ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Davey Wreden (a Texan) and William Pugh (an Englishman) of Galactic Cafe about The Stanley Parable, a newly remastered version of a two-year-old mod about a man who gets lost at work and starts questioning the fabric of reality.
What lessons does The Stanley Parable hold? Its creator and writer, Davey Wreden, will never tell. But rest assured that there’s a moral in there somewhere, nestled among the enigmatic little game’s endless yellow-carpeted hallways, constant chatter from a highly unreliable narrator, and dozen or so different endings.
For the first few minutes, The Stanley Parable pretends to be a story about a man named Stanley whose coworkers have mysteriously disappeared. But things get weird quickly. Hallways repeat and turn in on themselves. There are strange facilities deep underground. Stanley always wakes up back in his office, no matter what happens. He wonders whether he’s dreaming; he wonders whether he’s dead. It’s a surreal march on which video game culture in-jokes and self-indulgent existentialism walk side-by-side in perfect synchronization. And through it all, you rarely do anything but listen, watch, and walk forward. Wreden tells ANIMAL:
The reason the game is powerful to you is because you don’t know. Because you can’t tell the difference… All we do is we set it up. We set the stage. And then you get onstage and you run yourself in circles until you pass out. That’s the struggle that’s interesting to me. To run yourself in circles. To run your brain in circles until you pass out. I think that’s compelling. And I don’t think it’s just that I want people to suffer; there is something really cool when you come out on the other side of that, you know? Something very personal and very fulfilling. But it is a very personal journey and so it’s not my place to comment.
The Stanley Parable started as a mod, a bit of original content created by players using the engine and tools of a commercial game. Wreden wrote it in two months, then “just sat down and made it.” It was released in 2011. The standalone version released in October was planned as “a prettier version of the mod,” but Wreden and his new partner Pugh’s vision proved more ambitious, and the game grew. (The above screenshot is from a scrapped portion of the standalone verison in which the old mod’s environments began to bleed into the new ones.)
But when pressed about their intentions and the game’s mysteries, Wreden and Pugh said they’ve lost sight of what The Stanley Parable really is. In other words, the experience of developing the game was similar to what playing it is like: the further you get, the less you understand it.
Throughout The Stanley Parable an ever-talking narrator, voiced by the talented Kevan Brighting, keeps up a running commentary of philosophy and criticism. He questions Stanley’s existence, he questions his own existence, and at one point he questions whether you, the player, have died at your keyboard. It’s brilliant. Wreden did most of the writing, and Pugh most of the level design, but they said they collaborated on much and spoke on Skype (Wreden lives in Texas and Pugh is in the UK) for hours every day over the course of two years. That’s something that sets The Stanley Parable and other indie games apart, the duo agreed. Pugh says:
In the bigger projects, the traditional triple-A things, you can tell that the writers and the level designers have never said a word to each other. The level designer will have picked up what the writer said—and even then it will be like, third- or fourth-hand communication. Because the writers will send it to the concept art people, and the concept art people will send it through to the texture people, and you know. But we have this really personal and direct communication. I think that’s why it flows so well and why it fits quite nicely.
Speaking to Wreden and Pugh, it’s clear that they’re on the same frequency. They finished one another’s sentences and typed a separate conversation with one another while we Skyped. And they agreed on the importance of personal ownership in video games, and how many games get that wrong. Wreden says:
I A lot of times a game will have a branching path with a story that can go one way or the other, and then maybe it branches more times, and at the end, you end up at an ending. The idea is to encourage a sense that you are the owner of that particular thread, that it was your story, but usually that actually makes me feel less like it’s my story, because it just highlights how someone showed me their idea of the story. Like they had multiple windows and I just picked which window I wanted to open to see what’s on the other side. But that’s not quite the same thing as ownership. So I would like for ownership to be a stronger part of story-driven games. Not ownership in the sense that I picked that ending, but that I felt like I was engaged with the events of the story as they were happening.
You think about it in terms of choosing and then getting a nice little bit of content as your reward. And that isn’t nearly as powerful as the feeling that you’ve experienced this with these characters and through all of the choices that you’ve made, some that don’t even matter, you’ve come to understand the experience in your own way.
And Wreden finishes:
And then you’re making choices because they’re what you believe in that moment, not because of the reward that you’re going to get further down the line.
The Stanley Parable is available now through Steam for Windows.