October 17, 2013 10:47 PM | Staff
It's difficult to talk about the first-person choice-wrangler that is The Stanley Parable without drifting in and out of massive spoiler territory, so I thought it would be best to begin this interview with an unmissable "spoiler alert" paragraph.
If you've not played through The Stanley Parable yet, I urge you to back away from this piece now -- you'll only wish that you hadn't had it spoilt for you afterwards. Wandered through it thoroughly? Feel free to proceed.
The Stanley Parable, previously a free Half-Life 2 mod in a former life, is a game riddled with dialogue and choice. You're presented with a simple decision -- the left door, or the right door? -- and from there sprawls a variety of bizarre sights, sounds, and wonders.
It's a game all about choice, although there's this strange nagging feeling throughout that the game is simply causing the illusion of choice, and is actually nudging you in particular directions. I asked creators Davey Wreden and William Pugh whether there was any truth to this.
"We always intended for players to be able to play through the endings in any order they wanted, and for the game to feel like it 'worked,'" answers Pugh. "So we did our best to avoid pushing players to make particular choices."
"However there were points where playtesters would just not realise that they were being presented with a choice and they'd miss out on something like confusion ending or the red and blue doors, so we had to work to visually highlight these choices a bit more than others," he adds.
Wreden notes that players love to form meaning out of the random events that occur in the game, even when there is absolutely no meaning to be found.
"All we have to do is give you enough content to work with and you'll do the work of connecting it all together for us," he laughs. "There are almost certainly references you didn't catch the first time that someone else will see and say 'oh how did they know I'd play in that order!' You'll also probably make connections that we had never even thought about or intended in the first place."
"We can only design for so much of that," he says. "At some point we simply take our hands off the reins and let whatever conclusions you come to be yours."
In my own first playthrough, I found myself following the narrator's whim until a large sign with the words "ESCAPE" scrawled on it pulled me off the beaten track. Are there any endings that are popular with first-timers for whatever reason?
"There's a few endings that are typically more popular than others for the first playthrough, but we're long past the point of noticing it," says Pugh. "We've seen so many people play the game in so many different forms we just don't know anymore!"
We need to go deeperWith so many paths twisting and turning around each other, it can be difficult to keep track of where you've already been, and the paths you're yet to explore -- yet the game offers no way to check with paths you have ventured down.
"For a while there was exactly such a guide!" Wreden tells me. "There used to be a flowchart at one point in the game detailing all the major branches, but we immediately found that it had the opposite effect on playtesters to what we had intended."
"For many people it killed the magic of discovery, since they knew where everything was," he adds. "There was no more joy in being surprised by some new path. For others it enabled them to scour the game to find everything, they'd come back to me saying 'I saw everything!' That's the opposite of what I want! I want players to feel like they've been playing for hours and seen nothing! So we took it out."
Pugh wasn't a fan of the flowchart approach either -- "certain parts of the game aren't tied to a system that is easily displayed in a flowchart, so even if we made one it wouldn't contain everything in the game!"
One of the most notable pathways in the game, and one that will no doubt be the highlight of forum discussions for weeks to come, is the one in which the narrator decides to abandon The Stanley Parable as a game, and throw the player into a variety of different games instead.
While the original 2011 mod included a section in which you venture into Half Life 2 for a brief moment, this new version takes this a step further, putting the player in the opening for Portal, and even plonking you down into a game of Minecraft.
"I asked Notch for permission to use the art and he said yes!""We wanted to change that part up a bit to surprise players of the original game," Wreden explains. "We talked about it with Valve and via a magical bit of paperwork that I'm not allowed to talk about, we can now legally put Portal in our game!"
"Minecraft we talked about for a long time, and we weren't even sure it would work," he admits. "Would it break the flow of the game or be too distracting? But once we tried it out, players really loved it. I asked Notch for permission to use the art and he said yes!"
Of course, what really makes the game tick is narrator Kevan Brighting. The British voice-over artist has put his dulcet tones to numerous adverts, narrations and talking books before, but this must surely be his most important work to date.
"Four years ago I posted an audition on a voice casting website for The Stanley Parable, and Kevan submitted an audition," Wreden notes. "As soon as I heard his voice I danced around the room - it was exactly what I had been looking for."
"He was incredibly gracious and recorded everything I asked of him, usually getting it all on the first take," he adds. "He's been an absolute joy to work with. Many aspects of The Stanley Parable's development have been hard work and dedication, but finding Kevan was pure serendipity."
And finally, I have to know: "Is there a "true" ending to The Stanley Parable, that the team considers to be the real wrap-up?
Answers Pugh, "There's no perfect ending for me, but there might be one for you."