I don't like attributing intentions or meaning to art. This is also not a discussion on what art is or isn't. The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe edition released a couple of days ago. I played it, so here I want to briefly address why, for me, it was one of the most important gaming experiences ever, hopefully it will make sense.
Also note that this post talks about the new edition. The changes were significantly enough to change my perception of the game. Enjoy.Burning Out
If you've ever followed the works and posts of Davey Wreden you might've come across The Beginner's Guide. It's not a game that many played (especially compared to The Stanley Parable), but it's way more useful to give some context on what's going on here. The game is told by the point of view of Davey himself, exploring the games of a fictional friend of him called Coda. The whole experience consists in navigating trough small interactive experiences with the commentary of the narrator.
Quoting Wikipedia:Wreden's narration explains that he was inspired by many of Coda's game concepts, providing his own analysis on many of the themes he perceived to appear in Coda's games. However, Wreden had seen that many of the games are based on themes of prisons, isolation, and difficulty in communicating with others, and that eventually Coda's games took a darker tone and took much longer to produce, focusing even more strongly on dialogue that implied that game development was no longer a positive activity for Coda. Wreden felt concerned that Coda was feeling depressed and weighed down by game development, and took it upon himself to show some of Coda's game concepts to others to get feedback to help encourage Coda to develop more. However, this in turn led to Coda to draw into seclusion. At some point in 2011, Wreden believed Coda had stopped making games, until he was sent an email with a private link to a final game by Coda.
The game is supposed to be a window into Davey's life itself. The Beginner's Guide was created two years after The Stanley Parable was released (to almost universal acclaim). What happens when a project you did for fun turns out to be a way bigger thing than you expected? I don't know about Davey but I can talk from my experience: I have a genuine desire to make things for people, until these things actually start to get used. After that a feeling of paranoia, stress and inadequacy starts to fill the development experience. I'm not saying it's a universal feeling but it's what I felt in The Beginner's Guide. A relevant piece is this recent post about Monkey Island 3 by Ron GilbertReturn to Monkey Island may not be the art style you wanted or were expecting but it's the art style I wanted.
When I started this game my biggest fear was Disney wouldn't let me make the game I wanted to make, but they have been wonderful to work with.
It's ironic that the people who don't want me to make the game I want to make are some of the hard core Monkey Island fans. And that is what makes me sad about all the comments
At one point a developer transitions from developing for himself to developing for others. I think this is a natural and necessary step, but I personally don't handle it well, and I think neither does Davey. The Beginner's Guide is a testament to that. And so is The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe Edition (in part)Delivering A Product
If you're not familiar with the timeline of the release of the game here's roughly how it went:
7 December 2018 / Announcement Trailer
27 November 2019 / First Delay Announcement (coming 2020)
2 December 2021 / Where is The Stanley Parable(coming 2022)
30 March 2022 / Release Date Trailer (out 4/27/22)
There's a recurrent theme in all these videos and it's something like "Please, stop. It's coming when it's ready". I might be wrong but I felt the fear of expectations coming from all the trailers. I find it hard to deliver something when no one is asking for it, I can't imagine how stressful it might be to deliver something of this order of magnitude, especially coming from a guy that made "The Beginner's Guide"Dear Davey, thank you for your interest in my games. I need to ask you not to speak to me anymore. I wonder at times whether you think I am making these games for you. You've so infected my personal space that it's possible I did begin to plant solutions in my work somewhere, hidden between games. If there was an answer, a meaning, would it make you any happier? Would you stop taking my games and showing them to people against my wishes? Giving them something that is not yours to give? Violating the one boundary that keeps me safe? Would you simply let them be what they are?
Then The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe Edition came out.What makes a game?
The Stanley Parable is probably one of the few games that is less fun the less games you've played (I think another one is Undertale). I find this fascinating. For anyone that didn't play the original the game is a "Walking Simulator": a game where your only interaction is to walk around a map where something happens (usually a narrator talking about something). The core theme behind The Stanley Parable (at least the original one) is "player agency": the narrator narrates something and the game gives you a choice, either you follow what the narrator said or you don't, then the narrator reacts accordingly usually breaking the 4th wall. Davey wanted to discuss the illusion of free choice in games and how usually it's non existent. Is it actually "making a choice and leaving the main path" if that action is intended and scripted?
