The Stanley Parable: The Choice is Yours. Sort of.
The Stanley Parable is one of those rare games where you never really accomplish anything, yet you simply can't stop playing.
Every once and a while a game comes along that does something new and innovative, and it lights the gaming community afire with interest. Minecraft did it by opening up a sandbox world where you could spend countless hours digging for precious minerals and running from Creepers, and even a relatively mindless game like Cookie Clicker has grown wildly popular. However, a game like The Stanley Parable seems to capture the imagination like no other.
The Secret Life of Stanley
The premise, at first, is relatively simple: The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure game where you control the titular hero, an office drone that spends his waking hours plugging away at a keyboard in his little office until one day he notices that his entire office has become deserted. Curious and a little alarmed, Stanley ventures out to discover where everyone has gone, accompanied only by a nameless narrator that describes the player's every move. Much like Gone Home, another recent foray into interactive first-person storytelling, there are no enemies to kill or puzzles to solve - you simply explore your deserted office in search of answers.
However, unlike Gone Home there's more than one path through The Stanley Parable. Listening to the narrator will get you, rather swiftly, to one ending that reveals the secrets behind Stanley's boring, dead-end office job, but the true key to the game is disregarding the narrator's direction and instead attempting to forge your own path; going right when the narrator says you should go left unleashes a barrage of options that lead to a myriad of different endings, and the further afield you venture the more insistent the narrator gets until you end up developing an antagonist relationship with this disembodied voice that keeps telling you that you're playing the game wrong.
The Stanley Parable: You're Doing It Wrong
It's here that The Stanley Parable truly shines. The game begins to unravel in unexpected ways that are entertaining and sometimes hilarious as the narrator moves from exasperated to angry to frustrated to cajoling to conciliatory and back to impatient with the player's determination to not listen to him. The game environment also begins to change and evolve as you play depending on your choices, with the boring office environment warping and growing strange and even psychedelic at times as the narrator becomes unhinged and breaks the fourth wall.
A game like The Stanley Parable is all about choice and consequence, especially unforeseen consequence. It rewards exploration and critical thinking; it's noteworthy to draw attention to the fact that the default ending - the one you get to by following the narrator's directions unerringly - is in many ways the least rewarding one. In a game that provides you agency as long as you're willing to go against what seems to be the intention of the developer, the irony here is that making alternate choices and harnessing your free will derails the story; it's only by giving up choice will you ever get the "actual" ending.
In the end, The Stanley Parable is the kind of grand gameplay and storytelling experiment that will either bore you after fifteen minutes or keep you amused for hours as you leave no stone unturned in your attempt to find every hidden ending you can. Either way, you get out of the game whatever you put into it; whether it's allowing yourself to be railroaded to the end or going off the beaten path will result in a strange yet entertaining experience.