I've just completed The Stanley Parable for the eleventh time. I'll avoid spoilers, and instead say that in the 15 or so minutes it took to finish my last playthrough, I laughed, felt a pang of sadness, and, more than anything, was genuinely surprised. Even after ten previous attempts - more if you count those from the Half-Life 2 mod that this full release is expanded from - I was being shown something new. The Stanley Parable isn't a long game, but it is a broad one.
If you've played that mod, I can save you some time. TSP is broader, denser, smarter, funnier, darker. It's a wonderfully twisted maze of consequence, packed with jokes and surreal flourishes. 90%
For everyone else, let's begin again.
The Stanley Parable starts in an office. There you meet Stanley, on the day that the orders from his menial job stop and his co-workers disappear. You also meet the narrator: the disembodied voice telling Stanley's tale. The Stanley Parable isn't that story, but it is the story about that story.
Through Stanley's first-person perspective, you follow the narrator's instructions. When he says that Stanley leaves his office, you leave the office. When he says that Stanley walks through the empty corridors, you walk through the empty corridors. When he says that Stanley heads through the left door, you... ah. There are two doors, and you're not Stanley. You're you, with all the free will and sense of rebellion that implies. So what do you do?
Whatever you choose, TPS branches, and branches, and branches again. At each of the game's many intersections, you can follow the narrator's instruction or ignore it and face the consequences of your petty resistance. Each combination of choices leads to something unique. Some of these 'endings' are lighthearted, some are absurd, some are unnerving, most are self-referential, and many centre around the narrator's attempts to get back to his story.
There are a few reasons it works so well, the most obvious of which is the narrator's character. At times, he feels like an antagonist, but really he's narrative design personified. He's as trapped by your chaotic whim as you are by his retribution. Depending on the path you're walking, he can be grandiose, affectionate, cold, impassioned, pleading, and, more often than not, wearied.
Backing up his versatile performance is the level design, which acts as the third, equally petulant character. Moment to moment interactions with the game are light - mostly walking and pressing an occasional button. But TSP feels more engaging than other first-person ambulators (like Dear Esther or Proteus) in the way that it's constantly challenging players to find ways of reinforcing their agency over the game.
In response to these actions the map can warp, glitch and double back on itself, load into something new, or restart into a false opening. Every loading screen elicits a spark of anticipation, because it feels as if anything could be on the other side of that transition.
There are pacing issues, but they're inherent to the illusory freedom. The more subtle endings can fall flat if experienced directly after the most shocking and bizarre. More ironically, this game about game endings doesn't have one of its own. Having run through my internal checklist of possible paths, I'm now left poking around for possible secrets. And so The Stanley Parable ends on a whimper, but to have it any other way would spoil the frequent bangs along the way.