Metafiction: The Stanley Parable

Metafiction has been around for centuries but only recently has it started showing itself in popular video games. Metafiction refers to literature that consciously comments on the medium they are presenting through in order to bring up questions about the relationship between reality and fiction. For example, in The Stanley Parable, the player is not only playing the game but is also being played by the game.

In the beginning, the player’s character is introduced by a male narrator. The character’s name is Stanley, a.k.a. employee 427, who works at a company where his job is to push buttons all day as instructed by a screen. One day, Stanley notices that no instructions are appearing on the screen and journeys out of his office to figure out the reason why. Throughout the game, a narrator follows Stanley while voicing every action the player should take even before they reach the area to do so. If the player makes Stanley deny the narrator’s instructions,the narrator will passive aggressively attack Stanley on every aspect of his life including and not limited to his personality, intelligence, and appearance. In the end, the game seems to only offer two pathways: obey the narrator or disobey the narrator.

Which door should you go through?

Which door will you choose?

In reality, the real options are not obey the narrator or disobey the narrator but to not play the game or to be played by the game. What I mean here is the whole goal of the game is trying to free Stanely from a mind-controlling machine that has been governing his actions, however, to break free from its control you have to follow another machine’s instructions. Ultimately, no matter what option the player picks, the narrator will bring Stanley to a premade area of the game feigning that he is upset at Stanley’s choices. In the end, the player becomes no better than the Stanley when he followed the whims of the computer screen.

The Stanley Parable is a metafiction that raises the player’s attention to the stale linearity of video games. We can only move where the game makers allow us to go and every step is planned out for us before we even begin the journey. The Stanley Parable lays out this truth for all of the players to see. It breaches the lines of reality and fiction by directly addressing the player’s actions while using Stanley as a metaphor.

No matter what game we ultimately play, we are never really fighting monsters or collecting gold coins but we are all Stanley, sitting in front of a computer pressing buttons on a keyboard and gaining the feeling of satisfaction through the pixels on the screen.

  5 comments for “Metafiction: The Stanley Parable

  1. nbemis
    April 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    *Spoiler* My personal favorite ending to “The Stanley Parable” has to be the Suicide Ending, in which the Narrator says something akin to “Desperate to prove his own power of autonomy, Stanley threw himself off of the ledge, to his death. Congratulations, Stanley. We all think you’re very powerful.” He says this sarcastically, and it makes a lot of sense. Really, it’s impossible to be autonomous within a game, because one is experiencing something that someone else created, and must come to conclusions about the work based within the confines of said work. In fact, it could be argued that it’s impossible to be completely autonomous within the confines of any text by the same token. The only way to be completely free of the influence of text is to stop playing, watching, reading, looking at, talking with anything or anyone; to live within a vacuum. And is there any fun in that?

  2. bosco1213
    April 19, 2014 at 3:14 am

    To elaborate on what nbemis stated, life or games would be rather boring with no ability to choose. I believe “The Stanley Parable” pokes at that in one of the earliest ending you can get in the game, the Coward Ending. Instead of leaving his office, Stanley wait for orders as the narrator mocks him for not being able to make decisions for himself. Thus, deeming him a coward for missing out on everything else.
    I agree that it is almost impossible to not make choices in a video game. Without any choices in a video game, it just wouldn’t feel right especially if someone else made decisions for you when games are partially about personal experiences. That’s why I like TSP so much. The narrator tells you what to do and where to go, but he never overrides your ability to choose when you go off track.

  3. Steve Rechter
    April 21, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    I love your last bit of text. This is a game that makes us so aware of its gaminess, so self-aware of us as its “player,” it becomes quite uneasy. At times, while attempting to mentally place the paratextual implications of an action, I would start to lose my mind. Button clicking becomes a maddening experience to comprehend. I’m clicking buttons to click a fake button through the avatar of a career button clicker whom I control with buttons… and so on. The menu screen of the game is a perfect demonstration of this dizzying, seemingly never-ending level of self-reference. You control the screen which is also on the computer screen in the screen, and on the computer screen of the computer inside the first computer screen, and so on, in a never-ending cycle. It’s dizzying at times, hilarious at others. Really trying to “get” the Stanley Parable on each of it’s ludicrous levels of reference is almost impossible. It all starts from us clicking those damn buttons.

  4. Grace Draper
    April 22, 2014 at 10:51 am

    After playing the Stanley Parable I began to understand the idea of reader versus narrator. The game has so many different levels of control, from 0 to Full. It is an interesting question to bring up, but one that ELit addresses often: how much control can the player/human have? There may be other options not offered to you, and in TSP there was only one option sometimes, or only one clear option with the alternatives being very hard to find. I think it is a strong critique of the player versus the narrator versus the writer. Is the narrator the writer? Is the writer controlling the narrator and in turn controlling the player? There are a lot of interesting ideas brought up by TSP.

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