This post contains spoilers for The Stanley Parable
I thought this would be as good a time as any to start talking about The Stanley Parable, my development process, what went right and what went wrong. I only call this “part 1” because I figure there will be more to talk about, not because I have this planned out or anything.
The first thing I want to talk about is probably the single most important philosophy I brought to the design of the game. It was there from the very beginning, I cannot imagine ever designing a game without it at the core. And it’s soooo simple: Surprise your player.
I can’t begin to imagine where the actual idea of the narrator came from, but the second I began designing the map I knew that every single thing players could do in the game would have to surprise them in some way. It was by far the most important thing to me, it came well before “theme,” or “meaning” in the planning phase. You’re welcome to your opinion on whether or not I was successful, but I wanted to create a game that was unlike anything you’d ever played before.
Keep in mind there’s hardly an original idea in this game, they’re all just arranged in a very different way than you’re used to. So I sat down and said “you know, it would be pretty surprising if a SECOND narrator came into the action.” Then I said, “it would be even more surprising if it seemed like she was freeing you, and then it turned out you weren’t free at all.” And then I said “woah, it would be really surprising if the reason you weren’t free was because you had to turn off the video game!” I didn’t even worry about what it all meant until, well…after the game released, really.
These are just small surprises built on top of small surprises. Literally, that last paragraph was how I developed the game, and while there’s definitely more to it in the final game, the meat of that section came from every attempt I could make to throw the player off guard. It wasn’t until later in development that I realized that ending is really about the impossibility of “beating” the designer, that’s just something that emerged naturally, it’s what needed to end up in that spot to flesh it out.
TSP is a game where you don’t do a damned thing but walk around in some empty hallways, yet the reason it doesn’t put you the fuck to sleep is because there’s an invisible hand behind every wall throwing something unexpected at you. That doesn’t have to be a mechanic or a level, it could be as simple as the narrator commenting on the fact that you’re in a game, or a “broken” room with “broken” textures. Innovation does not depend on mechanics, it could simply be a little surprise tucked into the corner of this map, or the designer admitting his failures in designing this game. The fact that TSP could be so empty and yet draw the reception that it has says to me that this culture fundamentally values surprises, and that those surprises can come in almost any form.
That’s so exciting to me! We want to be surprised! I was at E3 this year and while there were a lot of cool games there, damned if there weren’t about 3 or 4 actual real surprises on the show floor. But that’s cool too because it means the industry is setting itself up to be totally bowled over when some totally awesome new kind of game blindsides it and changes everything.
And of course, whatever’s popular becomes the norm, becomes unsurprising. There’s only so much I can do with the TSP concept because eventually it stops being surprising, it loses its magic. So I have to change it up, I have to sweep aside everything I’ve built and start again. Fortunately, it’s the starting over that’s the most fun. And remember kids, it’s not just about doing this yourself, it’s about surrounding yourself with people who know you well enough to say “hey, you’re falling into the rut. Snap out of it.” Hearing that from someone who genuinely sees that I’ve failed to surprise my audience is perhaps the strongest mark of respect I could get from that person. It says that they know I’m trying to get better, that I’m trying to push myself, that I’m trying to produce something that is genuinely unlike anything ever made before.
What the hell else could I even think of making?