The Stanley Parable (**)

Two stars.

I love Hellraiser. It’s always stood apart from other stalking-horror teen scream movies of the 1980s, and not just for its heavy emphasis on revolting gore effects. There was something going on in Hellraiser, and to some extent its sequel, that movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise entries just didn’t have.

When I finally read The Hellbound Heart, the novella on which the movie was based, I finally figured out what it was. It was the Lemarchand Box. Or rather, it was the implication of the Lemarchand Box, as presented in the opening pages of The Hellbound Heart, and some parts of Hellraiser 2.

It’s not a magic box. It’s a pathway through obsession. It’s one of a variety of techniques that the compulsively dedicated can use to contact the Order of the Gash. It’s suggested that there are others — both other boxes, constructed by Lemarchand, and other means of contact, not puzzle boxes at all. In a memorable eyeblink of a scene in Hellraiser 2, we see a variety of different boxes arranged under glass in the house of the movie’s villain; that scene captured my imagination like nothing else — except perhaps the Wood Between The World in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew — ever had. It was a promise of a thousand untold stories.

Solving the box isn’t so much using a key to unlock a door, as using the box to find the key you had all along. The movies, in particular, elide the solving of the box; Kirsty solves it by accident, and even the obsessive Frank seems to solve it in just moments of effort. The novella implies a much longer, more difficult path to contacting the Cenobites, a spiritual journey enabled by the box’s difficulty. I always imagined the boxes to be Rubik’s Cubes executed in four dimensions, a kind of meta-puzzle that only the very (un)lucky could ever hope to overcome. You’d spend days, if not months or years, exploring the topology of the box, and still it would mystify you.

The Stanley Parable is a Lemarchand Box in game form.

One of the cleverest moments of The Stanley Parable was the very first experience I had with the game’s cavalier take on endings and beginnings. Having been given control of my character, I started hammering the ‘E’ key, trying to find interactive elements in the environment. I found one. I closed the door.

The narrator explained my action in the context of the story, and then made it clear that I’d made a choice, and the outcome of that choice was an ending. The game restarts.

The game is a paradox, because everything you do, or try to do, is a choice. Open the door, or don’t. Press the button, or don’t. Even standing still, touching nothing, is a kind of choice. And the game notices your choices, and responds to them through its snide narration, by turns smug and exasperated. But… there is no way to win. Ultimately, all your choices lead to the same place.

The game restarts.

Because I’m a contrarian, my second attempt at the game found me deliberately rejecting the narrator, forcing him to spin out ever more elaborate story justifications for my actions before finally giving up and addressing me directly. It felt like I’d ‘broken’ the game, but it was also entirely anticipated. There was narration for every choice I made; I had not escaped the path, only taken a different route to the inevitable end.

The game restarts.

I made a lot of negative choices on that second run, and every one suggested a possible branch, a positive choice where I worked with the narrator instead of against him. I started exploring them, methodically, picking wrong doors and then right doors, looking for unexpected sideways steps I might take. I found a way into a kind of in-world credits, a making-of featurette executed as game content, showing a multitude of things I hadn’t yet seen. This must be the end, I thought, but when I exited the little museum of Stanley, the story carried me inevitably forward into a hideous

The game restarts.

I followed the positive path, agreeing with the narrator, doing as I was told, refusing to explore, like an automaton. The game told me that I was an automaton, and I could push a button to stop being one. I pushed the wrong button and

The game restarts.

So I pushed the right button and was treated to a cloying sweet ending, complete with flowers and singing birds, exactly the kind of ending you think you want until you realize you don’t. It didn’t matter, though, because once I stepped over the threshold into that Disney-esque meadow, the game took control away from me for my victory stroll, and

The game restarts.

I followed a line that led through a twisted office space that seemed like a white-collar House of Leaves nightmare, with paths that led between filing cabinets fundamentally different than the ones that led around the filing cabinets. Eventually, the line led me in ever-tightening spirals until

The game restarts.

This time, the familar floor outside my office is scattered everywhere with papers. What does that mean?

The game restarts.

Glitching out of a window seems like an exit until the narrator notices what you’ve done, floating outside the world, and

The game restarts.

The elevator seems to be moving, but if you push the button it immediately opens and you see that you’ve gone exactly nowhere except right back to

The game restarts.

By the twentieth iteration, I was exploring with an obsessed dedication, tracking minor changes in the world’s state, looking for tiny differences. Is that monitor on? (I almost typed ‘minotaur’ there; take from that what you will.) Was that door open before? Did I go left or right at this intersection? Did I push the ON button or the OFF button? Is that what the narrator said the last time I came down this hallway? The time before that? Or before that?

That’s when it struck me. There was no solution. This wasn’t a ‘game’. This was a Lemarchand Box. I could worry at it forever and never unlock it completely. It was a mirror of obsession, giving me only what I’d already given it.

It isn’t a deep game. It doesn’t take very long to explore, or at least to feel as though you’ve explored everything. (You probably haven’t, given that at least one path requires four continuous hours of the dullest repetition you can imagine.) It’s not all that sophisticated in its apparent message; it has a kind of Brazil vibe, welded indifferently to commentary on the nature of video games. Its complexity is entirely in what you bring to it.

I found Paranormal Activity to be one of the most — perhaps the single most — terrifying movie I’d ever seen. A large part of its effectiveness was the long moments I spent flicking my eyes back and forth across the screen, scanning up and down, watching for a change. Any change. Did something move? Did the door swing a fraction of an inch? Did the blanket slide a tiny bit? Was there anything moving down that dark hall?

It’s always that way for me, watching a horror movie. It’s never what I’m shown, it’s what I imagine I might be shown. The most frightening moment of Halloween was Jamie Lee Curtis, looking out the window and seeing Michael Myers standing in the street, off in the distance, next to a car. Just a little figure off-center in the frame. The most effective scene in Candyman is when Helen takes a picture of a mirror, and later, looking through her photos, she sees that a dark shape had been standing behind her.

Paranormal Activity stretches that moment of expectation, of looking for the off-center shape or the unexpected object, the movement without apparent source, into an entire film, and watching it on the big screen in a theater was intensely panic-inducing. I tried to impress every scene into my memory, so that I could compare mental notes. More than a horror movie, it was a horror puzzle, like a hidden-pictures game, but with a ticking timer.

The Stanley Parable is the same sort of exercise. I found myself memorizing which computers were on and which were off. I tried to remember the numbers on every door. I listened for minor variations in the narrator’s speech. I looked through windows at unreachable offices, trying to remember if the ceiling tiles had been missing before.

Most of the time, nothing came of any of it. But, like Paranormal Activity, that was somewhat the point. Overwhelmed with input, you are genuinely surprised when the story takes an unpredicted and unpredictable turn. And everything you’ve carefully catalogued up to that moment of surprise is incorporated into the myth of the game you’re building for yourself.

Should you decide to play it, I recommend doing so without reference to any internet resources. Don’t look for walkthroughs. You won’t need them, and they’ll suck the surprise out of the game, and frankly surprise is the only substance to The Stanley Parable.

(If you are unsure, get the demo. It is entirely separate from the real game. It has… almost nothing to do with the real game, in fact. And yet it almost perfectly captures the tone and humor of the real game. In fact, even if you’re already sold on The Stanley Parable, you should get the demo and play it as well.)


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