A person that never played a game in their life simply wouldn't get The Stanley Parable. They would just reach the end and move on. They wouldn't understand why they're supposed to "go trough the left door" and they probably wouldn't even see many of the alternate options because they wouldn't be familiar with standard video game tropes.
On the other hand if you played many games, if you're used to getting optional rewards from secondary paths, then everything suddenly makes sense (kinda). You have expectations, they're subverted. And it takes a lot of time and research and knowledge to understand what those expectations are. n What makes a game? Is it the act of playing it? Is it having a player? Can a game even be a game without anyone playing it? Does it need gameplay and what even is gameplay?
I think those are the questions posed by the original game, and in my opinion it works wonderfully. But at the time The Stanley Parable was just a novelty for me, the new edition changed everything.New Paragraph: Ultra Deluxe Edition
[This part obviously contains spoilers]How do you make a sequel? The Ultra Deluxe Edition deconstructs this whole concept. The name of the game implies it's just an enhanced version, but at one point in the game the whole main menu becomes "The Stanley Parable 2". You have a part in which the game explores some random ideas for what might be a sequel to the game, they all seem absurd, then they're thrown into the game and completely change how you experience it. I think the best example of this is "The Bucket"
At one point the narrator introduces "The Reassurance Bucket": an item that is supposed to help you with finding the right way, comfort and reassurance in your choices. Then all the original endings change acknowledging the bucket. I personally grew used to the bucket and for some bizarre reason formed an "emotional connection" with it. The game succeeded in delivering a completely new experience (something worthy of a sequel) by just adding a bucket and changing some lines of dialogue.
But the part that resonated with me the most was The Skip Button Ending:
The first time you get to experience the new content ends up with a disappointed narrator because of the lack of it. You go on a trip down memory lane with the narrator revisiting the original reviews for the first game and thinking about how great it was. Then suddenly Steam reviews appear. They're negative but bring points that some people would consider reasonable. The narrator reads some of them and agrees with the necessity of adding a "skip button" in the game to skip the rambling monologues (which, keep in mind, are the most important part of the game), and then he adds one.
You, as a player, now have the ability to skip dialogue, except that every time you do you skip more of it. 30 seconds, a minute, an hour, two weeks. You, as Stanley, as the character, stand still for the whole duration and don't notice the skip. The narrator on the other hand lives inside the game. Does a game exist without a player? He keeps talking, he feels alone, he begs you not to skip his dialogue.
As you skip more and more the narrator becomes unstable, rambles a lot and seems to become crazy. Then you have just silence. Centuries pass and you're left with a destroyed room, no one talking, a wasteland outside. You go out, walk a bit and then the game restarts, there was nothing to do either.
This links back to the beginning of my review. Whose game is The Stanley Parable? Is it Davey's? Is it the studio's or the players'? How does it feel to go against the wishes of your user base when you want to preserve artistic or functional integrity of a product? I felt desperation in that ending, and a desire to just do whatever one wants to do. I felt connected to it because I also develop small games, I also develop small products and whenever someone asks (or demands) a feature it's either
A) "Oh, I didn't think about it and it seems cool. I'll add it"
B) "Yes, it makes sense but it doesn't fit into my vision of the product"
C) "It's a terrible idea"
Sadly situation B and C are the most frequent ones, and the ones that sometimes put me off from developing something. I'm mentally afraid of them.Conclusion
I find incredible how the new edition of The Stanley Parable managed to evoke so many feelings and thoughts in my mind just by reusing assets and volountarily revisiting an old game, modifying it. As stated in the introduction I'm not inserting meaning into Crow Crow Crow's work, but I'm grateful for what they delivered and for the food for thought they gave me. Ultra Deluxe Edition is something you should probably play, especially if you have experience with gaming otherwise it just might fall flat, but for $20 it's the best value for money I've ever had in the last years.