Originally Published: 19/11/2015
Galactic Cafe’s The Stanley Parable describes itself as a game where “You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice.” (2013). However if you would like a choice you can click here, this is not a blog post.
The Stanley Parable is paradox of a game, in this essay I will investigate why it is an excellent example of a Postmodern Metanarrative. By using Jerome Bruner and David Kalmar’s theories of Narrative and Metanarrative in the Construction of Self (1998), we can begin to see why a game like The Stanley Parable is such an important piece of media; it is a game that forces us to confront an uncomfortable sense of self awareness.
Before we can begin to explore this, we need to better understand what a Postmodern Narrative is. As defined by James Fleming (2015), Postmodern Narratives tend to reject their own story, they celebrate multiple endings, lack of meaning and reject forms of writing or differentiating between forms of high or low literature. Postmodernism is in conflict with modernism, and rejects the modernist tendency to look for meaning in a chaotic world. An example of a modernist narrative that postmodernism rejects would be the way in which Disney movies appropriate old tales to suit a more modern world. Disney narratives will remove the part of the story where Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cut off their heels and toes in order to fit in the glass slipper; they change this in order remove inexplicable chaos or actions.
The Stanley Parable makes use of key postmodern narrative techniques that are built into the game’s Temporal Distortion of the non-linear timeline and the game’s multiple endings. On one end of the spectrum, the game makes use of Minimalism in its choice of characters and events which are decidedly common. On the other hand, it also employs Magic Realism where it introduces unrealistic events into a realistic narrative. The game also plays largely on Reader Involvement, or more accurately, Player Involvement, where it directly addresses the player. The narrator often acknowledges the unusual or contradictory nature of the events being described. However, the most important postmodern narrative technique would be the games Metanarrative, or as Flemming (2015) describes, Metafiction, “The act of writing about writing or making readers aware of the fictional nature of the very fiction they’re reading”.
The Stanley Parable could easily be called a narrative about a narrative; the player is often made to feel aware that they are playing a game. The game constantly breaks the fourth wall and frequently allows the player to be in direct conflict with the narrator. By effectively incorporating the Player Involvement in the Metanarrative, the game makes the player acutely aware of themselves and their actions. It could also be a device employed by the developers to make players more aware of their choices during a game. This supports The Stanley Parable as a way of defying a modern approach to a game’s narrative, whereby players have either linear story arcs or the same narrative regardless of their choices. An example of this could be a game like The Witcher 3, (CD Projekt RED, 2015); while it offers a variety of different endings, the overall story arc is the same, where the hero, Geralt, ultimately triumphs over the antagonist, the Wild Hunt. It should be noted the even The Stanley Parable offers a modern narrative ending; provided the player follows all of the narrators prompts in the game, they are rewarded with an arguably “positive” ending. However, the game almost rejects this modern ending and makes the player feel very aware that this is the most positive ending and almost mocks the outcome as predictable.
In his 2015 GDC Talk, one of the game’s writers, William Pugh, discusses the humorous nature of The Stanley Parable and the importance of this mockery in video game development. Pugh notes the importance of the spaces in between choices as essential moments for narrative interaction in getting players to the next choice. He notes the broom closet in The Stanley Parable, where the only options the player has are to either leave or not leave the broom closet, connecting the player and the narrator in a humorous back and forth situation. This ties content to Player Interaction and Player Inaction. Another example of this Player Interaction and Player Inaction is the ‘press the big red button to save the cardboard cut-out baby’. There are many players who interacted with this extraordinarily humorous and pointless scenario, spending hours just pushing a button. While most players would choose inaction, Youtuber GamesWithHank had one such interaction, with the only real reward being some humorous dialogue and being called ‘the essence of divine art’ (2014).
Pugh also discusses dealing with the repetition of the game and the design choice, the importance of randomised elements, assets and narrator dialogue in order to add to the mystery of the game (2015). He notes how players thought the developers were smarter than they actually were. Many players believed that some of the randomised elements were a result of the endings and choices they had made in a previous game. In response, the developers added an instance of this to the game; in one playthrough Stanley may take a call about ordering thousands of boxes and in the next playthrough of the game the office is filled with boxes. Ultimately, while player choices may be reflected, they are also made to feel insignificant once we understand the game’s process of randomisation.
