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The Man Behind The Deconstructionist Mod The Stanley Parable

Davey Wreden’s thrilling Source mod The Stanley Parable breaks down the language of player expression and harkens a bold new future of experimental meta-narratives.

First things first—The Stanley Parable is most impactful and best experienced with as clean a slate as possible. It’s a free mod for Valve’s Source engine with a simple install process, and is absolutely worth your time. You can download Steam here and The Stanley Parable at Mod DB.

The Stanley Parable opens with a whimsical depiction of workplace drudgery, with a deep-voiced English narrator introducing the player to protagonist ‘Stanley’, a corporate drone who pushes buttons via instructions on a nebulous monitor, which goes blank one fateful day. This break from routine slowly unsettles and disorients Stanley, his previously content sense of scope is shattered as he is forced to explore the facility he works in, aided by the helpful narrator who attempts to guide the player through this abandoned building. This is where the story yarn slowly and methodically begins to unravel and becomes jarringly unpredictable.


Though The Stanley Parable is short and concise, it pushed me to reflect on big-picture questions about game design philosophy I hadn’t consciously considered in years. Why do we play games? Do we sympathize with these avatars? Does the first-person perspective cause us to project onto the games we play, or does it project onto us? The Stanley Parable interrogates the philosophy of current game mechanics, reconsidering the vocabulary of videogame language itself. Its multilinear narrative is an experimental meditation on objectivism and nihilism, riddled with black humor and the deftness of literary deconstruction.

Mod author Davey Wreden breaks down the fourth wall and uses it as a ramp to connect creator and player, irreverently re-contextualizing the exercise of modern gaming as data entry. Wreden offers a harsh yet constructive critique of the standard codependency of traditional game design—an input/output relationship where the only level of player expression is the rate at which we solve meticulously playtested and difficulty-eased puzzles. We’ve been conditioned to expect narrative beats, breaks in the action and steadily evolving AI patterns. The rhythms and language of game problem solving have become so homogenous that considerations of fun and originality get lost in the shuffle in AAA titles and the mods attempting to faithfully mimic them. There are few precedents in games for The Stanley Parable, it distantly recalls the dreamscape hallways of Max Payne, the climax of Bioshock and the third act of Portal.


Wreden very graciously answered some questions for us over email, covering player autonomy, the nature of truth in fiction, the aspirations of art games and the power of in-game death.

The Creators Project: What was the kernel of inspiration for The Stanley Parable (TSP)? Was it the idea of an interactive narrator perhaps? Or a desire to mediate on conventional game mechanics?
Davey Wreden: Initially, I just wanted to make a game that was something I’d never seen before. I love any media that shifts my expectations and surprises me, TSP is the kind of game I would want to play. I’ve loved games all my life and I’ve always loved narration and story delivery, but I rarely see anything particularly surprising done with it, so I just asked myself what would happen if I threw players up against an unconventional narrator. Really the seed of the game was just that one question, a desire to know what would happen if you were able to disobey the narrator, and I had no idea, so I just went about making it to find out. It helped that I had no experience modding, so this conceptually seemed like something easy, just empty halls and a disembodied voice. I think the reason the game has been successful is that it’s based around a very simple mechanic that totally subverts what we’ve come to expect in video game narratives, that was the only thing I ever really wanted to do in the first place. The rest of it just sort of sprang up the more I wrote, I couldn’t exactly tell you where any of it comes from except for a desire to surprise the player as often as possible.


