Choosing to Check Out: Player Choice in The Stanley Parable
In videogames, with some extremely limited exception, you have no real freedom.
Every choice you are permitted to make – save for exploits and glitches – is afforded to you by the developer of the game. The Stanley Parable is pretty much entirely about this concept.
As the titular Stanley, you are guided through the game by a narrative voice, which you may choose to either obey or disregard. When you get over the feeling of playing some sort of strange cross between Office Space and Fight Club, you begin to realize that the Narrator is basically spoon-feeding you the game, but half the time, you’re permitted to completely ignore his instruction. But though you are upsetting the Narrator by rejecting his wisdom, you’re not actually making any choice controverting the game. Every opportunity to disobey him has been prearranged. And this is the same for every game.
Most games have no actual design around this fact of player behavior. If you don’t follow directions, the game simply doesn’t progress. Others sometimes reward this behavior, or at least make note of it. There is a particular part in Portal 2 where you are given an achievement for “tricking” GlaDOS, and by extension the game, by rescuing a companion cube when it should be impossible. Other games punish ignoring the rules. Left 4 Dead, for example, expects the player to rush through the map and punishes lollygagging by sending Specials and hordes. But these games allow you, intentionally, to do these things even if their narratives say otherwise.
Likewise, all choices in The Stanley Parable, even ones adverse to the directions given are anticipated and in fact designed by the developers. That the Narrator reacts in dismay when you choose one of these indicates as much. And in that, it tips the hand about the actual level of freedom you have. In a normal game, this is undesirable. In this one, it’s the point.
There is one decision of this kind in the game, though, that I find particularly organic compared to all the others offered.
There is a point at which, after disregarding the Narrator a few times in, you arrive at a cargo bay. The door seals behind you and at first, you seem to have only one option: to let the lift carry you across to the other side. As you ride across, though, you are presented with an alternate choice of jumping off onto a scaffolding running perpendicular below the lift. Both lead to different scenarios.
There is a third, less obvious option: jumping down from the platform to your death.
Much of Parable’s level design is built in such a way that you cannot do anything to harm yourself. All paths for closed and linear and there’s no real hazards. Death, such as it happens in this game, is usually an eventual consequence. Not in cargo bay!
In the other situations in which Stanley may die, this is because he has made the “wrong” choice. He obviously does not intend to die, it just happens as a consequence. Jumping down in the cargo bay is, by contrast, literally choosing to kill oneself (although admittedly, part of the reason I tried it was to see if I would die). It’s not part of the path and it doesn’t, at first, look like an intended option. Nonetheless, the Narrator responds to this choice just as he does any other choice you make that he disagrees with.
I especially like this design decision though because it’s one I’ve made myself before.
Logan and I have a Left 4 Dead 2 survival map concept we’ve had on the backburner for a while. The general idea was that the survivors’ helicopter would crash land on the roof of a burning building and the only place to go from there was through a hole in the roof into a room below. Seemingly anyway.
Logan asked me if I would like him to put an invisible wall or guard railing up to prevent players from falling off the roof to the streets below. The building was tall enough that a fall from it would incap the player. Other players would not be able to rescue them, since the only way down to them would be to fall themselves.
“Hell no!” I told him. “I want them to be able to jump off if they wanna.”
Obviously dying in a survival map before the fight has even begun is sort of a strange thing to permit. But Logan, I think, understood why it was important to have it this way. We are the sort who will jump off just to see if we can. We ignore the directions if we can, just to see if the game will let us.
“I want them to have that option,” I said.
When one is trying to create a feeling of freedom for the player, but especially in a game that is built on the concept of the player’s free will or lack thereof, letting the player jump to their death if you’ve given them a fifty-foot drop they could jump from is a no-brainer. There are no invisible walls in real life and we all have the choice to jump if we happen upon a fifty-foot drop in our own adventure.