So I finished playing The Stanley Parable in order to be able to include it in my dissertation on The Current State of Videogames ... This was my initial reaction to it, before reading any reviews or critical analyses. BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
First and foremost, it is an exploration of the narrative possibilities in videogames: every choice the player makes leads to a different outcome, be it freedom, death, an endless looping room or following a big yellow line. But besides that, The Stanley Parable is also definitely a meta-commentary on the co-dependency between game designer and player. One needs the other in order for the whole medium to work (as well as progress). Dr. Colin Cremin, in an essay exploring Super Mario Galaxy using concepts from the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze suggests that in order for the artistic qualities of a videogame to be 'fully realised and brought to life' the designer ('ludo or play-creator') and player ('ludo-apprentice') have to both take on the roles of artists and collaborate. The designer creates a 'ludo-diagram', which is the architecture of the game world and in a way, a three dimensional canvas for the player to "develop her mastery", all the while leaving clues as to what is possible within the world he has created.
This relationship is not always in balance, however. As James Newman observes in his book Videogames, players often find themselves torn between finishing the game and exploring and probing, looking for 'potential detours' and side-quests beyond space that the designer intended, leading to situations where the game becomes unplayable. As such, level designers are forced to set up boundaries in order to keep the player within a certain path.
The game recognises these facts and makes fun of them: in fact in one of the branching story lines, The Narrator is interrupted by a female Narrator who appears to be telling the story of the original Narrator. She says of him and Stanley:
Oh look at these two. How they wish to destroy one another. How they wish to control one another. How they both wish to be free. Can you see? Can you see how much they need one another?
The Stanley Parable is also an exercise in exploring and commenting on the level of "freedom" video games can provide. It asks: to what degree does a player feel that their actions are truly their own choices?
When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance...
Since a digital (non-procedurally created) world was at one time made by a designer, that would lead to the assumption that all possible options have already been thought of: the player is not free to do whatever they want because they are limited by the designer's imagination. Is true freedom an illusion in the realm of "interactive fiction", as Grant Tavinor would call it? We are, after all, following someone else's story.
Secondly, I realised that understanding the humour in The Stanley Parable depends on your expectations and knowledge of videogame tropes and mechanics. For someone who is not well-versed in the structure and elements of videogames, the complexity of the game as well as its self-criticising elements will be lost. My recognition of this game as a piece of art would not be understood by a videogame 'outsider'. That would mean that more people would have to begin playing videogames, so that intellectual gems like The Stanley Parable would stand out within a sea of mediocre games. In order for more (critical) people to be attracted to videogames, the industry has to finally start taking itself seriously, so that the public and the critical world will start seeing it in the same light. This would hopefully lead to a Renaissance in videogaming history.
And, from what I have seen in the past few months across gaming websites and magazines, this attitude has already been put in motion, as evidenced by the growing amount of articles on the subject of "serious" games.