Games like Portal, Bioshock, the works of Jason Rohrer and even Half-Life have explored the balance between player freedom and the dictatorial nature of game objectives. In TSP, most objects aren't interactive, doors are immediately closed behind the player, jump and sprint are disabled, and the narrator mocks both our disobedience and attempts to find solutions. When a player neglects The Narrator's instructions, there is no ability to undo your action—the game forces the player to own the responsibility of their decision in that sense. Was your goal to radically strip the player down traditional player expression, and for us to ponder the consequences?
Even in games that have a “message,” most of them still have some sort of gameplay mechanic that ties you to the message in some way. I wanted to know if it was possible to deliver a compelling narrative without it being tied to any mechanic whatsoever, I wanted to know how far a narrative in a game could be stretched while still working only as a video game. Bear in mind that for this to work, I had to actually make the game fun to play, if the narrator wasn’t a fairly interesting character, players would quit after the first playthrough. My hypothesis with TSP is that you don’t need to give players a mechanic or a set of actions to deliver a compelling narrative. Where the player is doing the heavy lifting is not in-game, it’s in their own head; it’s in trying to figure out what all of this means, trying to reconcile one ending with another, trying to comprehend the boundaries of video games. If anything, I’d say that hypothesis has been proven correct based on the incredible outpour of love and support the game has seen.


I’m not in this to shove meaning down my players’ throats. I want them to enjoy the experience, I want them to feel like they contributed in some way. Many games give you hundreds of inputs and yet you make no real contribution—games that use spectacle to distract the player from the reality that they’re really not doing anything at all. Granted, I’m definitely not saying TSP is where games should be going or the end-all of game narration, it’s simply a reference point for us to understand that games can be compelling in a way we never thought before. I hope that another developer plays this and says, “Oh, maybe the story in my game is not contingent on lots of control, maybe lack of control is not intrinsically a bad thing.”

I, perhaps immodestly, forwarded you an article I wrote about the history of mods, but only to seek your perspective on the topic. What have been some of your favorite mods? Do you find the goals and expectations of mods to be creatively liberating? If possible, would you consider porting TSP to virtual game markets like XBLA or PSN Marketplace?
I love any game that rattles my expectations a bit, so I’ve been equally delighted with Counterstrike and with Dear Esther. But a mod is just a tool, you can use it however you want, and if you go on ModDB, most of the mods there are sci-fi/history actions games. Even though modding can be a wellspring of innovation and creativity, it’s just as easy to use it to make something that looks identical to everything else. The more open your platform is, the more imitators you get.


As far as actual success goes, I think it has far more to do with your intentions than with the openness of your platform. Case in point: i released a game that’s actually kind of difficult to install, on a limited number of platforms, with zero marketing and zero details available about the game, and it was downloaded 70,000 times in a week. That speaks to my desire to do something crazy and unexpected. If your intentions are just to imitate the formula, than no amount of technological liberation will help. But I’m kind of an anomaly here, so what do I know?

Would XBLA or PSN really want me? I don’t know. If they contact me then we can talk about it.

How would you characterize the current climate of reception to 'art games'? News items seem to be faintly praising and comments seem boiled over in vitriol. Not too long ago, game journalism outlets were passionately articulating the 'games as art' debate, yet within our own community lies seemingly endless derision for unconventional games. Perhaps it’s just a vocal minority? Are we in the midst of a shift toward games being a serious cultural force in the art world?
I think it goes back to the fact that many art games are simply not fun to play. You see a lot of these games being designed by academics, where the ‘message’ of the game substitutes for actual engagement with that message. You can tell me that this game is meaningful all you like, if I’m not engaged with it, then I’m not going to believe it. I think part of the reason TSP has been successful in this regard is because first and foremost, it’s a cool idea that’s fun to explore. I started with a mechanic that I would have wanted to play (what happens when a narrator tells you to go one way and you can go the other), that’s a kind of game that’s already interesting even without there being an ‘art’ element to it. What happened was because I was trying to create a new kind of experience, and because I had set myself up to be able to, I made something that naturally evolved into a philosophical and meaningful experience. The philosophy and existentialism was not there from the beginning, it simply arose organically the further outward I designed as a natural extension of the core concept.


But many art games go at it the other way around, and forget that my investment in your theme is going to come equally from what you tell me as what you don’t tell me. If you let me engage with your game and enjoy it, I’m going to come to those philosophical conclusions far better than if you plaster it across the screen, or if you hide it away without giving me any real gameplay incentive to look for it. We tend to draw this dichotomy in the games industry between “fun” and “not fun.” So when the debate comes up, ‘should games be fun?" I have to ask, maybe there’s another layer here that we’re missing. Maybe we can be genuinely engaged with the game without it triggering our senses or adrenaline. Maybe art games can be captivating without guilt tripping me into playing them because they’re “important.” I don’t know the answers to these questions, I’m just asking the questions right now, but I think that the future of this culture as an artistic medium will be dependent on that new definition of fun. An openness to fun in a way we’d never imagined before.

