Sam Tjahjono is a native of Denton, Texas, where he lives with his fiancée and their newborn daughter. He studies rhetoric at the University of North Texas, and he is eminently fascinated by the unique power of games to move bodies to action.
Changing the Mask
Released in 2013, The Stanley Parable is a piece of interactive fiction created by independent developer Galactic Café. I introduce the game as an “interactive fiction” to underscore its attentiveness to narrative, because while it can be “beaten,” that is most certainly not its focus; besides, to argue the definition of a game is a topic for another essay entirely. The point is that, rather than focusing on nuanced mechanics and systems, the narrative structure of the game and its interrogation of player agency comprise the heart of The Stanley Parable’s experience.
On the latter point of agency, the game drives home the idea that, though games may afford players with a sense of control over the outcomes of both predetermined and emergent narratives, the range of outputs is limited by virtue of the limitations of assets and coding. In Grand Theft Auto V, for example, players can hold up gas stations, run over pedestrians, and go skydiving, but they cannot attend classes at a university, leave the fictional game-world of Los Santos, or perform any action that would require assets or feedback loops not provided for in the game’s files and programming.
In The Stanley Parable, the linear-but-branching-level design calls attention to how the coding within games prevents players from making the kinds of choices that are typically advertised to to them. “Go anywhere” and “Do anything” are mantras frequently used in commercial campaigns for open-world titles, but what these games are actually offering is an illusion of full player agency. Later in this essay, I argue that the creators of The Stanley Parable are not only aware of this paradox, but actively embrace it as a means of critiquing many games’ pretenses toward providing “full” player agency, which is impossible. Instead, the game’s creators embrace the ludonarrative boundaries of the medium as a means of satirizing such storytelling.
But more on the topic of narrative structure before we proceed in that direction. In the game, the player controls Stanley, an employee of an anonymous corporation, from a first-person perspective. For the duration of the game, the player is guided through a bland, vacant office environment by a nameless narrator, who observes or commands the player with statements like “Stanley looked for his coworkers, who all seemed to have vanished” or “Stanley decided to check the break room.” The player can choose to either comply with the narrator or disobey him—this can be accomplished a number of ways, such as by walking through the “wrong” door, exiting a scripted sequence, or interacting with a forbidden object—and each decision alters the course of the narrative, ultimately leading to one of the game’s many endings (see Figure 1). Along the way, the narrator embodies structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov’s concept of “narrative-men,” taking on different personas (guide, metaphysical commentator, antagonist, etc.) that each “signifies a new plot” (Todorov 70).
Each of these new plots—or arcs—hones in on a specific issue of game narrative through satire, post-ironic participation, explicit fourth-wall-breaking criticism, and so on. For example, at the ending of one such “arc,” the narrator realizes out loud that “[The player is] not Stanley,” but rather “a real person,” and he expresses disbelief in having “[let him or her] run around in this game for so long,” lamenting that if any further “wrong” choices had been made, the game may have been “negated…entirely.” Because of this constant “changing of the mask,” the game’s creators initially seem to encourage a structuralist approach to making sense of the narrative they present: the player expects to learn how to manipulate the narrative framework comprising the gaming experience in order to progress through it and reach a conclusive end.
This kind of reductionist functionality is how most video games operate, and to players unfamiliar with its conceits, The Stanley Parable initially appears to employ the objectives of such a game. If players do everything the narrator tells them to do, they uncover the plot of a dystopian corporation attempting to control the minds of its employees, forcing them to do menial work. If players follow the narrator’s lead, they are able to escape the office building, thus completing a conventional story arc. Left at that, the game is nothing impressive—the story of individuality exerting its will to overcome the immoral, faceless desire of “the other” is a common trope. So too do the other narrative branches of the game—even the ones that break the fourth wall or end abruptly—have their own arcs, each beginning at the same point as the others and diverging in vastly different directions through a series of environmental triggers programmed with code and overlaid with models, textures, and voiceover.
Each persona the narrator takes on is a different character that signifies a new narrative, and each narrative “achieves its fundamental theme and at the same time is reflected in this image of itself” (Todorov 72). Each narrative can stand on its own and mean something independent of the other, and yet each is still incomplete, merely encircling a broader summation of narratives: a meta-narrative on the nature of narrative itself.
