Free Will in the Broom Closet?

Broom Closet

It comes down to this: the broom closet is an argument that humans do not have free will.

Of course, some context is in order here. I am talking about The Stanley Parable, the first-person choose your own adventure game we’ve been playing in class. By now, everyone reading this post has realized that TSP does not take itself, or other video games, or art, or life, seriously. The narrator is snarky; he makes fun of Stanley, you, the player, and other unseen characters and real people. He offers satirical insight into the inner workings of human society and comments on the ridiculousness of working for a corporation. Many of the endings in the game are funny. In the baby ending, for example, the player must press a button repeatedly to stop a crude image of a baby from moving toward a flame. The narrator instructs the player to do this for several hours so that the player can “appreciate the game as art.”

In the broom closet, TSP doesn’t take the idea of choice seriously. In doing so, however, it also offers a serious commentary on the free will of humans. Allow me to build my argument.

First off, the broom closet is found like this: Stanley comes to the two open doors and chooses to obey the narrator and takes the door on his left. He heads down the hallway to the meeting room, and, finding no one there, continues on his way. Past the meeting room is a door on the left side of the hallway labeled “Broom Closet.” If Stanley enters, the narrator responds with “Stanley stepped into the broom closet, but there was nothing here, so he turned around and got back on track.”

Indeed, there is nothing there, nothing to interact with, but if Stanley stays in the room, thus refusing to leave as the narrator tells him to, the narration continues for several minutes. After a pause, the narrator comes in again and insinuates that Stanley should leave. “[There is] no reason to still be here,” he says.

Again, if Stanley stays put and refuses to leave, the narrator begins to get irritated. “It was baffling that Stanley was still just sitting in the broom closet,” he says, “At least if there was something to interact with, he would be justified in some way. As it is, he’s literally just standing there, doing sweet F. A.”

Next, the narrator begins to question Stanley directly, asking him why he’s still in the broom closet, telling him he’s genuinely confused. When Stanley (obviously) doesn’t answer, he starts offering theories as to why Stanley is still in the broom closet.

“Maybe to you,” he says, “this is somehow its own branching path. Maybe, when you go talk about this with your friends, you’ll say (in a loud, cockney British accent) ‘OH, DID YOU GET THE BROOM CLOSET ENDING? THE BROOM CLOSET ENDING WAS MY FAVORITE!’ I hope your friends find this concerning.”

He follows this with:

“Stanley was fat and ugly and really stupid. He probably only got the job because of a family connection, that’s how stupid he is. That, or with drug money. Also, Stanley is addicted to drugs and hookers.”

Finally, the narrator, in his wonderfully passive aggressive way, offers one last theory as to why Stanley is still in the broom closet: the person controlling him has died and has thus ceased to be able to play the game. He then calls out to the other people he assumes are around the dead player and asks them to first take care of the decomposing body and then to find someone familiar with first person video game experience to take over.

“Please remove their corpse from the area,” he calls, “and instruct another human to take their place at the computer!”

The branch essentially ends here, but not before one last jab. If Stanley then leaves the broom closet and steps back out into the hallway, the narrator speaks again, relieved:

“Ah, second player, good to have you on board. I guarantee you can’t do any worse than the person who came before you.”

That this branch exists in the game shows something interesting about the free will of the player. In a game that has laid out all possible choices, and directs the player along a specific path, it seems here that a player can exercise his free will by ignoring both of those aspects. The narrator tells the player to walk to the boss’s office and closes all other doors behind him, leaving him no other choice. However, the player can enter the broom closet and choose to not follow the given path. Here, he exercises his free will. He has made a choice that was not previously given to him. This explains why the narrator becomes so upset when the player doesn’t leave the broom closet when he tells him to. It seems that the player has outsmarted the narrator. This is reminiscent of Bartleby, the scrivener, the main character of Herman Melville’s short story by the same name. At one point in the story, Bartleby’s boss asks him to do some extra work. This lays out a choice for Bartleby, to either agree to do the work or to refuse to do the work. Bartleby, however, chooses neither and makes a different choice all together. Bartleby tells his boss that he would “prefer not to” do the extra work. He doesn’t agree and he doesn’t disagree. He ignores the choice given to him and instead exercises his free will.

However, in the case of TSP, one must realize that though it seems like the player is exercising his free will by ignoring the choice given to him, the game developers designed it like that. In truth, the player is not exercising anything besides his ability to see what the developers want him to see. It was all planned that the game would continue to move forward and that the narrator would speak while the player stands around and does nothing.

So in TSP, does the player have free will? No, he does not. Stanley certainly does not, but the human controlling him, the one who thinks he has free will, also does not. No matter what the player chooses to do, someone else has already determined what will happen next. He is always under the control of the game developers. The broom closet illustrates this perfectly and brings into the light this upsetting truth. In the end, the only way the player can have free will is if he “pulls a Bartleby” and decides that he would prefer not to play the game at all.

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4 Responses to Free Will in the Broom Closet?

  1. mjp99 says:

    I have to disagree on two points: I feel this game is deeply serious, not just parodic, and is infinitely aware of the free will of the player, if not freely encourages it. You need only think about the fact the broom closet ending exists to note that this ending is exactly considering the potential action of any player at any time to simply stop making inputs – the narrator responding in his derogatory fashion only happens in the broom closet, but you can prefer not to play anywhere in the game. You can even buy, download, boot up, and then prefer not to play, leaving the menu screen up forever. In fact, the game itself posits through the museum ending that the only escape is literally to press escape and quit, which is the player’s free will at its most extreme.

    Yes, the spaces, endings, possible routes, etc. of TSP are designed and thought through ahead of time – in fact many paths/endings/rooms have been tweaked based on player habit or perceived weaknesses from the developers standpoints (the up and down elevator for example) – but this doesn’t effect the free will of the player. It certainly never upsets free will. This game I would argue is built upon the very concept of the player making choices, and while the game does know what room you will proceed into by going left or right under varying circumstances, the game cannot predict that after passing the through the left door you can walk away from your computer, for example, or die, or shut down the program.

    Of course there is not complete freedom, but this is different than will or choice. We in our own lives don’t have complete freedom. You can’t read every folder in the filing cabinets of the office, nor can we conjure magical griffin mounts to ride to class if we will it. The architect of the cathedral knows, when you open a door to staircase A, you will be confronted with the stairs and they will look a certain way etc. etc., but he doesn’t know if you will go up, down, or close the door and walk out of the building. But the space is there for you to do what you like.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. vespoli57 says:

    I do see your point in the fact that whatever we choose in the game is predestined by the programmers of the game but the fact remains that the gamer always has another option in the game that is an ending the programmers have not thought of. Simply stopping game play and exiting out of the game at whatever point you want to stop is in fact a choice of the gamer the programmers have no path and anticipation for. And though this is a less fun alternative to actually playing through the game, there is always this alternative and the gamer does, when it comes down to it, make whatever decisions they choose.

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  3. I totally agree with mjp99, and I have to add that I think the broom closet is so indicative of free will because of the game developers perspective. The thing is, it is impossibly difficult to determine every choice made by a user when designing anything requiring user input. You even said it yourself, this is one of the only times (this and the lounge) that you are berated for standing around and doing nothing. The fact remains that you have so much free will, the developers couldn’t even factor it all in.

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    • exelsisxax says:

      It’s not that they didn’t factor it in, they expressly designed it in such a way. The broom closet is not a place where you can hide from the tyranny of the narrator, but a place that was carefully inserted into the offices to give another opportunity for players to pretend that they had any choice in what was happening.

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