Demo Driver 8: The Stanley Parable Demonstration
It’s hard to talk about The Stanley Parable without sounding like you’re a pretentious twit who uses the word “metatextual” far more often than is healthy. (The FDA recommends using it no more than twice per 1000 words.) And The Stanley Parable Demonstration is even a layer beyond that. It’s not so much a demo as it is a metatextual examination of game demos, layered on top of a game that is itself an examination of choice and the illusion of agency of games. So it’s at once trying to convince you to buy a game based on nothing from the actual game, and it’s also trying to point out the futility of trying to demonstrate a game in that fashion.
While it may come as something of a surprise based on all of that, it’s actually fairly effective at giving you an idea of what you’re going to be getting into. It presents its questions, gets you to ask some questions of your own, and the whole thing plays out with just the right mixture of not actually being a game adjacent with just enough player agency. Even if it’s mostly an illusion.
Mechanically, The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure game with a strong de-emphasis on every portion of that other than “first-person.” Yes, you walk about and interact with objects, but you’re not really on an adventure and there’s very little game to speak of. Much like The Path, it’s a game about walking about and interacting with things briefly. Also much like The Path, it’s garnered no shortage of critical acclaim from people who spend a great deal of time thinking about video games and analyzing things like the narrative language of games and the nature of choice as a construct.
Or, well, to be a bit less generous, it’s Portal with even less agency. And more agency.
See, the demo makes it clear that your choices to have an impact; it’s just localized impact. When the narrator tells you to sit absolutely motionless for twenty minutes before the demo begins, will you do it or not? If not, well, you get to do something. If you do, well, things play out differently. But guess what? Either way, you wind up at the same place. You aren’t exploring vastly alternative regions, you’re just going through a different set of motions, ultimately resulting in the same overall experience.
Which is part of the point. Which is why you find yourself feeling like you’re overusing words about metatextual examination here, because otherwise the entire thing falls apart. This is barely a game, but it’s a very clever examination of what you expect to get out of a game and what you can do within a game. It’s about exploring the notion of breaking boundaries and noting that the boundaries are always there, really, you just change the order in which you come up against them.
So the demo is all about providing you with just enough of that to get an idea of what you’re walking into. It’s providing the illusion of choice without any actual choice, giving you instructions and seeing what you do, and letting you ultimately assemble a narrative about what you went along with and what you ignored.
The up side is that if you play through the demo once, you get a sense of that. You have choices, you make use of those choices, and then you reach the end, unsure of how much your choices mattered. Maybe they all did. Maybe none of them did. You don’t get to find out. Play through a second time, though, and the chrome gets rubbed off quite quickly.
It’s understandable, really – you can’t put too much effort into the demo, of course – but it also makes the whole thing feel a bit hollow. Wait for your number to be called or barge right in? It doesn’t matter, everything will be the same either way. Your choice exists only in your head.
Loved played with a similar conceit – in essence, putting choice in the hands of the player without an explicit sense of reward or punishment – but you did, ultimately, see the impact of your choices on the game as a whole. Here, once you’ve done it once, you realize that you’re not really doing anything but running through a maze. Which is the point, I know, and it’s entirely about the artificial nature of choice in an environment wherein your success, failure, and outcomes have been established before you even started.
Still, it’s telling that the most choice I really had in the game was when I encountered The Eight Game, a portion of the demo that had me laughing so hard I couldn’t see straight. I don’t know why pressing a button over and over whilst the narrator grew increasingly exasperated with me made me laugh so hard, except that the sheer absurdity and awkwardness of the situation coupled with a game-within-a-game – which wasn’t a game, but then, the game it was within also wasn’t a game, which is part of the point.
It made me chuckle partly because it was, essentially, a homage to every section in a video game in which players start playing around with something just for fun and the game increasingly tries to kick you forward, but you’re too busy just dicking about idly and enjoying the simple experience of “I AM PLAYING A VIDEO GAME.” You can easily see the narrator as a construct representing game narratives in general and this as being your one chance to step off of the rails.
In short, The Stanley Parable Demonstration is by all metrics not much of a game, but it’s an excellent piece of commentary on games in general, albeit perhaps not as laser-focused on commentary regarding demos. Then again, perhaps that alone is part of the comment, that a demo by its very nature is static and unchanging and doesn’t offer you a rich assortment of choices. So I suppose on that level it’s doing exactly what it means to do.
Well, it’s twenty minutes out of your life. You may as well give it a spin, yes?