The creators of The Stanley Parable have designed this web of narratives so that each of its strands can easily be traced forwards and backwards to their respective endings and beginnings. Therefore, in the simplicity of the game’s apparent objective to trace each narrative through to its end, the veneer of plot that traditional texts employ is stripped away, and the branching skeletal structure of narrative is revealed. In The Stanley Parable, then, “narrating equals living” because, when the narration ceases at the end of each narrative branch, the player also ceases to exist within the game-world (Todorov 73)—at least, until the game respawns him or her at the beginning of the game to begin anew. Indeed, the player’s first-person perspective throughout the game only highlights this concept of narrative-as-life, as the player’s own decisions to obey or disobey the narrator takes on a new immediacy—as long as the game-as-text lives on, so too does the player remain within its world.
The Game Narrative Problem
So, the game can be called structuralist, to an extent. However, the web of embedded narratives begins to unravel as the intent of the game’s creators becomes clear to the player and the links between the narrative strands are undone: the intent of the game is that there is no overarching narrative to unfold as player choice is futile and will always fall within the parameters the game’s creators have predetermined—the player cannot exceed the boundaries of the game’s programming. The different strands or branches of narrative have no consistent thematic link to one another, meaning that there is no single, unifying narrative with which to make sense of all the discrete parts outside of the meta-narrative.
In this way, the critical intent of the game’s creators forces scholars to bounce between structuralist and poststructuralist methods of narrative deconstruction. This “fluctuation” is necessary in order to fully understand how the various layers of narrative and gameplay mechanics cooperate in synthesizing the message of critique, and it exemplifies the strengths of the medium—interactivity, narrative-as-life, some kind of choice though input—enacting a criticism of itself in the process. Video games, most especially The Stanley Parable, are unique because they can give the illusion of “true” choice to players. The player is allowed to go against the wishes of the narrator and thus disrupt the flow of the “canonical,” clichéd narrative branch. In this way, the game’s creators actively encourage players to question the wishes of the game as well as the intrinsic value or meaning of each narrative branch. Do your choices even really matter? the game seems to ask. Are your interpretations of their meaning and value fixed, or do they become unfixed?
The “Means at Hand” as a Way Forward
These aforementioned questions are born of a clearly poststructuralist intent. The game wants the player to realize that it is not serious about its branching narratives. The narratives themselves vary in theme, from the mundane to the existential to the darkly comic. However, they do not aspire to be art: the game exists as an interactive criticism of the static narratives that other games, novels, films, artworks, and other cultural texts are trying to tell. All texts may simply be narrative all the way down, as Todorov argues—but the meanings of their chains of signification exist to be debated, not merely accepted.
The fact that The Stanley Parable actively raises questions about the futility of choice and the value of interpreted meanings reinforces poststructuralist critic Jacques Derrida’s assertion that “the center [of a text] is not the center” of the text that the text itself seeks to reveal (“Structure” 279). In this case, The Stanley Parable circumnavigates its own center by making use of the kind of narrative structure and limited range of meanings that its creators wish to see reformed. The game’s creators can point us in the general direction of the center and we can follow its lead to get closer to the center, but the concepts of choice and the meaning of narrative can only be partially present in the game itself—they are limited by virtue of their simple invocation.
So, The Stanley Parable is significant in the deconstructionist sense precisely because it criticizes the perceived strengths of its medium. In Derrida’s words, the game makes ample use of its medium’s bricolage, or “means at hand,” “borrowing [its] concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined” in order to implicitly propose a solution, wherein the text’s ruined heritage is compelled to transcend its current ontological state (“Structure” 285). In other words, The Stanley Parable takes advantage of its medium in that it appeals most to players who are intimately familiar with the limiting tropes of video game narrative, and the game’s creators do this precisely in order to refine the narrative strengths of the medium.
