What are you doing exactly now? You’re … what? No, don’t do that. Put the ferret down. And the margarine. Urg.
Now, go and download this stunning modification of Half Life 2, called The Stanley Parable.
You’re doing that, are you? And as it downloads you want to know what a “modification of Half Life 2” means, because you’re new to gaming, having misspent your youth teaching domesticated mammals to believe it’s not butter?
Well fine. This paragraph was going to sparkle in true experiential, New Games Journalism style, but if you need to know, fine. In it’s simplest form a “mod” is where you take all the stuff that makes a game run, the art assets and the code for walking and opening doors and all the rest, and you modify it to produce a new experience. Mods are typically budding game designers’ first steps into the industry, and like all indie scenes with relatively fast prototyping speeds, what they lack in polish they more than make up for in imagination.
That’s certainly true of The Stanley Parable. And … What’s that? Oh, you’re playing already? No we’re still on the preamble here. I still need to … Dammit, come back!
Well whatever. I guess as you’ve completed it three times now you won’t mind me discussing the endings and talking about all the stuff that if you hadn’t played it would totally fucking ruin the enjoyment of discovering it for yourself. If that’s the case just nod your head.
Excellent. So how about that staircase, then? The way …
No, don’t worry. See this is the thing with writing. I love writing, I love reading, I love the whole set-up we’ve got going here. But there’s not much of a dialogue between us, is there? I know you weren’t really doing that with a ferret. It was a polecat. And any illusion of choice within this article is just that — all you truly get to decide is whether to continue reading or not.
But not so with videogames. Okay, the player’s input is fairly rudimentary, and the pathways designed in advance, but what a videogame offers in a basic yet tangible sense, elusive to so many other forms of artistic expression, is a conversation.
This is what The Stanley Parable is about. I won’t discuss spoilers, it wouldn’t be fair. But at its heart this mod is the most breathtakingly self-knowing celebration of everything an interactive medium can be — and a few things it cannot.
It is clever, but its appeal runs deeper than that. Beneath the deconstructionist stuff lies this undercurrent of claustrophobia, of dizziness, of — and I don’t say this lightly — existential dread.
Part of it reminded me of this lucid dream I had once, a time when I realised in my dream that I was dreaming. To begin with it was incredible, I was admiring leaves on a tree and the intricate patterns playing out on the walls of a wooden hallway, all constructs of my own brain. But soon this fear crept in — I was awake inside my head. How would I really wake up? What if I couldn’t? I had no mouth and yet I must scream.
A similar horror drips from the windowless, labyrinthine corridors of The Stanley Project. Playing it tightened my chest, caused my heart to beat faster, made me want to put on some loud and comforting pop song as soon as it was over.
It is worth braving though. And there’s also warmth, and humour, and storytelling prowess.
It’s important. Perhaps the most important game you’ll play this year. And you will play it, won’t you?
Just nod your head to agree.