Reading the game: the philosophy of The Stanley Parable

How to introduce my games in education project better than to kick off with a post that shows the depth and applicability of a specific game? Doing so, I start a hopefully long series of game analysis called Reading the game.

And so why not start with one of the most confusing games available? Many people have played 2013’s The Stanley Parable by now, and most have quit (you can’t quite finish it) the game as confused as they were five minutes in. Let’s make a humble attempt to make some sense of what developer Galactic Cafe throws at us.

Spoiler warning: this article describes major plot elementsDo not read below this if you plan to play this game in the future.

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The Stanley Parable
In case you have not played the game and are not planning to (also be sure to watch the trailer conveniently posted above), The Stanley Parable is a game about Stanley. “Stanley works for a company where his job is to push buttons as prompted from a monitor. One day, the orders stop coming through and Stanley notices that all his colleagues have disappeared. He proceeds to the meeting room for more information.”(source) The narrative style of this description then continues in the form of narration in the game, which you’ll have to translate into action if you want to remain on good terms with the narrator. One of the game’s core choices has you facing two doors with the narrator saying “Stanley entered the door on his left.” Have fun.

Rattling cages
If one thing’s clear about The Stanley Parable, it’s that the developers were intent on rattling some of the gaming industry’s cages. The game mocks practically every cliché and convention you can think of, from the fact that Stanley can’t see his own feet from a first person view, to the use of game “achievements”; beating the game is almost the easiest one, while another simply reads “Unachievable: it is impossible to get this achievement.” Also, the game turns traditional storytelling on its head, presenting you with no user interface, an uncertain number of open paths to follow, no actual, satisfactory ending, no final answers, and no sense of bearing at all where you are in the building, in terms of the story or in terms of achievements. It almost comes as a surprise that there is a menu.

In short, The Stanley Parable is great for shaking up all your gaming habits (or someone else’s gaming prejudices), and the fact that there’s a lot of fun in it helps too. But there is a lot more to it.

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Decision making
This has to do with the element of decision making in The Stanley Parable, and is what has drawn me and many others to this game. The choice of the two doors (and a few ones to follow) hits a philosophical nerve, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.

Let’s start with one philosophical perspective on the game. For pretty much every game you can draw the parallel of the character played as the moral agent and the player as the brain, implying a strict determinism of the will; the moral agent’s actions are determined in advance by the brain, which is itself an effect of earlier causes (such as the socio-economical environment, nutricion, education, etc.). Like the character played by the player, the moral agent has no saying whatsoever over its actions, possibly rendering the ‘moral’ in ‘moral agent’ meaningless. I would be surprised, however, if all gamers had that realization at some point during a GTA or Call of Duty game, especially those who never read or heard anything about free will theories. By introducing the narrator, the Stanley Parable forces this realization. It pulls the decision making entirely out of the player’s unconscious, making the relation between player and the character explicit, with countless baffled players as a result (you can check YouTube for some examples). It forces you to consider your role, yeah-you-there-in-your-lazy-chair, relating to the character you’re playing.

This is what makes The Stanley Parable interesting, and it can be a good incentive for some deeper digging into the rabbit hole of the philosophy of mind. But I wouldn’t be writing this if there was not something that really makes The Stanley Parable stand out, that lets you learn from it, and even reveals it as a philosophical thought experiment chamber.

Compatibilism of the will
This perspective still has Stanley as the counterpart to the moral agent, but has not the player as the counterpart of the brain, but the narrator. This pertains more to compatibilism, the collection of theories that hold that freedom of the will is compatible with determinism.

This requires some more detail on the free will debate, especially with respect to cognitive neuroscience. Free will theories receive much attention from neuroscientists since experiments performed by Benjamin Libet in 2002. “Libet conducted experiments designed to determine the timing of conscious willings or decisions to act in relation to brain activity associated with the physical initiation of behavior. Interpretation of the results is highly controversial. Libet himself concludes that the studies provide strong evidence that actions are already underway shortly before the agent wills to do it. As a result, we do not consciously initiate our actions, though he suggests that we might nonetheless retain the ability to veto actions that are initiated by unconscious psychological structures.” (source) The following video briefly explains the experiment.


So consider, now, that Stanley, our moral agent, is once again faced by the two doors. Now, when the narrator is saying Stanley went left, think of this as the brain already having made a decision for its moral actor. To some extent you will probably find this true for yourself already: for every choice you as a moral agent have to make, your brain already has some disposition towards one option or the other. In a fully determinist scenario, the player lets Stanley enter the left door when the narrator says so, and then lets him follow every other instruction until the end, the end being the end when the narrator says it’s the end. In a total-freedom-of-the-will scenario, the player turns off or completely ignores the narrator and makes decisions regardless of anything said by the narrator, who will, like the brain, protest heavily against some of those decisions.

Most theories in free will debates are more nuances than a fully determinist or freedom stance (thankfully). Correspondingly, most players will play the game somewhere in between these scenario’s, and more in line with some compatibilist theories. They will follow the narrator in some cases, and go against him in others. They may develop principles (maxims) for when they will and will not listen to the narrator, or they may base their choices wholly on intuition. Whatever they do, the interesting thing about the narrator is that, like a brain, it responds to new imputs. When you go left, the narrator notices and corrects you back to where it wants you to go, first gently and then a little less so. Like a newborn, Stanley steps out of his office and has to find out for himself what he can and cannot do; how free he really is. Most interesting is that at times, the narrator himself doesn’t know where he is anymore. Like the brain, he’s certainly not perfect.
So you could just use The Stanley Parable to show how mind boggling a gaming experience can be, or to what extent gaming is able to reflect on itself as a medium. But another way of playing The Stanley Parable is, I think, to see it as a thought experiment chamber for the freedom of the will. If you want a challenge, draw out the above analogy and conclude what freedom of the will theory is implicit in the game. Your mind may just boggle a little more.

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