The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe Review
Published on 07/25/2022, 1157 words, 5 minutes to read
Every so often a game comes around that is genuinely hard to review. Especially when you are trying to avoid spoiling the magic of the game in that review. This is a game that is even harder to review than normal because it's an absolute philosophical document. This game absolutely riffs at the games industry super hard and it really shows. I'm going to try to avoid spoilers in this article, except for a few I made up.
I was going to include screenshots in this article, but it's difficult for me to get them without spoiling the subtle comedy at hand, so I'm going to leave this as a text-only review.
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is either the second or third game in the series. At first this game was a Half Life 2 mod that came out of nowhere and was one of the most beloved mods ever released. Then they made it a proper game on the Source engine and expanded it a bit. After a while they wanted to continue the parable and expand it even more, but they weren't able to get it on consoles with it still being a Source engine game. So they ported it to Unity and the end result is The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe. It is one of my favorite games of all time.
It is a deeply limited game, you only can move around and interact with things. The story is about an office drone named Stanley that pushes buttons based on instructions from his computer. The big thing that this game does though is make you realize the inherent paradoxes in its own design.
Being mechanically limited like this is not actually a bad thing like the phrasing might imply. This means that the main focus of the gameplay is not on the micro actions the player can take. In this case the main focus is on how the player interacts with the story and not how the player interacts with their controller or puzzles or tactics. Additionally, the mechanical limitations of the gameplay are thematically aligned with the story's premise of being an office drone in ways it can play with. Think dramatic irony taken to its logical conclusion.
Endings that make you look like you had exercised your free will actually boil down to your actions being controlled by following the narrator's voices. This is absolutely taking the piss out of how most modern AAA game design works, guiding you with an invisible hand and making it seem like you had the free will to choose what was going on when in fact you were really just following the invisible guidance the whole time.
However I think one of the best examples of how The Stanley Parable riffs at mainstream game design is via the Adventure Line™️ that shows up in one branch of the game. The Line™️ is an obvious riff on games like Dead Space where you can summon a line to tell you where to go at any time. It shows how boring modern game design is by making you see the consequences of it. If you follow the narrator's voice, you get boring endings.
In many modern AAA games, you have the free will to choose to follow the main story and finish all the quests or whatever, but not much else. Consider Call of Duty or Battlefield. You are John America and you have to kill the enemies to death before they kill you to death by throwing bullets at you. You get to the end of the level and blow up the brown people some more or something and then it's suddenly a victory for America. But what did you really accomplish? You just followed the line. Walk outside of the intended playable area? 10 second timer until the game kills you. Shoot a person with the wrong skin color? The game kills you.
If you manage to clip out of bounds in the escape ending, the screen will fade to black and you will be transported to a temperate climate. Then a t-posing model in terrible armor will tell you that it used to be an adventurer until they took an arrow to the knee. Hope that's not a marriage proposal!
However in The Stanley Parable you can defy the narrator and that's where the game really opens up. It's great to get in the area where the game is unfinished and then have the narrator complain about deadlines, scheduling delays, investor funding and them wanting to avoid having to stuff it to the gills with microtransactions. You can legitimately glitch your way out of bounds and then the game will reward you with a new ending you didn't know was possible. The game takes the concept of the illusion of free will and plays with it.
The game makes you think about what games can be. It makes you wonder if the potted plant soliloquy after the broom closet ending speaks to the mental state of the author more than anything. Of all of the artistic endeavors that games as a medium can have, we end up seeing very few or none of them in mainstream gaming. Sure you get your occasional 4k120fps robot killer waifu with a bow and a whacky stick, but none of it really revolutionizes video games as an art form. It's all just derivative of the generic "unalive bad guy and save earth" trope.
If you want some games that really revolutionize what games can be, check out Celeste, Secret Little Haven, Baba Is You, and Glittermitten Grove. All of these games really challenge what games can be and experiment with radically different kinds of art. You never will see mainstream games be as risk-taking as this because art is fundamentally risky and capitalism wants line to go up, so they go out of their way to make sure that mainstream games are as safe and likely to sell many copies as possible.
I made up the thing about the potted plant, but if you had played the game then you'd probably have started the game up to look for it just to see what was there. I wonder if I made someone stand at that potted plant for like 5 minutes or something. This game sparks creativity in ways that other mainstream games just fundamentally don't. If you've been looking for something different in your video game diet, I really suggest you give it a try. Go in as blind as possible. I'm not paid in any way to say this, I genuinely think this is really good.
Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.