This blog post roughly outlines some of the ideas I have floating around for the final paper for this class. Some of these ideas are not as developed as I would like them to be in the future. Apologies for it being long AF. Any feedback or criticism would be greatly appreciated!
“Freedom is choice. Man is nothing else but what he makes itself. Man first exists: he is the being who projects himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future. Man is a plan which is aware of itself. Nothing exists prior to this plan. There is nothing in heaven.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Throughout this class, we have used video games as a text to understand what it means to live in the increasingly networked climate of the 21st century. As a supplement to the class material, we have read works of analytical philosophy and literary criticism by the works of Foucalt, Deleuze, Galloway, and Kermode; all writers whose works investigate how the structures we currently live in and among shape our perception of reality. However, I would like to suggest that the three most recent games we have played also serve as useful tools for investigating a more foundational school of philosophy that served as a base for the ideas present in many of the works we have read: existentialism.
While no one can quite agree on what exactly the term means, the writers most commonly associated with existentialist thought were primarily concerned with questions pertaining to the fundamental nature of human existence. Jean Paul-Sartre, one of the authors most often affiliated with the word, laid out many of the philosophy’s principals in his pivotal work Existentialism and Humanism. Among his central claims is the proposition that existence precedes essence, meaning that a person is not born with any essential intrinsic nature, but comes to define who they are internally purely through actions made in the physical world. This means that man is forced to accept ultimate responsibility for himself and his behavior.
Similarly, in the Stanley Parable, our protagonist is defined by his choices. All that we initially know of the character is that he sits in an office where he complies to pushing a button for hours each day. But once all the other humans in his vicinity vanish, he is confronted head-on with the tyranny of independent choice, free to forge his identity in the world through his actions (sound familiar?). As a player of The Stanley Parable, your character’s personality is not defined through animated cut scenes explaining motivation or personal struggles, but by the mere path of actions taken.
The grave importance choice plays in forming the character of Stanley comes most obviously in the beginning of the game. After making his way through rooms of cubicles, Stanley comes to a pivotal moment in the game’s diegesis: does he follow the narrator’s command and walk through the left door towards the meeting room, or willfully break from the given storyline and walk right? To do so would surely ensure more uncertainty and less security, but would also be an active demonstration of humanity’s freedom to act through will alone, apart from any external source that provides meaning , be it a narrator, God, etc. Though The Stanley Parable does indeed present a wide range of endings, this moment presents the player with two extreme courses of action: he or she can either guide Stanley through the given storyline at the every command of the narrator, or act in defiance and pursue a path driven by the action of own choice.
If the player continues to lead Stanley away from the given course of action, he or she will eventually come to a large storage room where a platform can safely guide Stanley from one side to the other. Here the player is presented with what Albert Camus called the most important philosophical question: whether to take one’s own life by jumping off the ledge to the bottom of the facility, or stay “alive” and play the game as given. If one makes the voluntary act to die, nothing happens. The screen turns to black and the game restarts. However, even if you take the platform over to the other side, the choice to act independently apart from external forces that enforce action still exists if the player jumps off the piece of machinery to the catwalk structure below. Clearly irritated by this action, the narrator once again presents the player with the choice of two clear options: either enter the red door, as he commands, or the blue one. Despite the narrator giving clear instructions on which direction he wants the player to move in, the fact that he includes choice is indicative of the nature of existence: man is not restricted in his essence by another power, but by the extent to which choice is taken as acts of will.
However, if, after repeatedly choosing to exercise this sense of freedom, the player decides to follow the course of action and surrender the independence to act out of personal will, then they are said to be acting in what Sartre called bad faith – the decision to deceive oneself into believing they are controlled by something outside of oneself. Sartre calls such a course of action as a sacrificing of one’s humanity, and a reduction from being a being-for-itself to a being-in-itself. By going along with the narration, the player is accepting themselves as a character in a video game following a set of instructions, rather than an independent agent with the ability to act out of one’s own will. Though the narrator is of course overjoyed, the game’s diegesis itself takes a similar stance to Sartre by acknowledging such a path will not lead to achieving the essence of what it is to be human. The red door leads the player into a room with another door, where two final options are presented. Stanley can either stay on a platform in space surrounded by ethereal music and swirling lights – or he can venture inside, to a room where there is nothing but a staircase with no final destination, only the ground below. There is no escape from this environment other than to throw oneself off of the staircase onto the ground until Stanley dies. This metaphor is a severe, yet apt expression of the malaise one deals with if acting out of bad faith. They can either stay content yet delusional in a void free of the choice of real action (the space platform), or subject themselves to the meaningless and limited set of behaviors dictated by the role they have assumed until dying (the staircase).
Of course, this is only one facet of existential philosophy applied to The Stanley Parable. There is much more than is possible to cover in the space of a single blog post. If the Narrator’s commands are consistently defied, the player will end up in environments of other contemporary games like Portal and Minecraft, which also deal with the idea of choice in their own way. All of the other endings also comment on the notion of freedom in interesting ways as well. Playing The Stanley Parable has made me realize that the questions and themes of freedom present in the game are not exclusive to this one in particular, but are concerns raised directly by the existential nature of video games themselves as an artform that gives participants an experience of choice that is analogous to reality. This is a question I plan to explore more fully in my final paper in regards to both The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther.