Free Will

The Stanley Parable is a game commenting on free will and the illusion of choice, among many other aspects of game design and culture. We are Stanley, and both in game and out, we sit at our metaphorical desks pressing buttons on command “every day, of every month, of every year.” In game, we literally press buttons in a specific order to move forward. Apply that to real life, and we are “pressing buttons” by following the directions of our parents, or writing a blog post that was assigned by a professor. Sure, we chose to come to college, but the modern cultural framework for success decrees that success comes easier to the educated, which is then enforced by family, friends, media and the educational system.

This idea brings up the age old question of, do we actually have free will? Free will is traditionally defined as being the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate. One could, and some do, argue that the player does not have free will in the Stanley Parable, and in games as a whole, due to the player following a preprogrammed, “fated” path. On the surface level, the game says yes, we do have free will, you can choose to follow the narrator’s directions or you can defy him. One level below that says no, we don’t have free will, the fact that defying is even an option with resulting endings show that the player is still following one branch of a predetermined path chain, the higher power in this scenario being the game programmer instead of the narrator. So which is correct? I feel like here I need to say the obligatory “I most likely don’t have the right answer” spiel.

I think that the way we define free will is fundamentally incorrect. Free will, in essence, is doing what you want to do when you want to do it. The part of the Stanley Parable that I feel demonstrates this idea best is when the narrator becomes irritated at your refusal to listen to him and brings you to the first puzzle of portal. There is no obvious A vs B choice here, unlike any other point in this game (including the unplugged phone ending). Habit should dictate that you, with practiced efficiency, go and grab the cube, place it on the button, and move on. Yet, here, it is possible to actually break the game. You can, with some effort, trap the cube behind the door to the elevator so that moving forward is impossible. You are rewarded with some dialogue, which could lend a bit of credence to the argument that since the player’s little act of defiance was acknowledged, the ability to break the game was planned and thus not an act of free will.

However, the mechanics of this “ending”, or lack thereof, prove this to be false. Many times throughout the Stanley Parable, it is shown that the narrator can send you backwards to a point before you made the choice or restart the game if he didn’t approve of the choice you made. Trapping the cube provokes neither action. The player is stuck in that room with their choice until they decide they want to quit the game, or voluntarily restart to the beginning. So, while the game announced its displeasure at the choice you made, it in no way prevents you from making said choice, or forces you to choose differently. Thus, free will exists. At least I think so. Thoughts?

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4 Responses to Free Will

  1. vespoli57 says:

    I think you bring up a good point about the fact that the path less traveled in this game is still a path designed by the programmers. The defiance of the game then is not really as powerful if you think of it in this way. I would say however that free will always exists in what choices that you make in the game because there is also an option to just completely remove oneself from the game. Even though the programmers have given you the options the gamer selects the path he or she wants to play through.


  2. elexiusmusick says:

    I’ve always been confused about the definition of free will. I would say that free will requires choice (or rather, the ability to choose between options), but that choice itself represents constraint, rendering free will impossible. To have free will, I suppose we’d have to have freedom of action first, to either construct our own parameters, or to get rid of choice (and therefore restriction) completely. We can’t really do that on The Stanley Parable, but I do agree that “non-endings” like breaking the Portal Game and then choosing when to quit represent one of the more “free” things we are able to do. When true free will is unreachable, our actions become more relative on a scale of “not at all free” to “as free as possible,” and, like you, I’d argue that “breaking” the game like that–even though it’s designed to let you do that–is a way to reach the higher end of the choice spectrum in the Stanley Parable.


  3. narrativeandtech says:

    I agree with you that free will exists, but protocol makes it very unpleasant for us to exert our own will. I can stand in the first room with the two doors forever if I wish. That’s the only choice that can ever truly be mine, but I will never do so. The game ceases to be fun. There’s nothing to do in that room. There’s no incentive to stay there. The narrator doesn’t reward me by saying anything. The game’s programming demands that he remain silent until I relinquish my free will and choose one of the two predetermined paths. The opening cutscene end with the sentence: “And Stanley was happy.” I think that one of the many messages that this game is trying to convey is that happiness and freedom do not always go hand in hand.


  4. danwillisdan says:

    It’s interesting how Dear Esther does the same thing with its ending as the Stanley Parable does with its cube-trap ending. But in Dear Esther, I assumed it was a metaphor for death/an urging of the player to reflect. Here, the wait is almost a punishment. Also, I would argue that because there is dialog, the creators anticipated this particular way that the player would attempt to resist protocol, so there is no way to do anything extraordinary in the game. But I don’t think it means that there is no free will, in the game or elsewhere.


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