The Stanley Parable was a cultural phenomenon. It was an overnight hit, turning its two primary developers, William Pugh and Davey Wreden, into indie millionaires, almost driving them apart, and feeling like an ending to the so-called Indiepocalypse of the preceding few years. But this was 2013, almost a decade ago. Is The Stanley Parable, remastered and heavily amended in a new cross-platform Ultra Deluxe form, still relevant to a very different gaming landscape? Does it still have such a vital voice?
Well, it’s got a bucket. And after so many happy hours spent wringing out every new ending, every hidden room, every dumb secret, that bucket is more than enough reason to play this.
Much as it hurts the fibre of my bones to acknowledge it, there’s a good chance some may not be familiar with the original Stanley Parable. While it’s not an easy game to sum up, it boils down to an extremely silly — yet often deeply philosophical — treatise on the nature of choice. It’s a game about games, about what it is to play a game, about narrative choice or the lack thereof. And all this was delivered via your attempts to obey or rebel against the exquisitely well-written monologues of its unseen narrator. And more importantly than all that guff, it was really, really funny.
But will it still be funny in 2022? Will its jokes bear repeating? Is this update an attempt to make it contemporary once more? Do any of these questions matter?
What I’ve found perhaps most interesting about The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe, is that, while certainly updated and more contemporary in its references, it’s almost defiantly anachronistic. It hasn’t taken the opportunity to make its graphics stunningly modern, nor gone to town on jokes about games-as-service or whatever 2022 gaming is about. TSPUD is a game about sequels, about both being and not being a sequel, a perennial topic that it explores with extraordinary self-loathing and scorn. As it ever was, The Stanley Parable is a game about itself.
And as hard as it is to effectively summarise what it was about in 2013, it’s far harder in 2022. To explain it is to spoil it, on pretty much every level, because how Ultra Deluxe differs from the original is what this game is about. It’s a game about how it’s different from the previous game, about whether it’s possible for it to be different, about whether it’s even desirable for it to exist. Oh, and yeah, it’s really, really funny.
Let’s be mercenary for a moment: When you first start the game, it’ll ask you if you’ve played before. If you say you have, it introduces the new content sooner, skipping you past some of the more iconic aspects of the 2013 version. If you say you haven’t, then you’ll get much more of that original experience. I think… Because, honestly, the game is fucking with you at every available point, and it’s bound to be fucking with me in believing this is what’s happening. Hell, this game fucks with you if you set the time correctly.
Beyond this…well, it’s one of those moments where I implore you to just go buy it. It’s worth it. Don’t read anything below, because I’ll just be taking moments away from you. Don’t even look at the pictures. Trust me.
Right, you stayed. I’m hoping that’s because you already played it and are looking for cathartic affirmation in your opinions, or you need more convincing. What’s going to work for you? Discussions of Brechtian Estrangement perhaps, or maybe the screenshot I have of all the “The Stanley Parable 2” logos?
Or do I need to delve into the question I don’t want to answer: Is this a sequel or an expansion? Because the answer is “yes,” and all the interesting reasons why are found by playing it.
Importantly, if (like me) you’re worried that it’s been too long and you might not remember the original well enough to tell what’s new from what’s not, for the most part the game has you covered.
This is a game that perhaps doesn’t want to be a sequel, because it’s wholly unconvinced there should be one. It’s a game that explores what a sequel to The Stanley Parable could or should be, were there to be one, while being one, but not really being one.
So as I still prevaricate and evade (because honestly, saying anything precise about this game is like walking into a screening of The Sixth Sense screaming, “HE’S DEAD! BRUCE WILLIS IS DEAD!”), I’ll note that I was pleased to see Ultra Deluxe doing a better job of exploring some of the same themes that Wreden previously explored in his follow-up game, 2015’s The Beginner’s Guide. A lot of what’s new here (and what will, at a certain point, start to feel like the whole game) is far more introspective. It goes through sections that are downright narcissistic, even self-pitying, but with a vital element of honesty that I found missing in The Beginner’s Guide.
Oh, and a lot of it is about what it would be like to play the original The Stanley Parable but if you were holding a bucket.
I found the whole thing fantastically funny, often laughing very loudly at its surprises, twists, or outright insolence. But there were also moments that made me feel incredibly melancholy. Not the self-absorbed lamenting of its own critical reception, which is thankfully self-spoofing, but rather when it becomes weighed down by the pressures of the industry in which it exists. Again, avoiding specifics, there’s a lengthy segment of the game set in an imagined games industry event, and despite the barrage of rapid-fire narrated, visual and technical gags throughout, it just ached with sadness. Grief, even.
It would be ludicrous not to give props to narrator Kevan Brighting. The old and new are sewn together seamlessly, his sardonic sonorous intonation not having changed a semitone in the intervening decade. I dread to imagine how many days he was in a recording studio for this project, not only adding hours of new commentary, but for reasons best discovered for yourself, re-recording pretty much every scene from the original. A task surely more ornery due to a tortuous sequence in which he’s required to repeatedly waffle on at such tedious length that the player cannot bear it.
Oh there’s just so much else that’s wonderful here, too. For instance, I highly recommend restarting the game a good few times. Or fiddling with the settings. Oh, and finding that epilogue.
The Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe is, much like the original, a game about exploring every inch of its corridors for every last hidden gag. Only this time there are so many more of them, with so many new diversions, and indeed a very bucket-shaped reason to re-explore those you’ve seen before. It’s still a game about choices, now with far more of them, where one of them is whether you think this game is a sequel or not.
But to return to my opening question: is it still relevant? Does it still have a vital voice? That’s a harder one to land on. I suspect I lean toward no. No, with a huge side of “Who cares? It’s so much fun!” If anything, games have moved to a place where choices are far more complex, even if ultimately still restricted. Games as service is unavoidably a big thing right now, and the tentpole releases are increasingly set in ludicrously vast landscapes, not narrow corridors. Sure, the main choice might so often come down to, “How much am I willing to spend?” but at the same time, TSPUD has nothing to say about that.
Then again, what it wants to say about people’s misguided desire for more but not different, always wanting the sequel but never wanting it to be new, that still resonates. That, and its complexity when it comes to really specific issues. Its angry reaction toward players who cried out for a skip button feels fierce, for instance, but then somehow descends into self-parody that legitimises the desire.
In the end, The Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe is not the conceit updated to reflect the 2020s, but instead something entirely other. It’s a response, a reaction to the reaction, a lament for that former cultural phenomenon, and an elaborate response to everyone who has asked for more. But, and I can’t under-emphasise this, it’s a game with an extremely funny bucket.