One of the terms that I’ve been hearing a lot lately is “experimental gameplay.” The other popular descriptor for games is to refer to some as art. They’re labels that seem to be haphazardly applied to anything that doesn’t conform completely to bog standard gameplay conventions. Gone Home was a game that the critics referred to as both experimental and art. While last week we found out that I disagree with those sentiments, I have found a game that both labels could apply to and certainly qualifies as experimental.
The Stanley Parable is an updated, full release of a 2011 Source engine mod. Like Gone Home, there’s no combat in The Stanley Parable. However, that’s where the similarities end. The Stanley Parable is so experimental, so unorthodox and so brilliant that it certainly earns its place as one of 2013’s best games.
Describing The Stanley Parable in any great detail is something that seemed exceedingly difficult as I was mapping out this review in my head. The game is so malleable that everything I describe could be altered if a different decision is made.
The Stanley Parable is, at first glance, a game about nothing. Follow the path laid before your and it all resolves itself neatly. Start to deviate and the game comes to life. Branching narrative paths and multiple endings are used in a way to be a meta analysis on the current tropes of gameplay and narrative design. And like many great games before it, The Stanley Parable delves into the psychology of gaming and gamers.
To go into the game into any greater detail than that would be risking massive spoilers. Suffice to say that this game manages to be smart and funny and brilliant in a way that never feels sanctimonious. It’s just a brilliantly balanced experience that everyone should try, even if it’s just playing the demo.
Like last week’s Gone Home, there aren’t really any gameplay mechanics (well, apart from the way navigating through the world changes the narrative as mentioned above). You walk around in a first-person point-of-view and can interact with certain objects. There’s no combat. There’s a little bit of puzzle solving. And that covers it. In a world that’s so up in arms over ludonarrative dissonance, that’s the last thing that you’re going to find in The Stanley Parable.
The graphics are what you’d expect at this point for a Source engine game. I would call them a little closer to the original Portal in terms of quality than, say, Portal 2 but the game doesn’t suffer for slightly dated looking graphics. However, if you’ve played the original Stanley Parable mod, the graphics have been updated and certainly look better. I suppose that what you think of the graphic will largely be determined by your basis of comparison.
The audio, on the other hand, is absolutely fantastic. Sure, the sound effects seem to be largely out of Valve’s catalog that they use for their games but the narrator is absolutely fantastic. Kevan Brighting’s work narrating the story stands up among the greatest of voiceover work that I’ve ever heard. To use another Source engine example, Brighting is every bit as good as the narrator as Ellen McLain is as GLaDOS. Absolutely spectacular work that needs to be heard to truly be appreciated.
If I had played this sooner, The Stanley Parable might have jumped Gunpoint as my favourite indie game of 2013. I’m not going to change my best indie game of 2013 because I’ve already named it but that doesn’t change the fact that I absolutely love this game.
The Stanley Parable is a smart game that can be described as experimental and artistic while still easily qualifying as just plain fun. Like Gone Home, this isn’t going to be a game for everyone but it certainly was a great game for me. It terms of being a metaanalysis of gaming, it stands up to the likes of BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line. In terms of dark humour, it’s as good as Portal. I don’t think I can give it higher praise than that.
The Stanley Parable was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and how many times you play through the game. The more, the better.