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The Stanley Parable: a power struggle between player and game

Five minutes after leaving my desk, I'm dead.

It's sad to say that the only factor at play here was my own annoying persistence. Despite many, many warnings, I chose to ignore directions that would have taken me to a happier path. Instead, I walked down a corridor I was informed would lead to my death. I stood before a gaping hole, and with no hesitation I leapt into its dark mouth. It was only satisfaction that rushed up to meet me.

The Stanley Parable (formerly The Stanley Parable: HD Remix) is a story about you. Or maybe it's not. It's a first-person, story-driven exploration game, but perhaps there's actually no story to tell at all. To get technical, it's a remake of the interactive fiction mod created by Davey Wreden in 2011. Like its previous form, you step into the role of Stanley, an office worker who completes the same menial tasks day after day. After realizing his coworkers have gone missing, Stanley begins searching for clues to their whereabouts. He — you — are guided by a narrator you can choose to follow or disobey. With varied results.

Wreden thinks of The Stanley Parable as a relationship between the player and narrator — two entities "fumbling in the dark" to try and overtake one another.

"At a certain point, you make an action and the game reacts," Wreden said. "Throws back to you and says ‘what now?' But that happens not just in the game.

"Those things don't require knowing whether or not free will exists."

"When I ask someone else to describe [The Stanley Parable] ... I'm asking you to do work to try to describe this inherently indescribable thing," Wreden continued. "I don't think it's a power struggle between you and me, but I also don't think it's really a power struggle between Stanley and the narrator. Ultimately, these things are trying to understand one another, but they're having great difficulty doing so."

The potential for reconciliation is there, Wreden said, depending on how people chose to interpret the game. Some consider it a futile experience, and others think there is no true conclusion. According to Wreden, the number of those who follow the narrator and those who — like me — choose to stubbornly ignore direction is a fifty-fifty split.

"People take a lot more pride in going against the narrator," Wreden said. "It reflects a stronger sense of personality."

No move goes unnoticed by the game's narrator. The disembodied voice will tell you that when presented with two doors, Stanley went right. If you choose to go left, it will offer you alternate routes to make up for the mistake. Eventually, it begins to criticize your "incorrect" steps.

On the surface, The Stanley Parable reads as a meta exploration of obedience in video games. Players are tied to living out a predetermined story with no real will of their own. More troubling are the real-life implications of the game as well: Does anyone really have free will?

That's not exactly the question Wreden is looking to answer, or even ask. Instead, he considers if he's living a good life, or if he's engaging with his environment in a way that's both vulnerable and productive.

"Those things don't require knowing whether or not free will exists," Wreden said. "They don't require freeing yourself completely from someone else's control. You can still live inside of a system or a closed loop and still live to help and understand other people. The start of the conversation is about ‘am I in control or am I not?' but the end of the conversation is ‘it doesn't matter at the end of the day if I'm not bringing positivity to the world, regardless of the nature of it.'"

The Stanley Parable has no meaning beyond what players give it. It's not quite like looking in a mirror, but more like a self-portrait. And yet despite its potential for very dark implications, Wreden thinks of it as an optimistic game.

"I wouldn't fault you for thinking I'm a pessimistic person, but to me optimism comes from embracing and understanding the darkness rather than refuting," Wreden said. "If I can internalize my darkness, if I can understand it so completely that it becomes a friend to me rather than a stranger, then I can use it to affect positively on the world."

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