Remember, art is all in the head of the individual. If they hate what you’ve made, you’ll never convince them it’s art.

One minor game writing trend this year has been meditations on the power of in-game death. Limbo is one of the recent independent games that re-contextualized death into an event traumatic, necessary and hauntingly beautiful. Kotaku recently ran a reader complaint about how young players don't seem to respect character death as much as elder gamers. What were your creative goals with the device of death? Did you think about your own mortality at all while writing or building TSP?
But that’s the thing, death in my game is totally meaningless. You can die in like 5 different ways and it never means anything. Every person who plays my game will have to confront death at some point in their lives, but they CERTAINLY won’t be helped in that process by having played my game. If they come to a new relationship with death, it’s because they had a genuine desire to and they worked it out for themselves, not because my game told them anything. One of the most significant things I’m saying with my game is “this is not real life, don’t make that mistake.” Limbo communicated a lot about death and there was never a word on the screen, because it existed in the player’s experience with the game, not what it explicitly told them. I will not think the same thing about death after playing Limbo as you will, the game itself was just a sort of catalyst to start that thought process in my head.


Death is a beautiful concept to explore. You can discuss and engage with it in an infinite number of fascinating ways, and yet it happens to all of us in exactly the same way. That’s always felt paradoxical to me, which is part of why I made TSP such a paradoxical game—it doesn’t make sense, you can’t resolve it. I wanted to remind people that I could make the most beautiful, artistic game in the world involving death, [but] it’s not going to help them deal with it any better. So no, I really didn’t think about my own mortality because it didn’t seem relevant. I have to resolve my own personal issues in the times when I’m not creating, my work just communicates to others how at peace I am with it. Appreciate my game if you feel like it, and then stop playing and deal with your life in a way I never could have told you.

What was the writing process like? Were the narrative beats or level concepts finalized before you started building the mod or recording the narration?
I wrote the entire thing in about 2 months, all of which happened before I started building the mod. All that I changed were areas where I couldn’t figure out how to implement my idea, or where I cut down the dialogue because it was too long, so it’s very similar now to my first draft. The process of writing really just started with the core concept of the narrator, and then I started asking myself every way that I could possibly mess with the player’s expectations of what a video game narrative should be. I’m a very throw-random-ideas-at-the-wall kind of guy, so I literally just came up with every idea I possibly could and then tried to see how many of them I could fit into the game. I did a lot of walking through parks, stopping at random benches to write down an idea, then moving on. I find if I stay in the same spot for too long, the ideas start to get stale, I need to be exposed to new things to spark new ideas. So really, it was just all of these things cobbled together, I’m amazed the game came out as cohesive as it did.


Over the past 15 years, the gaming industry has evolved from impassioned hobbyists and small companies to a multi-billion dollar behemoth. Despite this new cultural weight, it seems genre has become heavily stratified, and 'video game language' has become seriously regimented in terms of mechanics, level design and story experience. It seems a moot point, but original ideas translate to financial risks for AAA game designers. Jason Rohrer says the fault of today's mainstream designers is that we're trying to imitate cinema instead of exploring the power of player expression. My personal experience with TSP isn't the narrative it offers, but its interrogation of what we've become conditioned to expect from games, and our co-dependent input/output relationship. Does any of this reflect your goals with this mod?
What I love is the fact that video games are so young, we still have so much to discover about what narrative in games is capable of. Big game publishers may be imitating cinema, cinema is far older and has been through its own set of creative revolutions. You could convince me that comparing games to cinema, games are still in the equivalent of cinema’s silent era—we have a long long way to go. There are still so many questions that we haven’t asked about video games, so much exploration that hasn’t been done. I think this is why TSP has been successful, because it asked so many of those questions in the right way. As a film student, I can say that I don’t think that could have happened in film, there’s just been a kind of creative stagnation in the last few years, people have more or less stopped asking those questions. That’s all TSP is, it’s just a question asked very loudly and directly, and the fact that it’s become so popular says that there’s still a desire in this industry to innovate and to question our previous assumptions. I have no expectation that TSP will change the industry, but perhaps people that follow will start making games that take those questions to the next step, and the next, and the next. Where that little chain of games leads I have no idea, but for now the success of my game gives me hope that it’s actually a good place.

