The Stanley Parable is a peculiar game that came out just about 5 years ago. I played it and loved it. I squirreled my way to every ending possible. And even today, whenever I dig through my memory for my favorite narrative games, it still rises towards the top. Which is funny because The Stanley Parable doesn’t actually have a solid or linear narrative, it rebels against things as ordinary as “beginnings” and “ends”.
Developed by Galactic Café, written by Davey Wreden, Parable is a very heady game, running philosophical circles around players, dizzying them to their delight (most of the time). It relentlessly challenges players to consider the meaning of choice.
There are multitudes of insightful essays and analyses on Parable‘s worth as a critical narrative about games or about the concept of free will. However, what I’d like to tackle today is the emotional value of playing The Stanley Parable.
Yes, emotional value. As in: what lessons can we take from this game to strengthen our emotional intelligence?
We might not notice it right away, but this game is deeply feeling. For many players, Parable offers a strange buffet of curiosity, glee, surprise, and wry submission all glazed with a thick syrup of dread. Let’s explore what we feel while playing this game, why, and how it can help us (and some elements that might not be so helpful).
Choice is Your Superpower
Parable is all about choice. What does your choice mean? Anything at all? Everything?
Unlike traditional games, Stanley doesn’t have a gun. He doesn’t have special powers or great agility. As Stanley, you can walk. That’s it. Walking is the gameplay. Walking is your way of choosing – of moving forward, of rebelling, or of submitting.
The setting of where Stanley is walking is also very important. It could’ve been an open field or a spaceship or a house, but it’s an office building.
The Stanley Parable is a meeting of the ordinary (the “boring” or “insignificant”) elements of real life and the extraordinary significance of choice.
An office building and an office job, are used as a setting and situation to evoke our common narrative of living a dull, choice-less existence. An office is an institution that seems unfeeling, no room for individuality, creativity, or meaningful interactions. The perfect arena for expressing individual, creative, and meaningful choices.
This smart combination sets up a sense of rebellious pleasure. We, like Stanley, have felt a little too snugly stitched into our schools/jobs/responsibilities. We have felt trapped, unable to make big or small decisions freely.
Parable is the fantasy of complete freedom to choose in a place/lifestyle that allows very little individuality.
This game strives to make us mindful and look at our choices. What has kept us “trapped”? Why are we not free to choose for ourselves? After playing an hour or two, players might get a peak at a message this game offers: Just as your choices are only as meaningful as you make them, the limitations keeping you from freedom are only as real as you make them.
Adversity Creates Meaning
As Stanley, we can run rampant, doing whatever we want without judgment from family, friends, or coworkers – there are none. All judgment possible has been boiled down into our one form of company: the Narrator.
The Narrator gives us the adversity we crave. He, alone, has expectations of us. He wants us to live out the story he wrote. He’s a not-quite-god-like entity that seems so perfectly sophisticated and frantic – a recognizable parent/teacher personality.
Except he can’t really punish or affect us beyond his funny/desperate monologues. We might, at times, feel bad and choose to follow his wishes, but its entirely up to us.
As Stanley we can experience an after-school / post-apocalyptic freedom – the feeling as if we are the last man on Earth who can do as he wants. Finally.
Our decisions wouldn’t be so interesting or meaningful without the Narrator to react. Otherwise we’d just be wandering, quietly, through an office building. If the Narrator leaves us (as he does once or twice), we can feel lonely or bored.
With Parable we play at being rebellious, we play at considering our desires first. This is particularly fun/healing for those who have been poignantly burdened by the talent of being considerate for others or sensitive to social expectations. In Stanley’s lonely world we exercise a freedom to mindfully express ourselves, to prioritize ourselves, and push a few soft limits. We’re quietly reminded to take better care of ourselves and value our own free will over more arbitrary social conventions.
Finding Ourselves in the Endings
The game is written to anticipate intuitive choices:
“I was gonna go left, but now that you want me to I kinda wanna go right.”
“What’s that over there? I wanna check it out, sorry, Narrator.”
“I’ve been following orders too long, time to rebel!”
