The On/Off Switch as Operator and Machine

During the Museum ending, once you have gotten your fill of the various iterations of game design, quirky features, phones and filing cabinets, and button sounds you can enter a dark room with simply “The Stanley Parable” and an On/Off lever. During this ending, you have already won, if you consider seeing the credits “winning” on the model of many games (if you are concerned at all with winning in the first place). However, if you interact with the switch, you are brought back between the crushing walls and the female narrator continues:

But listen to me, you can still save these two. You can stop the program before they both fail. Press ‘escape’ and press ‘quit.’ There’s no other way to beat this game.

And unless you escape and quit, you are presumably killed since until you restart all you get is a black screen, the void. While it would be easy to equate the switch to life and death, to playing or not playing, left or right, or believe the game here, the more compassionate – and in my opinion understanding – female narrator calls attention to the machine/operator relationship. The Stanley Parable exists exactly because it is a program running on a computer being acted upon by a player outside the machine. She even notes:

Can you see how they wish to be free? Can you see how they wish to control one another? Can you see? Can you see how they need one another?

But some things can’t be seen, she continues (death is represented as infinite blackness). This proceduralist ending (interestingly one that is an escape, literally, from the catwalk before the Mind Control Facility), one that calls attention to all the effort and tweaking required along the path to your playthrough (the history of game design and the players beta testing), brings even more attention to the work the machine and the game is doing, and how it is existing outside the player’s world but only through relationships with other players and the designers. That without you to play it, to choose between the left and right door, to defy the narrator, or to quit, the game would just be a self-enacting program, one that follows exactly what it’s told to do (like the perfect Stanley) and never deviates from directions. Interestingly, neither do we, but we at least think about them. I know I didn’t quit the game right before getting crushed – I wanted to see what would happen if I let the program run. But the possibility of quitting, of abstaining, or not following the procedures, underlies the tentative two way relationship between operator and machine.

While the narrator does state that Stanley was already dead before he even pressed start, this doesn’t imply that we are already dead or that the monotony of everyday life (preventing the baby from dying!) is meaningless; instead this points to the fact that Stanley, the character, is a bit of code, and when we as operators take up his viewpoint, he, as the proceduralist or as the will-less entity – following directions exactly and without question – dies. That is the point of the game, to kill Stanley’s “good” habits and go exploring the parts of the office (and the game, the machine itself) he, as a bit of machine code, could never imagine.

This is far from the only moment The Stanley Parable points toward this relationship – in another ending, (one I definitely did not have the patience to act out but luckily someone did) the euphoric artscape presented after four hours of baby-game play, the program literally tells you it loves you. In my opinion, these moments of reflexivity demonstrate how we should question the relationship between operator and machine, “art” and viewer, and strive towards more creative or reflexive games, where alternate narratives exist in place of simply following the directives dictated or interpretations at the surface.

The machine is pretty frank.

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One Response to The On/Off Switch as Operator and Machine

  1. Junglist says:

    There is a guide on how to finish the 4 hour baby game in 4 minutes here:

    Based on the sequences before the baby game, I thought that it was an allegory of game testing and how mind-numbingly repetitive it can be. Regardless of what feedback Stanley gives before the baby game starts, he is still presented with the same terrible game.


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