Though this question is almost hopelessly broad, I feel compelled to ask you: What are the philosophical or psychological influences of TSP?
Just living my life, honestly. I’ve studied philosophy, read books and gone to lectures, but nothing has made any influence on my life like just living it. There’s such a richness in the discovery and unfolding of a person’s life, the ways that they’re surprised and changed along the way, and I kinda wanted to capture that. I wanted to bottle the feeling of being thrown off guard in a good way, and to remind people that that experience can only come from going out and putting yourself out there in the world. That’s why, to me, the most interesting part of TSP is when people stop playing it, when they talk about their experience with others or when they just go about and be in the world. There’s only so much games can do.

A lot of people have called this game existentialist, postmodern, nihilistic, I’ve been called the Albert Camus of video gaming. Which may be true, but I’ve never studied any of those particularly deeply, I was just speaking to something that felt true to me. It’s no surprise that others throughout history have touched on the same ideas, it’s something everyone goes through. I think the best experience you can have is one that doesn’t fit any ideology or description, it’s just something that you came to based on your own unique experiences in the world. You’re welcome to call that whatever you like.

What ideas did you have for this first iteration of TSP that you weren’t able to implement? How do you plan to expand, without giving it away, in the update you're attempting for TSP? Would it be more of a remake, with more outcomes and complexity, or a sequel perhaps?
Well, pretty much everything I wasn’t able to implement the first time will be in the remake, so I really don’t want to give anything away :) It will be the same core game, and much of the content will be the same, but I’ll be… expanding in a few ways. I want to be sure to add only where it contributes to the game, not just for the sake of adding. I really actually don’t know what that means at this point, i’m as excited to find out as you are!

Which outcome are you the proudest of? What are some of your favorite player reactions or observational feedback to The Stanley Parable?
Man, it’s been amazing hearing what rich experiences people have had with the game! And there are some people who really get exactly what I was trying to do, in these really subtle ways I didn’t think anyone would pick up. Like when you do everything the narrator tells you to do and suddenly you lose all control of the character to signify your own lack of control. People have sent me emails saying that this game changed their life. One of my favorite interpretations is that the narrator is trying to write a story and he can never get the main character just right, so he keeps crumpling up the paper and trying it again. I NEVER expected that to happen, it was more like I was just doing it for me, knowing that that level of interpretation was there if anyone wanted to find it. I’m so overwhelmed by the reaction that I wouldn’t even know how to start describing my feelings on it, I’m just overwhelmed.

I think that each outcome is wonderful in its own unique way. Although if I had to pick a favorite, I would probably say the one where the second narrator comes in. It’s just so jarring on so many levels, first when you realize there’s another narrator, a second level of reality you hadn’t thought about before, then, when you’re put back on the conveyor belt and you realize that your death really was inevitable, then when you realize that the only way to beat the game is to manually quit the game, either before or after the crusher crushes you (which is one thing people usually cut out in YouTube videos of the game, unfortunately). I love it when my expectations are subverted, and that ending does it so forcefully, I think it’s really beautiful.

Who are your favorite game designers, and what games are you most looking forward to?
Nintendo just creates the most magical worlds, and Valve and Irrational are taking steps forward with storytelling that I’m absolutely in awe of. I’m also a fan of the smaller indie developers, I love Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV, and Braid is one of my favorite games. I absolutely can’t wait for The Witness. I’m also crazy excited for Bioshock: Infinite, and for Diablo III, can’t wait to lose my life… again.