2013 in Review: Narrative and Consequence in The Stanley Parable

Stanley glanced over the USgamer front page, looking for something to while away a few minutes before going back to work. It wasn't long before something oddly familiar caught his eye.

Article by Pete Davison, .

I know a lot of people said this back when Bastion came out, but more games need a narrator.

The Stanley Parable is a particularly fine example of the interesting things you can do with interactive storytelling when you throw a narrator into the mix. It allows you to explore all manner of things that can't be easily depicted visually or through game mechanics -- things like a character's innermost thoughts, or providing non-visual context to their actions, or indeed providing the player with an enticing opportunity to steer the narrative in a distinctly different direction to what the writers seemingly intended.

The Stanley Parable isn't the first game to make use of a narrator, of course, and nor was Bastion. Back in the '80s and '90s, adventure games -- particularly those from Sierra -- tended to make use of a third-person past-tense omniscient narrator as well as character dialogue in order to help tell their stories, and this is a tradition continued today in games such as Broken Sword 5, albeit in that case with a participant narrator recounting his experiences in the past tense.

The Stanley Parable is a particularly fine example of the interesting things you can do with interactive storytelling when you throw a narrator into the mix.

In the case of those old Sierra games and their ilk, though, the use of a narrator wasn't just a stylistic choice to convey a somewhat "storybook" feel; it was often a response to the technical limitations of the time preventing complicated actions from being depicted visually. In the case of certain titles, the narrator even became something of a character in their own right despite not actually appearing in the story directly -- Gabriel Knight's elderly African-American narrator not only speaks with a thick, drawling New Orleans accent firmly in keeping with the game's setting, for example, but also frequently cracks jokes at the eponymous hero's expense.

Where The Stanley Parable differs somewhat from these earlier games is that there's not one straight path through the game. Those old Sierra games made use of narration both to advance the story down a linear course to its conclusion and to provide color commentary along the way; The Stanley Parable, meanwhile, is less rigid in its structure in that it puts you in full control of the main character and gives you regular opportunities to completely ignore what the narrator has said and proceed down a different route.

Of course, the genius of The Stanley Parable is that all of those opportunities you get to be naughty and disobey the narrator aren't really game-breaking "freedom" at all. They're also scripted -- they're simply presented in a such a way as to make you think that you're doing the "wrong" thing. Only one path through the game gives the impression of being canonical, but the others, in which the narrator dispenses with his usual omniscient, past-tense detachment and instead starts addressing both Stanley the character and you, the person controlling him, are often far more interesting and hilarious.

The choices in The Stanley Parable are often binary in nature, but they never feel that way because you're not doing something as obvious as picking an item from a menu.

The Stanley Parable, then, gives us a good example of what happens when someone composing an interactive story makes full use of the video games medium to appropriately deal with consequences in a fairly believable manner. The choices in The Stanley Parable are actually often binary in nature -- go this way or go that way; obey or disobey -- but they never feel that way because you're not doing something as obvious as picking an item from a menu like in a visual novel or a BioWare game. Instead, you're always in full control of Stanley, always making a conscious decision to do one thing or the other, and, until the door slams shut behind you, you're given the freedom to turn around, change your mind and be a little indecisive about things.

In fact, in many situations where there only appears to be a single path forward, indecisiveness or a flat-out refusal to proceed is actually an option, and this is, in most cases, handled by the narrator just as if you'd chosen to go through the right door instead of the left one at the beginning.

At one point, there's an irrelevant broom closet you can duck into, for example; there's nothing of any use in there whatsoever, but the longer you stay in there, the more frustrated the narrator gets, eventually coming to the conclusion that you, the player, have died in front of your computer. From that point on, the narrator treats the situation as if the previous player has been removed from the room and a new person is now sitting down in front of the game. Persist in entering the broom closet in subsequent playthroughs and the narrator will eventually board it up.

Or how about the break room? This looks like any old room that you'd pass through on the way to that particular story path's conclusion, but if you choose to hang around in there, looking at the pictures on the wall and trying to interact with the drinks machine, the narrator again responds to your refusal to proceed with a few pithy remarks.

There's no "right" way to play the game, and despite the constant presence of the narrator breathing down your neck, you're actually given a surprising amount of freedom throughout.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the choices in The Stanley Parable, though, is that although they're usually binary in nature, they're never so simple as "good" and "evil." Even on the seemingly canonical path, where you have the opportunity to conclude Stanley's "official" story in one of two different ways, both have their own moral implications, and neither is necessarily "better" than the other.

But on the other paths, too, choosing to disobey the narrator isn't an inherently "evil" act -- in fact, given the narrator's behavior on some of the routes through the game, it could be argued that disobeying his instructions is, in fact, the "right" thing to do, assuming you're trying to keep Stanley alive and well. Unless, of course, you choose to see the game as a tragedy, in which case the choices with the most obviously negative repercussions for Stanley would be the "correct" things to do.

That's the beauty of it; there's no "right" way to play the game, and despite the constant presence of the narrator breathing down your neck, you're actually given a surprising amount of freedom throughout: freedom to choose, freedom to interpret the game as you see fit, freedom to chase the game's utterly ridiculous achievements via either fair means or foul. And whatever you choose to do, your choices are pretty much always acknowledged, with consequences to follow.

The Stanley Parable's approach to interactive narrative isn't necessarily right for all story-centric games, but it does set some good examples for future games to follow. Plus it's simply damned entertaining in its own right, so if you haven't yet experienced its peculiar joys, set aside a couple of hours and rectify that as soon as possible.

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Comments 3

  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    Honestly I think just the right amount of games have a narrator: very few. It's a cute gimmick in games like Bastion and Stanley Parable, but it can wear out it's welcome real quick. In Bastion in particular I felt like the choice to use a narrator, while novel and amusing, really distanced me from the story and made me care a lot less about the characters.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #2 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I've only played a little bit the the Stanley Parable, but really enjoyed the way it plays with narrative. So many great moments, and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface with it.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #3 CK20XX 4 years ago
    In my experience, narrators in games work best when they have a sour, sort of "Lemony" flavor to them, like in The Stanley Parable, The Bard's Tale, and the Space Quest series, where the narrator is liable to riff on what the character and/or player is doing wrong. You can also go the Darkwing Duck or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time way and have the main character be his own narrator. Playing the trope any straighter than that though tends to be distracting. People generally want to see and experience things for themselves in games, not be dictated to.
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