Most of the game’s endings result in Stanley’s death, serving as part of the postmodern convention of the unreliable narrator. This is clearly shown when the player defies every one of the narrator instructions from the start; the narrator lures you into a solitary room with the possibility of a loving wife, where he proceeds to tell you how you should be playing the game and the game resets. “Hahahahahaha, Got-cha! Oh, come on. Did you actually think you had a loving wife? Who’d want to commit their life to you? I’m trying to make a point here, Stanley, I’m trying to get you to see something. Come inside. Let me show you what’s really going on here.” Before another imminent death, there is an ending where the game’s primary narrator comes into conflict with another narrator. The other, feminine narrator takes the player to a museum that houses all the games assets, allowing them to roam around, listening to some interesting narrative about how they are just playing a game. Once they are brought back into the game world this other narrator tells you that you can save Stanley simply by restarting the game and that you don’t need to listen to the primary narrator. These two endings illustrate how the game employs a Postmodern Philosophy that posits the world as being impossible to strictly define or understand.
Through its use of these Postmodern Metanarrative devices, the game forces the players to become aware of themselves as players. The game goes to great lengths to show us that we play both as Stanley and not as Stanley, we have choice but are limited. Brunerand and Kalmar argue that we recognise Self (in ourselves or others) as a convertible version of narrative, “Self is a narrative construction, and as such, operates under the same constraints as narrative construction in general”. By forcing players to confront this narrative we become acutely aware of our own narrative and this Self comes into question.
In his essay, Mizzi discusses the interpretation of Danto’s principles of art in relation to video games and asks an interesting question: ‘’The ‘end of art’ is a theory of consciousness – of how a developmental sequence of events terminates in the consciousness of that sequence as a whole. If art has become its own subject, as it has under modernism, and the viewer is indeed part of art as I have shown earlier, then where is the art that deals with the role of the viewer?” (2015). Indeed, the game could be considered a narrative art form that deals with the role of the viewer, with Mizzi discussing The Stanley Parable as a game that embodies an emphasis on player decisions, however The Stanley Parable goes further.
Video games and their interactive nature construct an ideological Self through game play. In relation to gameplay, this Self is both the player and the character which they are playing. There is a paradox in this desire for freedom in the way we are introduced to Stanley as someone without freedom, guided only by orders, pushing buttons in servitude. This ties into the overall “good” story arc, where Stanley escapes from a mind control facility to freedom.“Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job, suddenly something very peculiar happened. Something that would forever change Stanley”. It is at this moment that we are given control over Stanley, becoming the player Self, we are embedded with a sense of freedom and control, until we are confronted by the narrator. “I don’t understand. How on earth are you making meaningful choices? What did you—–wait a second. Did I just see, no that’s not possible. I can’t believe it. How had I not noticed it sooner? You’re not Stanley. You’re a real person!” – Narrator
In his paper, De Wildt (2014) talks about the freedom of the player subject in The Stanley Parable. All digital games require a player to act, but usually the players actions are still limited by script. The Stanley Parable reflects this freedom and lack thereof. There is tension between the player and the narrator, as the player Self wants to feel the freedom that is usually promised with interactive media. The game again forces an awareness on the player, the narrator makes it known that you have limited freedom and the there are but a few paths open to you, your actions are confined. When we play games in general, we consciously confine ourselves to the rules of play, the restrictions of the game, and The Stanley Parable shines light on that. Forcing players to confront their understanding of Self in relation to the world, do we make our own decisions or are we limited by the rules and paths in front of us?
But why is this confrontation of Self so important? Brunerand and Kalmar conclude that, much like The Stanley Parable, our self-concepts, while resilient, are also vulnerable and rewritable. The game forces us to confront the belief that the idea of Self is an adaptable instrument in human culture. Through the use of the Postmodern Metanarrative, The Stanley Parable forces us to confront the fragility of our own world and our own personal narrative.
- Galactic Cafe. (2013) The Stanley Parable. [PC game]. Various Countries: Steam.
- J, Brunerand. D. R, Kalmar. (1998) Narrative and Metanarrative in the Construction of Self. In M, Ferrari. R. J, Sternburgs (Eds.), Self Awareness Its nature and Development (Chapter 11). New York: the Guilford Publications, Inc.
- J, Fleming (2015). Postmodernism in Literature: Definition & Examples [Video & Lesson Transcript] Retrieved from:
- CD Projekt RED (2015) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. [Video Game]. World wide: Multiple Publishing Platforms.
- William Pugh (2015). How To Make Your Game Just Completely Hilarious: The Stanley Parable [GDC Talk] Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/pLbmZT70rtA
- GamesWithHank (2014). I Clicked A Button For 4 Hours…(Seriously) – The Stanley Parable – The End. [Game Play Video] Retrieved From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lv540EjHl7w
- D.Mizzi (2015). What Video Games Are: An Application of Danto’s Theory of Art. Inter-disiplinary.net: Critical Issues. Retrieved From: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/critical-issues/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Mizzi_VG7draftpaper.pdf
- L, De Wildt. (2014). Precarious Play: To Be or Not to Be Stanley. Press Start 1(1), 1-10. Retreived from: http://press-start.gla.ac.uk/