The Stanley Parable is nothing if not subversive. Originally released two years ago as a Half-Life 2 modification, this narrative-driven adventure twisted our expectations for what constitutes choice within an interactive medium. And now, as a re-imagining of that novel experiment is set to come out, a demonstration of the upcoming update has turned the very notion of a demo on its head. How many demos have you ever heard of that don’t contain one element found in the game proper? Or one that is as much about the pure joy of embarking on a journey as it is a heady rumination on the foundations of this industry? The Stanley Parable demo is a remarkable achievement that holds a mirror toward gaming trends while smiling broadly at its own infectious whimsy.
There is a demonstration set to begin momentarily, but while you're waiting, why not first explore the inner workings of how a demo is put together? The Stanley Parable shatters the fourth wall, and in the process, zooms its view so far out that you're removed entirely from the typical confines of a game. You're lead on a tour of a development studio, accompanied by an insightful narrator, and you learn the inner workings of how emotions are formed, experience the illusion of choice, and get a sneak peak at demo-creation guidelines. As the narrator blubbers when technical difficulties arise, or berates you when you ignore his directions, you're treated to a scathing look at the machinations of developers, the publishers in charge of making money, and the consumers who willingly heed their orders. Cynical? Maybe, but good humor can often distract you from the darker assertions being made.
When I hear publishers boast of the scores of programmers churning away on their latest blockbuster--hundreds of people from around the world all with their own responsibilities--I often question how much personality can be injected into such a game. The Stanley Parable welcomes you into a cold, desolate factory, a place that looks like it would be more likely to serve as the home to cars stripped for parts than a place where exciting ideas are dreamed up. Dubbed “The Stanley Parable Demo Construction Facility,” this sad building makes a damning argument against assembly-line development. How can art be created in a place that's so devoid of life? Where are creative sparks given room to grow into passionate flames? No deeper examination into large-scale productions is given (the factory is merely a backdrop for more specific elements), but we're left to ponder the true value of such endeavors.
After we're given an overview of the factory from a steel catwalk, we're ushered into a room plastered with glowing red buttons along two walls. We're asked to push a button, any at all, and then we're told what that button says about us. My assessment was less than flattering. “Did you know that 94% of all people who select that particular button are sexual predators?” Of course, no matter which button you choose, the same verdict is issued. And isn't that so often the case in games that use “choice” as their narrative hook? Just remember the outrage last year when Mass Effect 3 distilled three game’s worth of decisions into a just a trio of possible endings. Choice is often an illusion because we're going to be ushered down the same path no matter what we truly desire. Being able to decide how to proceed has always made me feel so powerful, but I do realize that our true impact is vastly overstated.
From there, I entered a room tantalizingly called “Wall Technology.” Clearly, such a dull-sounding name must contain something truly amazing. In it, there's a wall, a normal brick wall, that the narrator promises you can walk through. When you bump your head against it, you realize that's not true at all, and he quickly apologizes for the finicky technology and pushes you to the next exhibit. This simple room really resonated with me. The average reader may not realize this, but publishers often send a list of bugs we should ignore when they ship review copies of a game on a debug unit. Of course, we never just accept their word that busted features are going to be magically made perfect in the retail product, but it's still fascinating seeing this demo explore that concept.
The next stop on the tour is a place that would make David Cage blush. Lockers labeled with different feelings fill a room, and we're told that the heart of a game is created here. “These booths convert text from a story into raw emotion.” If only it was that easy. So often we hear developers argue that technology is a way to harness emotions. As if pumping up the polygon count or exploring the uncanny valley of faces can conjure genuine feelings. This room, like every other place in this game, pokes fun at this idea through humorous observations. When you step into a booth marked “Despair,” words float past your field of vision. “Education.” “Doubt.” “Confident-ish.” “French.” “Having a mustache.” Clearly, the developers of The Stanley Parable demo have a very different view of despair than the average person, though we can all relate to how troubling being confident-ish can be.
As you progress deeper into the tour of this facility, you're treated to more and more steely observations of this industry. One room offers compliments to players, which boosts their self esteem. A happy players is an engaged player, right? In that room, I was praised for being one of the top 4,700 players in the world. Just how empty does it feel to be arbitrarily placed on a leaderboard? As you’re going through all of these exhibits, the narrator continually reminds you that what you’re playing isn’t the demo, it’s just a tour of how demos are made. And then you're asked to rank how effective the demo is. Before you can decide, however, the narrator berates you for being so quick to judge before you've even played the demo proper. Oh, how well that echoes the frothing hype we feel for games we've never even played. The Stanley Parable doesn't just laugh at development, it makes us look at our own actions as well. And I could only giggle at the hollowness of getting an achievement for putting a cup in a barrel. Yes, I admittedly like when those notifications pop up, but what value do they really have? Especially when the task we accomplished is so easy.
Although The Stanley Parable demo only lasts for a half hour, it somehow examines a huge variety of trends with its razor-sharp wit. My personal favorite comes after you leave the facility. I triggered an event that broke the demo, and the narrator was really angry at me. He lambasted me for thinking on my own, for doing something other than was intended by the development team. And I laughed, because it was hilarious, but I also shook my head. There are strict rules about what we can and cannot do in the ultra-linear games that populate store shelves, and if we so much as step one foot outside the line, we're punished. I must have killed Uncharted's Nathan Drake dozens of times for daring to leap in a direction that wasn't intended.
As strange as it may seem, The Stanley Parable demo is one of the finest games I've played so far this year. I wish more games readily dissected the ills so many of its competitors commit. There are a few such examples--such as when Spec Ops: The Line delved deep into the psychological disconnect in military shooters--but such attempts at meaningful, interactive criticism are rare. But I don't love The Stanley Parable demo just because it has the guts to construct such arguments; what makes this brief, behind-the-scenes foray so fascinating is how such messaging is delivered. For those like me who have grown tired of certain widespread problems, The Stanley Parable demo delivers the cleanse I so desperately want. If you would rather just laugh and experience something unique, the demo fulfills those desires as well. It's a really clever experience. And to think this was only a demo. Just imagine what the entire game will entail.