You know freedom? That neat notion that you can choose the things you do and that those choices are meaningful? Yeah, well. About that.

Let me try again: The Stanley Parable is an interactive existential crisis. And it’s turning out to be a bastard to review, because it kinda sorta just depresses the shit out of me.

But in a good way.

You might know The Stanley Parable from back when it was a Half-Life 2 mod. Now an independent Source-engine title, the game hands you the strings of a chap named, well, Stanley, who finds himself alone at the office one day. But not the kind of alone that implies he was the only employee not to get an invitation to the staff Christmas party (although you never know).

There is a narrator. The narrator talks about Stanley in the third person, dictating in the past tense what he’s about to have done before he does it: “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left,” to give one early example. And right away, it’s there – the will to rebel.

Of course, you’re allowed to do just that. Go on, pick the door on the right, you firestarter you! “This was not the correct way to the meeting room, and Stanley knew it,” the narrator responds. And therein lies the catch: you are, whatever you do, this game’s bitch.

The Stanley Parable illustrates the essence of the existential assertion: that all choices are equal; and that one can take that howsoever the fuck one wants. The very medium of this piece of fiction is your foe, every ending (and by extension every beginning) not so much a finish but an elaborate interactive game-over. The choices available to you – and yes, this includes secrets and cheats – are revealed as things that represent not the potential for freedom, but the carefully orchestrated destruction of freedom.

“As you explore, slowly, meaning begins to arise, the paradoxes might start to make sense, perhaps you are powerful after all.” That’s what developer Galactic Cafe’s blurb says, but I’m not feeling so optimistic. The Stanley Parable is compelling, but it’s uncomfortable, and in one or two places pretty bleak. Now that I’ve seen a good few of the endings, it feels a little empty. And not in the way that poor games with wooden systems feel empty; more in the way that life can feel empty when, at 3am on a Monday morning, you realise you’re just a rat in a maze. Its greatest strength is the way it programmatically demonstrates the simple truth that everything possible is permitted; that “escape” is fundamentally impossible.

So I’m thankful that it carries a fitting dose of the laughs. Its absurd humour brings to mind the charming and unhinged stream of consciousness spouting from Portal’s GLaDoS, and – in concert with the carefully generic office artefacts and the labyrinthine, recursive layout of the setting – it conspires to transform The Stanley Parable into a surreal, almost timeless abstraction. It also has the best achievements of any game ever (“Don’t play The Stanley Parable for five years”).

Look, I can’t say much more. I’ve probably said too much already. If you haven’t yet, you need to get it, because it is exactly the sort of work that illustrates why interactive fiction is important. The themes it explores are not new, but they wield an entirely fresh impact that wouldn’t be possible without making the observer – the player – the agent. I’m aware that one could make this case for just about every game, but the way The Stanley Parable takes the piss out of the primate plonking away at the keyboard is a special kind of special.

Just have a little patience with it. And remember, it’s only a game.

The Stanley Parable is available on Steam for US$14.99.

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