiment was that I discovered I don't like doubt; I don't like having unanswered questions, especially when I have the faculties to clear away uncertainty and find resolution. Your own conclusion is bound to be very different from mine – and that's something we should all celebrate.
This review is based on a Steam download of The Stanley Parable, provided by developer Galactic Cafe. The Stanley Parable is currently available on Steam for $12, 20 percent off its usual $15 asking price, until October 23.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.