This is not about strategy. This game is a playground for that dusty, off-limits part of our hearts that wants to make meaningful decisions without the painful hours of weighing pros and cons.
Whenever we follow our intuition and discover a new ending, we can feel very rewarded. Endings feel earned by our personality – our unique recipe of persistence, defiance, and curiosity. At every ending we are rewarded with the reaction of the Narrator, reacting to our balance of mischief and compliance. This is some good self-expression play, helpful for those who feel unattended to – those who don’t spend too much time with themselves.
The Unhelpful: Confronting the Dread
Many players have experienced some substantial dread while playing this game and even after leaving it. A brief visit to play-through videos on YouTube shows hundreds of popular comments on how the game aggravated their existential dread. This isn’t surprising. Parable handles themes of free will, choice, and living a dignified, meaningful life very sharply. In Parable, we can accidentally start to see life through the Narrator’s perspective: one that can remind us of an overbearing parent who believes there is one right way and many wrong ways to choose – to live.
It is made clear to us that something must be very wrong with Stanley to have the job and life he has. Much of the game explores how someone like Stanley can and should break out of the wrong way of living by making better, more meaningful choices.
Unfortunately, some players, can feel the heavy philosophical burden of meaningful choice placed on their shoulders a little too roughly. They become hypersensitive, questioning themselves in real life relentlessly.
Other players can leave this game feeling different kinds of dread; career anxiety, status anxiety, or a void of purpose.
One particular ending, The Apartment Ending, is a cruel trick by the Narrator. He traps us and details the life of Stanley (us) as an office worker who lives such a boring, unfulfilled, choice-less life that he deludes himself with the adventures of a daydream that plays out exactly as the game The Stanley Parable does. The Narrator describes Stanley “playing” this fantasy as a means of finally experiencing freedom and finally being able to make important choices. He describes Stanley playing it many, many times, hunting for new possible choices and endings. The Narrator desperately tries to tell Stanley to flee from the Parable and his job to make a meaningful choice in real life.
This ending, apt at finding the weak points of its audience, can be a little unhelpful.
It chides the players for playing the game (of giving in to fantasies rather than “fixing” their own life), it reinforces the fear we all have that we will commit ourselves to the “wrong” job or lose parts of ourselves to our careers, it strengthens the anxiety that we are not living our life the way it “should” be lived or that our choices have not been meaningful thus far.
While Parable does motivate us to look more closely at our choices, at what is keeping us from leaving fantasies and toxic jobs/lifestyles behind – it does little to comfort players after shoving them into these painful and un-compassionate perspectives.
A healing perspective that Parable silently offers – a perspective you might miss – is the fact that the game has no true ending. Of the several endings, none of them are considered the “true” ending. Although the Narrator will say that the true ending is the one where we free ourselves from the Mind Control Machine and leave the office building for a scenic landscape – that’s just his opinion.
You decide which ending is “real”, if any. There is no right ending, there is no wrong ending. This is a lot like real life. There is no set path of “correct” decisions that will lead you to the “right” ending. Instead, the player is challenged to choose their own ending.
Every possible ending can be “right” as long as your choices getting there are genuine. Like real life.
Parable, in this way, offers us an important reminder; our decisions are as meaningful as we make them, and our endings as “right” as we see them.
The power of defining our success is our own.
This perspective is helpful for anyone who has felt nervous that they aren’t living the way they “should”, anyone who has had a Narrator in their own life who has scorned them, and anyone who has felt their choices weren’t meaningful. A player struggling with the concepts of meaning and free will might need to armor themselves with these helpful perspectives before stepping into Stanley’s anxious shoes.
Thank you for reading!
This blog, Screen Therapy, is dedicated to exploring how we can mindfully use the time we already spend on games and movies to strengthen our emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is crucial when we face the everyday stresses and anxieties we all endure (such as the fear of death, how to develop the skills for loving relationships, or learning how to cope with just how difficult life feels, etc.)
We receive very little formal education or help in processing these difficult challenges, but by strengthening our self-knowledge and emotional intelligence through art and culture we can better pursue our personal balance.