Breaking Out of the Routine: Player Agency in The Stanley Parable

Davey Wreden, creator of The Stanley Parable, talks about the nature of choice in games and fleshing out his original concept for an official release.

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Davey Wreden is delighted. I've just approached him after spending about 40 minutes playing his hilarious and thought-provoking game The Stanley Parable, and I'm finding it impossible to put my reactions into any kind of coherent sentence. "Can I just say this is the perfect response?" he says. "This is the only thing I ever want to hear from people."

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With a dozen ideas bouncing around in my head at once, I tried to explain to him that I loved the way that The Stanley Parable takes the fact that our choices in games almost always exist within a system that has been predesigned and in which our options are severely limited, and applies that to the real world and the choices that society sets up for us. "It's difficult for me to articulate it all immediately," I said.

"It should be difficult," Wreden said, "because that's the nature of those systems that you're describing, which are infinitely bigger than any one individual's perceptual sphere. I will never be able to expand my awareness enough to fully contain all of those broader structural implications. And to me, that's the starting point, acknowledging where I'm not capable of understanding those things, and embracing that and accepting that. I have to start from knowing that I cannot explain all of these things."

"To me, that's the starting point, acknowledging where I'm not capable of understanding those things, and embracing that and accepting that."
The Stanley Parable was originally a 2011 Half-Life 2 mod that cast you as Stanley, also known as employee 427. He works at a job that demands nothing of him and that never encourages him to think for himself or to question his existence. But then, one day, the instructions telling him which button to push stop coming, and he realizes that all of his fellow employees are gone. For the first time, it seems, Stanley can take some initiative, making choices for himself. But your perception of his freedom as a character and your freedom as a player is complicated by the presence of a narrator. When you reach a room with two doors you can go through, the narrator informs you that Stanley went through the door on the left.

But you don't have to do what the narrator says. You're free to carry on through the door on the right, to make your own choice. But how much is this choice really yours if you only make it to defy the narrator, and you're still operating within the limited confines of a system that has been created in its entirety before you even came into contact with it? If you defiantly proceed through the door on the right, the narrator carries on, adapting the story in a way that mocks the very idea that you can really, truly make your own choices.

In that sense, even when you don't play along, you're still playing along. The game is prepared for you to obey and prepared for you to defy. You are always operating within its system. You cannot escape. If, at one point, you opt not to go where the narrator says Stanley goes, but instead to follow a path marked ESCAPE, the narrator says that although the passageway is marked ESCAPE, at the end of the hall, Stanley will actually meet his violent death. But is the narrator being honest? What are his goals? What does he want from this whole experience?

The upcoming version of The Stanley Parable, which has achieved Greenlight approval and will be released on Steam, begins the same way as the original mod, and raises the same sorts of questions about the nature of choice in games and the relationship between what we know and feel and experience as the player and what the character we're playing knows and feels and experiences. However, it's not just a straight remake of the mod. I asked Wreden if the official version of The Stanley Parable was the game as he always envisioned it, the game he always really wanted to make.

"No, it wasn't. When the original game came out, and then [remake level designer William Pugh] contacted me, he said, 'I would love to help you make more stuff,' and he was really good. I made the original game in basically complete isolation, with no one else, and once a new relationship enters into your life, once you have someone new to bounce ideas off of, suddenly you just start to go nuts. Just bringing another perspective in helps pull something out of you that you didn't quite know was there, or helps tell you when something is not good enough. It's kind of a mirror to see yourself through. Because with the original, I designed it, I wrote it, I made the whole thing. There was no iteration or testing or anything. So the fact that I have been working with a collaborator--the fact that, because the game was successful, I've now been a part of a community of people, of other developers and enthusiasts, who have now given me so much new perspective to think about new things that I want to say. And I show it to playtesters. I show it to someone and they give me feedback, and that takes me in a new direction. In the beginning, it was just me, and now, it's this whole universe spread out before me, and each one of those makes me want to add something new."

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I told Davey about how I spent a few minutes standing in a broom closet precisely because there was no "point" in doing so. I was trying to find a way to make a real choice that would break away from the confined system the game makes it so clear that you're operating within, but it wasn't to be. The narrator mocked me mercilessly, asking me if I thought of this as some kind of branching path, joking that I might one day ask my fellow players if they also got "the broom closet ending." I said to Davey that it made me think about the whole way that we approach games. We often sit down to play a game with a specific goal in mind, aiming to play the game in a particular way to get a particular result, rather than having a more organic experience with it. But how organic an experience can we have with something that's designed to shuffle us along a particular path, or to let us choose from a few paths that are all already predesigned?

"Every way that people do that, that people bring themselves into a game, and are willing to make themselves vulnerable--each of those is really fascinating."
Wreden said, "I think player agency can happen in a game without it being on a technical level. I think I can subvert the narrative intentions of a game. I think I can subvert the nature of the atmosphere that it's created for me just with my own intention that I bring to it. And in that way, that's very private, very personal for me when I do that. Because I'm playing a game that essentially no one else is playing, when I bring something in my own personal little space. And I think that every way that people do that, that people bring themselves into a game, and are willing to make themselves vulnerable, and put whatever it is about them that they want to have like control, or understand the world around them--each of those is really fascinating. Which is why [I love] hearing people talk about The Stanley Parable--because it tends to be a mirror to reflect how people think about that layer of agency."

One thing is certain: Provided they can form their thoughts about this delightfully confounding experience into coherent sentences, people will have a lot to say about player agency when the official version of The Stanley Parable is released in a few months.

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