Exercise: Write a bad review of your own game.
— Vectorpark (@Vectorpark) June 23, 2013
I thought the above tweet was fantastic, so as a thought experiment, here is a negative review of The Stanley Parable:
The Stanley Parable might have been designed by a committee targeting the post-modern-gamer demographic (if such a thing even exists or is substantial enough to be marketed to). It ticks only the exact number of checkboxes to be considered “self aware,” then calls it a day, thinking this to be a complete and filling experience. Unfortunately this design mentality cares more about being clever and hip than about actual engagement with a human being.
Stanley, the title character whose shoes the player inhabits, must contend with instructions delivered to him throughout the game by an omniscient British narrator, who seems to have an idea of what the game's story is “supposed” to be. The player can either follow or divert the narrator's intentions. Each choice the player makes inevitably leads to a certain well-recognized trope of modern gaming, which the player must then participate in while the game attempts to simultaneously critique it.
More often than not however, these “critiques” involve simply pointing to a trope or structure and declaring “hey, look at this.” But that's it. The game seems to think that mere awareness of these tropes is a full and compelling experience, it's shown me something I already knew and then decided that was enough.
Essentially the game completely disregards the notion of follow-through, it's content with pointing out the flaws in modern game design without offering any actual solutions or course of action. In this sense I find the game very self-serving, purely because it has an opinion it thinks it deserves to be heard, like someone calling into a daytime political talk radio show (which is not to disparage the institution of calling into radio shows, but I would never listen to a radio caller for the full hour it takes to play The Stanley Parable). Ok, you've noticed something about life/culture/society/philosophy. Now what?
Because without the 'now what' I'm left with nowhere for my brain to go. At best, if I agree with you that a particular trope is lazy or over-used...well great, I agree with you. It's hard for the conversation to go anywhere meaningful when we're all just sitting around agreeing with one another (not to mention it's boring as hell). The game has declared “tropes exist” and then dropped the mic. Perhaps it's expecting me as the player to fill out the rest of the conversation, like a half written joke expecting its listener to write the punchline.
I wouldn't mind these problems so much if there were anything to the game EXCEPT this unfinished conversation. It deliberately scales back all elements of interactivity and gameplay to focus your attention narrowly on the narrative analysis at play. So when it fails to engage me at that I'm left with nothing at all.
Well, the one thing I'm left with is running up and down hallways. The actual navigation of the game world ceases to mean anything after your third playthrough, instead becoming a checklist of location you have to remember to return to to make sure you saw everything. In criticizing the tendency for games to become mindless exercises in action without intrinsic meaning, The Stanley Parable has gone and cultivated these very behaviors.
I would love to have had a conversation with The Stanley Parable, but it didn't seem to want one. And if nothing, the game is a great examination of how people set in their ways tend to resist change. So I won't try to change it, I'll simply let it sit there saying what it thinks about the world and wait for someone else to actually show me something new.