What is it? The Stanley Parable rebuilt in the Unity Engine, but with much more of itself.
Expect to pay: $24.99/£19.49
Developer: Crows Crows Crows
Publisher: Crows Crows Crows
Reviewed on: RTX 2080, Intel i7-9700K , 16GB RAM
Link: Official site
I've never given much thought to the "skip dialogue" button in a videogame, but after playing The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe I can't stop thinking about it. The button (it's a physical button in the game world, so you have to be standing in a specific place to use it) is just one of several new features you can take for a spin in the "expanded reimagining" of 2013's The Stanley Parable. Once again, stepping into Stanley's shoes turns the act of playing a game into a hilarious, surprising, and at times deeply thoughtful examination of games and game development, players and player choice, and yes, even the consequences of pushing a button.
I'll get this out of the way early: It feels like a trap to review The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe, considering that part of this expanded version takes place in a museum of memories, where the narrator reads aloud from several reviews of the original game. Not just professional reviews from Destructoid and GameSpot, framed and hanging on walls and lit by candlelight (PC Gamer's own 90% review is missing, I noted with some disappointment), but also Steam user reviews unceremoniously dumped in piles and scattered around a rainy dockyard, including one which suggested a skip dialogue button was needed because the narrator talked a bit too much. It really gives you something to ponder while you're pressing the new skip dialogue button because the narrator is talking a bit too much.
Back to my point: Reviewing a game so willing to shine a light on its own reviews seems a bit like stepping onto a trap door clearly labeled "trap door." On the other hand, walking into traps you've been warned away from, and doing things you're not supposed to do before finding out the game really does want you to do them, is how you play The Stanley Parable. So, why not review it? Maybe it'll wind up framed in The Stanley Parable re-re-release someday.
But what even is Ultra Deluxe? It's not just a remaster, though the original first-person game has been so faithfully rebuilt it took me several hours to realize it was no longer in the Source Engine but in Unity. You can play through it once again as office worker Stanley, who one day realizes he's the only one in the building and sets out to discover what happened to his coworkers as a gentle storybook-style narration guides him through the empty corridors. The simple act of disobeying your instructions and making your own choices leads to numerous branching paths, a range of reactions from the narrator, multiple endings, and the pure joy of doing something unexpected and discovering that the game fully expected you to do it.
But at some point while replaying the new version of the old The Stanley Parable, the new content of Ultra Deluxe begins to intrude. It's not a subtle introduction—a door labeled "New Content" appears in the familiar office corridor you've walked down a dozen times already. Step through it and a bunch of new features are trotted out for your approval. For instance, there's a bucket that Stanley can pick up and carry around with him.
Buckets of fun
That's it. It's just a bucket, a little joke based on the idea that some players found the original game confusing, and so this "Reassurance Bucket" can now be carried around as a companion to stave off any feelings of discomfort or uncertainty. But of course, a simple joke in the hands of developer Crows Crows Crows (the studio founded by one of The Stanley Parable's original creators) never stays simple for long. The bucket draws new commentary from the narrator, which made me wonder if anything else changed when I was carrying it. What if I climbed out a window with the bucket, or carried it to the boss's office, or took it along with me to one of the original game's many endings? What if I started the game over with the bucket and then brought the bucket back to the place where I originally was given the bucket? Could I get two buckets?
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe does a brilliant job anticipating anything and everything a player might do while playing The Stanley Parable while holding a bucket, and the rewards for experimenting are more humor, confusion, absurdity, and thoughtful explorations about game design and player choice.
At one point I decided I'd try to get rid of the bucket, a lengthy task that rewarded me with a "replacement bucket," which I stubbornly also got rid of, after which I restarted the game and found… I no longer had the bucket.
And as silly as it sounds, I have to admit I genuinely felt a bit of panic. Had I legitimately become emotionally attached to the bucket? No, no. It was just that carrying the bucket around with me had unlocked a number of new endings (and bucket-based revisions of the game's original endings) so I worried that without the bucket, I might wind up missing some secret ending, a bit of narration, or one of the silly or thought-provoking moments that are the collectibles of The Stanley Parable experience.
(Ultra Deluxe does add literal collectibles, by the way. I definitely suggest collecting them all, even though you're told repeatedly there will be no reward for collecting them. And that's true, there isn't. But then again, there is.)
I did, eventually, get my Reassurance Bucket back, and dammit, as stupid as it feels to say this, I felt reassured to once more be clutching it. That's really the genius of Ultra Deluxe: it gets you to laugh at a joke and then slowly makes you realize how much truth lies within that joke.
There's far more than just a bucket in Ultra Deluxe—I just don't want to spoil the rest of the new features, or even reveal how they're revealed because it's just about perfect for a videogame about videogames. I've played for about 10 hours and I'm pretty sure I still haven't uncovered all of Ultra Deluxe's tricks and treats.
As with the original game, there is a fair amount of fruitless wandering through parts of the office you've been through many times before, trying to discover something new where there is nothing new to be found. And there are still a few patience-testing moments where the narration carries on just a bit too long and I found myself restless to keep exploring rather than standing in place listening. (I definitely don't think it needs another skip dialogue button, however. One is plenty.)
But mostly, Ultra Deluxe is an adventure full of delightful surprises and sharp, funny observations about games, how we play them, what we expect from them, and what they expect from us.