It’s the Journey, Not the Destination
Even though the game’s creators allow players to go against the wishes of the narrator, is the game not still forcing players to follow a set of predestined rules, rules that inherently support structuralist paradigms? Well, yes. But, the game is acutely aware of its own self-imposed limitations. Indeed, one of its entire narrative branches is dedicated to comment on this paradox. In the “adventure line” narrative branch of the game, the game’s narrator tasks the player with following a line painted on the floor, walls, and even ceiling of the game-world (See Figure 2). The narrator christens this the “adventure line,” encouraging the player to follow it simply because it is “fun”. “The line knows where the story is,” the narrator claims, commenting on the unavoidably linear nature of narrative in most cultural texts. The adventure line—a literal “storyline”—itself becomes increasingly convoluted, going in circles and often leading nowhere at all. The player is still allowed to divert from the adventure line, but must follow it to achieve a proper “ending” to that session with the game. “Is a story of no destination still a story?” the narrator asks, pointing to the fact that simply following the trajectory of a storyline does not necessitate meaningful resolution. “Simply by the act of moving forward, are we implying a journey such that a destination is inevitably conjured into being by the very manifestation of the nature of life itself—” The narrator breaks off here, having hit upon the problem with the structuralist approach to narrative: the simple “moving forward” of narrative does not necessitate a destination. We may interpret the end of a narrative in a certain way, but that way is not necessarily the only one, and it is in this manner that near-infinite interpretations of a narrative become possible.
As if on cue, the narrator resumes his voiceover, arbitrarily calling the player’s attention to a potted fern in the game-world and saying that it will be important later on in the story. The player reaching the ending of this particular narrative branch, however, is in no way contingent upon the fern, which is nothing more than a prop within the game-world. The narrator is therefore falsely attributing meaning to an insignificant detail. In this way, the creators of The Stanley Parable are drawing us toward Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of the sign (the linchpin of semiotics), while simultaneously poking fun at the frequently shoehorned implementation of gameplay mechanics into the vast majority of narrative-driven games. In the medium, objects in the game-world are frequently imbued with phallocentric significance: examples include keys that unlock doors, levers that change the form of the game-world to allow the player to pass through, and powerful weaponry to destroy enemies that impede the player’s progress. The player’s desire to proceed through a game to its completion is abetted by signifiers of power, progress, and even virtue, if the game in question offers a choice in matters of morality that advance the storyline.
Silent Performers of Myth
By toying with signification in such objects, the narrator of The Stanley Parable forces players to question the meanings of signifiers that cause them to make snap judgments. In other words, by moving the “center” of the game elsewhere, the narrator relegates players to the role of an “audience [that] becomes the silent performers” of myth (“Structure” 287). In simpler terms, in the process of “playing” the game, players unlearn notions of gameplay and choice and so become cognizant of the game’s broader objective: to criticize the linearity of video game narrative and the narrow-minded interpretations we often try to force upon the destinations of our journeys through any text. In doing so, players unearth the myths of choice, meaning, and narrative embedded in the game’s tapestry by its creators. In this way, The Stanley Parable is a criticism of narrative that requires its players to be familiar with the medium and engage with it to uncover its criticism. Similar to how any treatise criticism of literature requires a degree of familiarity with the literary canon of its reader, so too does the game require its players to have some kind of familiarity with the medium in order to fully appreciate what the game does.
So, The Stanley Parable matters because, through its intentional exaggeration of “narrative all the way down” and its subversion of its medium’s tropes, it comments on predestination and the illusion of player choice in contemporary game design. Most importantly, it demonstrates that even in its attempt to study the structures of game narrative, it cannot escape those very same confines—indeed, the game’s creators choose to instead embrace those confines. Each of the game’s narrative branches tells its own story, and while the stories themselves are entertaining in their own right, they all exist for the same purpose: to question the meaning and value of narrative and to advocate player agency in the individual uncovering of myth.
Galactic Café. The Stanley Parable. 2013. PC.
Todorov, Tzvetan. “Narrative-Men.” The Poetics of Prose. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1977. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1978. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. Print.
The Stanley Parable Endings Diagram. Digital image. Guardian Liberty Voice. N.p., 27 Oct. 2013. Web.
The Stanley Parable Adventure Line. Digital image. Rambling Fox Reviews. N.p., 19 Aug. 2014. Web.