Let us suppose for a moment that you were going to a comedy club. When you got there, you worked out that there was only one act, with one subject. The act is good and well-presented but you should feel free to leave at any time, once you have had your fill of the often-repeated joke.
That is where I have gotten to with The Stanley Parable and I think that is the point of the experience. The player should jump off, ideally, one joke or meta experience before they have had enough so that they retain positive impressions of the game. Stay too long and the law of diminishing returns comes into play.
The Stanley Parable alludes to being a meta experience about a man named Stanley and the drudgery of a corporate working environment, always doing what you are told.
In reality, I think it is a more of a meta experience about how much the player can put up with. Looking at the Steam achievements gives some hint to this. One achievement is to not play the game for five years and another to play for the entire duration of a Tuesday. I realise that some messing around with your computers clock will gain you these achievements easily but taken at face value, I think they should where the developer was really heading. The commentary is not about office life as presented but the developers viewpoint on the state of the video game experience.
The overall meta commentary? I could take or leave it. I would imagine most players are conditioned to test the boundaries of their existence within the title that they are playing. If you don’t routinely do so, The Stanley Parable might be an eye-opening experience for you.
The Stanley Parable is a fairly marmite experience, you’ll either love it or hate it. Players who figure out quickly that the point is to misbehave and not do as you are told will likely get the hook of the game quickly and test the boundaries of what is possible within the experience.
As a side note, I do wonder if there were any players who went through the game just doing what the narrator told them to do, got to the end and turned the game off not knowing what the experience was supposed to be. In that sense, it was a fairly brave design decision as a lot of game developers and publishers have a projected fear of missing out on behalf of the player. I suspect though, that having got through this relatively short experience of doing what you are told, most people would be tempted to have another go and see what happens when the other door is picked.
The central hooks for the player are the narration and the element of discovery.
The narration itself is going to be another Marmite element. Not everyone is going to get along with the sarcastic British delivery and the writing. That seems like a redundant statement, not everyone will like everything but what I mean in this context is if you really don’t like the narrator it is likely going to make you uninstall the game.
If you can tolerate it, or even love it. There are plenty of excellently delivered monologues and one-liners. I would head back to my initial point here as well, jump off one line before it gets too much and you will retain a more positive impression looking back.
The element of discovery is probably the main draw of the game and there are some genuinely surprising moments to be had. Discovering the Minecraft Easter egg was a great and surprising moment. I don’t want to say too much about discoveries because if you have either listened or read this far, you might have decided if this is something that takes your fancy.
If, though, you are not certain about the game there is a standalone demo that does not spoil any of the main game experience. The narration and the sense of discovery are the same here so if you are on the fence about committing to a purchase, I would recommend giving this a try.
The last point I want to cover is the question of if it is a game. You could perhaps label this as a walking simulator and you would not be wrong to think of it in that genre. Playing through once or twice might lead to a criticism there is not enough gameplay to match the narration. Unlike Dear Esther, where there are no branching paths and you need to use your imagination to fill in the ambiguous gaps, the game here is to discover as many endings as possible, again to my earlier point of how much the player can put up with.
Ultimately, for me, I probably stayed far too long in the experience and didn’t jump off as early as I should. Replaying The Stanley Parable for the purposes of this critique did bring back some good memories but also reminded me of the, to me, fatal flaw of staying too long. If The Stanley Parable strikes a chord with you, I can recommend it as a very rich experience.