As someone who played The Stanley Parable back when it was a Source mod, I was intrigued but concerned about the prospect of an "HD Remix."
Sure, it would be nice to have the game reimagined with original textures and models rather than those rather obviously pulled straight out of Half-Life 2 -- indeed, the original game even extracted a whole level from the original Half-Life 2 at one point -- but I was worried that a simple graphical overhaul wouldn't be enough to make me want to play it all through again, even as short and as entertaining as it was.
Fortunately, The Stanley Parable's HD Remix has enough new content to keep you well and truly surprised, even if you've seen everything the original mod had to offer.
Those of you who have never come across The Stanley Parable nor played its genuinely excellent demo are probably a little confused right now, though. What is The Stanley Parable?
Well, it's one of those games that it's difficult to describe without spoiling. But here goes, anyway.
The Stanley Parable is one of those "first-person walking" games in which you wander around a completely non-violent experience exploring the environment and unravelling the story -- think Dear Esther, or the more recent Gone Home.
There's a twist, though; rather than simply uncovering a fragmented story for yourself through finding items, reading things and/or listening to voiceovers, The Stanley Parable directly addresses you, the player -- or, more accurately, Stanley, the character you're playing -- through its narrator. And herein lies the main appeal of the game: unlike Dear Esther and Gone Home which, despite the illusion of freedom, pretty much railroaded you on a straight line to the finish, The Stanley Parable gives you the choice on numerous occasions to disobey the narrator. There is a "set" story to follow that ponders the concept of mind control, which you complete with the ironic realization that you've simply been "controlled" by the narrator's words all along, but this is no more or less the "best" ending than any of the other possible conclusions; it's up to you how you choose to behave and what you choose to take away from the experience.
"When Stanley came to a room with two doors," says the narrator as you enter the room in question, "he entered the door on his left." Here you're presented with a dilemma; do you follow the instructions the narrator just gave you, or do you wilfully make a choice to go in the other direction and see what happens? What is the right thing to do?
The beautiful thing about The Stanley Parable is that there is no "right" thing to do. Every action you take, be it wandering off in the opposite direction to that which the narrator told you to standing immobile in a broom closet for five minutes, is acknowledged, and can often lead in some surprising narrative directions. Many of these directions cast the narrator in different roles; sometimes he's a supportive presence, urging you onwards through the story, while at others he takes on the role of antagonist, punishing you for your disobedience. He's an omniscient, omnipresent figure constantly watching over your shoulder, and it's not an exaggeration to say that he's one of the greatest "invisible characters" in gaming since SHODAN and GLaDOS.
For those who did play the original and know all the hidden surprises it had to offer, you'll be pleased to note that this new version plays with your expectations in numerous ways. Most of the endings from the original game are present, but often you have to make different choices to get there. Proceeding down a path you thought you were familiar with from the original mod will often lead you in an unexpected direction, and a number of the endings have been changed significantly. Some of them work better than others -- a couple feel somewhat overwrought, like they're trying too hard to be clever, but it could be argued that this in itself is a self-conscious meta-commentary on the "art games" trend. You never can be quite sure how serious the game wants you to take it.
The game pokes fun at more general modern gaming conventions and player behavior throughout, too; one of the achievements simply pops up if you toggle the appropriate option in the menu, another isn't anywhere near as simple as its description suggests, and another challenges you not to play the game for five years. The narrator will often berate you for interrupting him by charging ahead when he's in the middle of a speech or making use of information that Stanley couldn't possibly know, and in at least one of the possible routes through the game you can cause the narrative to completely collapse, leaving you listening to the narrator having something of an existential crisis. By far my favorite, though, is the one where the narrator, so frustrated at your consistent disobedience, warps you back to the initial "two doors" choice and provides you with a third option that leads you down a surreal and hilarious path that I genuinely wasn't expecting at all.
But we're getting worryingly close to specifics here, and that's something I'm keen to avoid; the joy of The Stanley Parable comes in pushing up against that fourth wall and seeing where it's weakest for yourself. Sometimes it's solid, sometimes it wobbles and sometimes it collapses altogether. You'll be surprised at just how much thought writer Davey Wreden has given to all the possible things a player might try to do in his playground; the freedom is all an illusion, of course, as you're still following discrete, pre-scripted narrative paths, but the sheer number of possible branching points and how naturally they're integrated into the game is impressive to see. It's rare you feel like you're making a binary choice; more often than not, discovering a new branch is the result of thinking "I wonder if..." and then trying something to see if it works. Spoiler: it usually does.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Many of the environments are bland, but deliberately so; delightful hidden details show their faces everywhere if you're willing to look, however.
- Music and Sound: Kevan Brighting's voiceover as the narrator is exemplary, and the minimal but effective use of music makes a number of the game's routes surprisingly poignant.
- Interface: If you know how to drive a first-person shooter, you'll be at home here; it even supports gamepads for those playing from the couch.
- Lasting Appeal: A single "runthrough" is only about 20 minutes or so, and finding all the endings probably won't take all that long, either. While you may not want to return to it yourself all that often, it's a great "coffee table game" to break out any time you have guests and want to show them the more unusual, interesting side of gaming.
By turns hilarious, disturbing, witty and poignant, The Stanley Parable is a successful experiment in the video game medium's inherent interactivity and how this can affect an author's story -- for good and for ill.
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