Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Graduated Gamer Reviews: The Stanley Parable

[SPOILER ALERT…? – I try very hard to exclude any and all spoilers from this review. The joy of playing a game like The Stanley Parable is the exploration, discovery, and mystery within it and I would hate to spoil that for anyone. I did not include anything in detail in this review pertaining to endings or Easter Eggs one can find in the game. I simply discuss the merits of the game, its uniqueness, the gameplay, a bit of the plot, and some of what makes the game amazingly worthwhile for a short and cheap title. You've been warned, but I doubt you’ll feel cheated out of any experience by reading this.]

I can honestly say I've never played a game like The Stanley Parable before. When people say it’s hard to define this game, they aren't kidding. I was very unsure what to expect when diving into this game. I had heard all the accolades from expert reviews and fellow gamers alike, but  I like to think for myself sometimes and actually try a game out to see if it’s as good or bad as people say. However, to say that I take a chance on an experimental game like this regularly would be a lie, especially one for the PC. Given that games were a luxury growing up for me, it’s still hard to this day to drop any amount of money on a title that I’m not 100% sure I’ll enjoy. However, sometimes I surprise even myself, and it’s a good thing too because The Stanley Parable surprised me in how amazingly enjoyable it was.

One might expect that a $15 game won’t get you much. Well that all depends on what defines entertainment value for you as a gamer. If you’re looking for a sprawling game that will eat up loads of your time like an RPG, you won’t find that here. If you’re looking for something that’ll scare you senseless or make you feel like a badass with big guns and explosives, then this game may not appeal to you. However, if you’re looking for something that is as funny as it is engrossing and unique, then you won’t find a better way to spend $15 on Steam.

Stop lying to yourself - you know you'll enjoy this game.

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. As for length of play, The Stanley Parable is a short game, and depending on who you are or who you ask the game takes anywhere from 3 to 12 hours to complete. I’m a bit of a slow-paced gamer and like to explore a lot more (I blame my RPG upbringing), so all-in-all I completed the game in just over 10 hours. And when I say I completed the game, well that’s a bit of a subjective term with a game like this. One does not simply complete The Stanley Parable without wondering if there’s more to it, but we’ll save that for a bit later.

The plot of the game is simple – you’re Stanley, a worker whose job at a large company is to push buttons on a computer every day, all day. However, one day you show up to work and hours go by without a single command to push any buttons. Upon exiting your office you realize (with the help of your ever present narrator) that you’re the only one at the office, with all your co-workers having seemingly vanished into thin air. From here, the game puts control in your hands to tell the story of Stanley in the way you see fit. Early on the driver in the story is this simple plot, but after a couple of times through the game, the plot no longer matters and takes a backseat to your whims.

Which door will you choose to enter?

The reason the plot takes a backseat is because the gameplay is all about choices. Throughout the game, there are typically two or more choices that you can make that dictate where you’ll go and what your fate in the game will be. It’s a genius tool that other games have used before, but because The Stanley Parable is such a short game the choices don’t have the weight they would in a huge game like Mass Effect or The Walking Dead. This is a good thing, because it gives the player the feeling that they can make choices on a whim without having to angst over whether their decision was a good one or a bad one. You’ll find out the consequences in a matter of minutes and shortly thereafter have the option to make a different decision.

 You might think that this would make a game monotonous and dry after about the 4th or 5th playthrough, but you’d be wrong for a number of reasons. The first of which is the design of the game, which over time can actually morph or change depending on the choices you've made and/or how long you've been playing. This was brilliantly done to allow me as the player to feel as if I was actually affecting the game with the choices I made, but also gave me incentive to keep playing again and again. What started as a quick playthough turned into a 3 hour session after which I was sad to shut it down. Replayability for The Stanley Parable isn't just high, it’s essential in order to get the most fulfilling experience.
Possibly the calculation for the ending you'll receive.

Still, for me the replay value wasn't influenced as much by the gameplay and choices as it was by the hilarious narration. As I mentioned earlier you’re adventure comes with its own narration. This begins as a way to help guide Stanley on his way to discover what’s amiss with his empty office, but it quickly morphs into a hilarious sort of dialogue between your actions and the often snarky narrator, voiced brilliantly by Kevan Brighting. It’s not often that the true star of the game is the narration, but this is the case with The Stanley Parable. I found myself on numerous occasions laughing out loud and grinning like an imbecile because of the narration. And the best part of all this is that your actions can have a huge impact on what the narrator says and when. Without giving too much away, I’ll say this: just because you did something once before in an earlier playthrough doesn't mean that the narrator’s response will be the same every time. Talk about a deep script!

Lastly, if you've heard anything about The Stanley Parable it’s likely about the various endings the game has. There’s a reason why such a big deal is made about the game’s multiple endings. Sure they add to the high replay value of the game, but it’s the uniqueness of the endings that makes them something to write home about. There are some endings that follow along with the universe you’re introduced to from the start and play into the story of Stanley and his company. But once you experience those few “simple” endings, you’ll want to find the purely absurd, sometimes depressing, but almost always hilarious endings that will keep you playing for hours just to see if you can discover a new one this time around. I won’t spoil any of them for you, and it’s easy enough to find them all with a simple Google or YouTube search, but I highly recommend you spend the first hour or two exploring on your own without any guides, as the game was intended to be played. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

TSP may or may not have a rankings system.

While speaking with a friend the other day, he stated that The Stanley Parable isn't for everyone, and he was glad that the game’s humor spoke to him so he could enjoy the ride. This is essentially what the game’s enjoyability boils down to – if you love the dark, snarky, and sometimes bizarre situations and narration you’ll experience in the game, then you’ll love it. Still, some people will simply not enjoy the game for one reason or another (a friend of mine played it and just found it too strange and kept “expecting something to happen”) and that’s okay. The Stanley Parable is still worth your time and money, because it’s a unique game that doesn't come along very often, and should be experienced just for the sake of curiosity. Just remember – you can’t always trust that voice in your head, no matter how funny it may be.

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