I’ve gotten to every ending in The Stanley Parable but one. (I’m not going to spend two hours keeping that baby out of the fire. [I’m probably a terrible nanny.]) To make sure I had gotten them all, I consulted various lovely charts and websites dedicated to detailing all of the possible endings one could reach in the game.
And of course, if you’re lazy and lacking in Google Fu, here is a list of the endings and how to get to them.
There are a lot of charts out there, but I chose this one because of the one thing it does differently: instead of calling the narrator-chosen path “Freedom,” it calls it “Life.” This sums up a popular attitude about the ending–that this path (left door, up the stairs, through the boss’s office, to the facility, hitting OFF) is the best possible ending for the character, and in choosing this path, you/Stanley/youStanley manage to escape from the office, from mind control, from tedium and yellow carpet and I Hate Monday mugs. It represents a return to choice, option, opportunity, and freedom from restraint.
The Narrator himself says it, in case you were too lazy to watch the video or have already forgotten:
“Yes! He had won. He had defeated the machine, unshackled himself from someone else’s command. Freedom was mere moments away. […] But as sunlight streamed into the chamber, he realized none of this mattered to him. For it was not knowledge, or even power, that he had been seeking, but happiness. Perhaps his goal had not been to understand, but to let go. No longer would anyone tell him where to go, what to do, or how to feel. Whatever life he lives, it will be his. […] This was exactly the way, right now, that things were meant to happen. And Stanley was happy.”
This narrative certainly helps to cement the Freedom ending as the “correct” way to play the game, right? The game itself seems to think so. If you get to this ending, you get the “Beat the Game” achievement on Steam. It’s freedom. The Narrator refers to this ending as the right one in several instances. Freedom is good. It’s widely considered to be the definitive “happy ending” for Stanley. You’ve got it! You’ve got freedom! The game is over! You’ve won! Go live, little penguin!
I wish that I could stop this blog post here. I’m a hardcore Pollyanna who thinks that bunnies and sunshine make everything better and that world peace is totally possible if we all just had a nice conversation about things. But the reality of the Freedom ending is way too clear for me to ignore. It’s the worst ending. There’s nothing “free” or liberating about it.
In every single ending, you retain control of Stanley until the game ends. In the Suicide ending, you have a set of staircases from which you can throw yourself off. But you can literally choose to just stand there and stare at it, or stay in the pretty lights. You have to make yourself move; you can perform action. In the Museum ending, you’re trapped in a little container of some kind and you’re about to be crushed. You can crouch and move around, though. You can perform action. In the agonizing Explosion ending, you are tormented and teased as you race about clicking the buttons (admit it, you did it, too). You can perform action. And in that, there is some small bit of freedom: no matter where you are or what the narrator is telling you to do, you can choose where to look, and where to be within the parameters and confines that the game gives you. It’s not much, but in a game like The Stanley Parable, let’s take it. In a game that strips you of real choice, you generally can still perform action. And this is important. And this is why the Freedom ending is a lie.
It contains the only ending in which you lose physical control of your character. Go back and look at the video! Do you see it now? You step out of the darkness and into the light. If you’re like me, you wanted to go down that path and see what was there, to see if it continued the game. Davey Wreden is a wonderful designer and could certainly have created an ending in which the character could move about, and it would have jived with the other endings in the game–endings in which you can try to get as far as you can–or live as long as you can–before the screen goes black. But Wreden hasn’t done that here. Freedom is flat and inaccessible, and this ending, with its complete control of your body itself, makes your character more flat and completely inaccessible, too. This isn’t a chance to get away from the game and find life. This is a chance to give up the last bits of power and agency that you have.
Of course, that isn’t to say that there is no happy ending for Stanley here. There definitely is. There is a “real” chance at freedom here, but it’s in the Broken ending (also commonly referred to as the Not Stanley ending).
In this path, you take the left door and the lift across the warehouse. When you see the yellow telephone, you unplug it. The narrator realizes that you’re a real person playing Stanley. As you continue playing, the world becomes more fragmented until you are finally fragmented from Stanley. You watch from above as Stanley stands at the two doors. The narrator tries to move Stanley along and through the left door, but then realizes that there is no response. In this instance, the narrator can’t control Stanley–and neither can you. In this instance, Stanley is truly free.
Of course, there are other endings, but we retain control of Stanley in each of them. The Escape Pod ending is certainly notable because Stanley shakes off the narrator–only for you to discover that you can’t actually use the escape pod without the accompaniment of the narrator, and you’re forced to restart the game. Being free of the narrator isn’t enough to free Stanley. He has to get rid of you, too.
Now whether or not Stanley will ever make a choice beyond the the playing period of the game, I don’t know and you don’t know. But I’m not sure we’re meant to find that out. This game has often been likened to Inception, and the Not Stanley/Broken ending makes me heartily agree with that idea. This is certainly a “spinning top” situation–without you, is Stanley empty now? Will he be able to make his own choices? Is he broken? Is he thinking? Is he warming up? Is he alive? This reminds me of a bit of Toy Story, too, to be honest. What do our toys do when we’re done playing with them and we’ve left the room? What will Stanley do? Maybe we never see Stanley truly live because we’re too busy
playing being him.