Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Stanley Parable HD Review

The Stanley Parable HD Review: A Game about Games.

            How appropriate is it that the original Stanley Parable was a mod of Half-Life 2? Half-Life 2 is one of the titles that you would hear a million times if you asked people the names of videogames that defined the time they emerged from, and The Stanley Parable is a game about games.

Specifically, the HD “remake” of (which I’d call it more of a thematic sequel to) The Stanley Parable is a linear first-person adventure game about the nature of choice in videogames. It is minimalist: you move with WSAD, you interact with what little you can interact directly with by pressing your left mouse button, and you cannot jump. (There’s an achievement for trying to jump too many times by pressing spacebar, and it’s hilarious.)

The choices, empty as the game is eager to point out they are, are more or less all of what there is in the game. Stanley’s environs are a drab, colorless office building, and even when the game removes Stanley from that building, the results are visually just as simplistic. The soundtrack is basically non-existent, with what little music there is often being used to accentuate a joke in one of the many endings. If the narrator isn’t speaking, which he does often and beautifully, thanks to the work of returning voice actor Kevan Brighting, lovely as always, the player is simply alone with the sound of Stanley’s footsteps.

These aesthetic choices heavily convey tone and theme, but it would be fair to say that they don’t represent the highest level of sexiness in modern gaming. But then again, it’s probably fair to say that The Stanley Parable is intentionally the antithesis of modern, commercial games. (On the plus side of all that however, the game has exceptionally low system requirements to run well. The game looked great on my fairly old and not-terribly-powerful laptop.)

In The Stanley Parable, you will make choices, and in the long run, those choices will mean nothing. The game knows it, and it positions that as being the entire idea of the experience. What I found interesting is, having arrived in Skyrim a bit late, playing that game and finding how different choices that the game claims will lead to radically different experiences actually resulted in very little change, whilst in The Stanley Parable, the choices that you make are pre-determined to be pointless, and yet from that starting idea explores a host of other ideas in its countless endings: capitalism, choice, freedom, existentialism, linearity as a design concept, and perhaps most poignantly, the role of the player in moving the narrative forward even when that narrative offers no choice.

Davey Wreden (aka Cakebread) developed the original game to be extremely short so that he could experiment with the game having various endings based on player choice (and presumably thus explore all these different thematic angles), and not make players replay an hours-long game just to see them. To wit, the Stanley Parable has nothing but replay value, however all of its endings (save for one) can be found in the space of less than 3 hours, 4 at the most. Speaking as someone whose become a fan of short games, it’s wonderful to be able to play an entire game in a single sitting and be able to digest the whole work without second guessing your opinions based on content you have yet to see, but it is understandable, even at the game’s modest price point, if 3 hours or less seems a bit short.

Aside from the small aesthetic changes to the original game however, it’s hard to explain where the remake differs from the original game without spoiling the various endings, and their twists and turns. Suffice to say: some of the original endings still exist almost exactly the way they did in the original mod, some have been changed to suit different effects, and some endings are new entirely. You are definitely still playing The Stanley Parable, but funny enough, a version of The Stanley Parable that’s thought about itself and what it means just a little bit more.

If you were unimpressed by the original Stanley Parable, then you won’t become a convert through this one, but I’d say that the new version has enough new content, and new ideas to offer to be worth its purchase price and the night you’ll spend playing it, whether you’re new to the Parable or a fan of the original game.

-Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

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