When playing The Stanley Parable for the first time together in class, the majority of the students voted to disobey all of the narrator’s commands. We chose the right door, took the lift across the warehouse, and got transported to a mysterious room with a phone in it. We then unplugged the phone and were shown a nonsensical video about choice. Next, we wound up in a crazy room with unfinished textures and warped objects and the narrator berated us for ruining his story. Eventually the game ended with the camera floating above the ceiling, disembodied from an unmoving Stanley, with the narrator pleading with him to make a choice of some kind. I was thoroughly confused with this ending to say the least. The “ending” had not concluded the story in any meaningful way. The absence of Stanley’s coworkers is never explained, and we never learn the whereabouts of Stanley’s boss. I figured that the explanation for this was that we had simply failed the game. After all, when unplugging the phone, the narrator goes on and on about how we had made the wrong choice and that it ruined the game’s story.
Naturally, when I played the game for myself, decided to take the opposite route. I followed all of the narrator’s instructions to the letter. I figured that if I followed the narrator’s instructions I would be given a more clear and concise storyline. I was wrong. Going through the left door eventually leads to the boss’s office. After you type the password the narrator gives you into a keypad, a secret passage opens up, revealing a mind control facility. In the mind control facility there are two buttons: “on” and “off”. I pressed the off button as directed and a giant garage door opened revealing a green pasture with trees, flowers, and birds and the game simply ended there. Again, I was very disappointed and confused. The game still wasn’t making any sense. In fact, following the narrator’s instructions only raised additional questions. What was this mind control facility? Who made it? Why did they make it? Was obeying the narrator also an incorrect choice?
On my second play through I went mostly the same way as the first, but instead of entering the mind control facility, I went through a hallway with a sign that said “escape”. At the end of the hallway I fell through a hole in the floor and landed in a moving cart. The cart was creeping slowly toward a giant trash compactor. As I was being pushed along, the narrator commented on how Stanley can’t see the big picture and that he refuses to see the real story. As I was just about to be crushed by the giant compactor, everything stopped moving, and the narrator’s voice changed from a man’s to a woman’s. She said: “In a game where every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same. Do you see now? Do you see that Stanley was already dead from the moment he hit start?” I was then transported to a museum where everything that went into making The Stanley Parable was put on display. There was a model showing the exact layout of the office building. There was concept art for every room. There were displays of every object, texture, sound bite, etc. There were charts showing every decision you could make. There were even exhibits showing decisions and areas that were created, but left out of the actual game. After I made my way through the museum, I was transported back to the moving cart heading for the trash compactor. As I was being slowly pushed to my death, the female narrator said what was probably the most important line of dialogue I have yet encountered in this game:
“Push escape! Press quit! There’s no other way to beat this game! As long as you move forward you’ll be walking someone else’s path. To stop now will be your only true choice. Whatever you do choose it! Don’t let time choose for you!”
But, of course, I did not quit the game. I didn’t want to miss anything. What if there was some way to jump out of the cart, or some hidden button to stop the compactor? Unfortunately, there was not. The screen went black, there was a loud squishing sound, and I was forced to start from the beginning. Again, the ending was strange, frustrating, and the mystery of the missing office workers remained unsolved. I died. I made the wrong choice again. But as I thought about the female narrator‘s words, it dawned on me: It’s not that I made the wrong choice, it’s that there is no right choice. There is no way to end the story by playing the game. This is a story about a man named Stanley, who pushes buttons on his computer every day, of every month, of every year without end. Stanley’s boss and coworkers were never missing. The game’s choices are Stanley’s boss and I am his coworker. The open and shut doors are Stanley’s boss. The doors tell him where to go and what to do. It doesn’t matter whether I obey or disobey the narrator; it doesn’t matter whether I take the left or right door. Both doors were purposefully put there for me to go through. As long as I keep playing the game, I will never be able to make my own decision.
Obeying or resisting the narrator in The Stanley Parable is very similar to Alexander Galloway’s description of protocol: “Opposing protocol is like opposing gravity – there is nothing that says it can’t be done, but such a pursuit is surely misguided and in the end hasn’t hurt gravity much.” There is no way to win this game in the traditional sense. In fact, you could say that for all video games. It doesn’t matter if you choose Alliance or Horde in WoW. It doesn’t matter if you choose the Empire or the Stormcloaks in Skyrim. It doesn’t matter if you rekindle the fire or let it die out in Dark Souls. The only way to truly “win” a game is to make your own choice. And the only choice you can make in a game is to press the only button the game will never ask you press: Esc.