January 3, 2014

The Stanley Parable honored by The New Yorker

By Scott Stephan

The USC School of Cinematic Arts produces an enormous amount of innovative and boundary pushing digital projects every year. When most people think of USC and video game innovation, they think of the the Interactive Media & Games Division but graduate Davey Wreden proves, its not the only corner of the SCA exploring the possibilities of interactive storytelling.

Wreden ‘11, a graduate of the Critical Studies department, first released his game The Stanley Parable for free back in 2011. The game explored notions of predestination, choice and freedom in modern gaming. Unlike larger titles, however, the game featured no combat, puzzles or major set pieces. Instead, players assume the role of an office worker being lead through the experience by an omniscient narrator. Players are free to disobey the voiceover, in which case the story changes, much to the chagrin of the voiceover.

At the time of the game’s release it became an underground hit, gathering numerous critical acclaim and envious buzz from the burgeoning independent game development community. Wreden, who had no formal technical training in computer science, had kept the game purposely lo-fi, but fans soon began to clamber for an expanded version of the game. Wreden notes “I never wanted to remake it, but since people offered simply to take it off my hands and make it look better I figured why not. For a while I just thought it would be a visual upgrade with a few little extra bits added in there. But eventually my interest in the project grew and grew, to where I was back in it rewriting major chunks of it and trying to get a full commercial release for the game.”.

In 2013, The Stanley Parable was re-released in an expanded and upgraded version. Featuring an extended storyline, more audio and higher quality visuals, the game immediately became a hit, taking home prizes from the Independent Games Festival, IndieCade and Fantastic Arcade. Most recently, none other than the The New Yorker named TSP as its number two “Most Crucial Game of the Year”.

Speaking about the origin of the game’s unusual premise, Wreden, a life-long gamer, says that he was getting tired of games in which the player was simply led along from one set piece to another. He wanted to design a game that would “Mess with the player's head in every way possible, throwing them off-guard, or pretending there's an answer and then kinda whisking it away from in front of them.”  

Lacking a strong technical background, Wreden drew influence from other expressive games like Radiator and Dear Esther, saying that he “realized that a lot could be done with the Source SDK even if you didn't have a lot of technical experience. Since I knew very little of how to use the tool other than making hallways and sound I knew I'd have to make a game that relied primarily on those things. Stanley's design was borne from these limitations, I was just working with what I had.”, adding that "It catalyzed this sense that even very mundane tasks like sitting in a waiting room are fun if they're not what you're ‘supposed' to be doing".

As technology becomes increasingly accessible and audiences demand new and more immersive forms of entertainment, The Stanley Parable stands as an exemplar of the way that SCA’s unique focus on high-quality storytelling can be adapted for emerging forms of media. As Wreden notes, even though he discovered film was not his passion, Critical Studies “exposed me to a huge range of people and ideas that I think was just as important at that time in my life, it added many reference points for the kind of art I wanted to create and the kind of person I wanted to be.”