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Playing like nobody's watching in The Stanley Parable


The Stanley Parable casts you as a nondescript soul in a nondescript office building. From this mundane beginning emerges a skewed story of a man making choices, both small and serious, and a player expressing their importance in a video game. It's clearly a thoughtfully considered, deliberately tuned and – what's that? "We didn't actually think about this when we were designing the game"?

So said William Pugh, one of the designers behind The Stanley Parable, the first-person adventure game that initially took form as a Half-Life 2 mod. Davey Wreden, creator of the original version in 2011, shared the stage with Pugh in a candid analysis of their game during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Wreden proposed his parable as a stage of sorts: props are given to the player, who arranges the scene as an expression of themselves. What makes this more interesting and obvious in The Stanley Parable is the game's lack of a larger challenge. Wreden said it's "not about the outcome, it's not about where you're getting to, it's not about the challenge you're going to overcome." Without a directive towering over you, without a clear winning condition and monster to be foiled, the choices "would have to be inherently expressive."

Pugh pointed to one of the game's first choices, one that many players did not even acknowledge as such: the door you select. Whether you choose to walk through the left door or the right door "comes from inside," Pugh said. Some might push against the game's authority, which tells them to pick one over the other, or simply test whether the parable is even paying attention. Maybe you always go left as a matter of gaming habit.

Though the outcomes aren't important in The Stanley Parable, the final moment of the demo – which asks whether you liked it with in-game yes or no buttons – gave some players pause: "People were quite self-conscious deciding whether they liked the game or not," Pugh said. Did this outcome have a real-world consequence? Were the creator's peeking into the player's box?

"If we as designers remove the box, but still give the players interesting props, then they as the players get to build the box," Wreden said. In removing focus on challenges – on beating the game – The Stanley Parable invites you to play like nobody is watching.

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