You wake up in a small office cubicle. Your name is Stanley. A British narrator with a buttery-smooth voice begins to describe your day. And just like that, the game begins.
The Stanley Parable. Often imitated, never beaten. The first-person adventure, which first crept into sight as a Half-Life 2 mod back in 2011 on MODDB, has since become a universally acclaimed masterpiece. A weird, teetering work of unparalleled genius, it has influenced countless works with its wry, razor-sharp meta-commentary on game development, comedy, and the meaning of life.
So why re-release it? Why, for the love of god, spend years dusting it off and juicing it up? Well, without giving too much away, The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe isn’t the game you know and love. It’s a new beast. A game about what it means to contend with the one thing you became famous for. It’s about expectation, legacy, and the passage of time. Is it a sequel? No. Is it not a sequel?
“Do you have a cat?”
I’m talking with William Pugh, director of The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe and founder of Crows Crows Crows. He’s been telling me about prehistorically early discussions about a console remaster of The Stanley Parable. It needed a single platform-specific joke to be changed. And he’s now asking me about cats. I say no, I do not have a cat. He continues, undeterred.
“Well, if you open your door about two degrees, just a little crack, just to let a breeze through, your cat will morph itself through that gap. And suddenly the door is open fully, and all the other cats are running around in your room, all because you opened the door a little, tiny bit. They’re meowing, they’re hissing at you… the cats are new ideas, by the way, new endings. New stuff. So we’d started talking about polishing off a console remaster, and were like… look. If we’re already changing this one thing, we’ll need new re-records for this and that… why don’t we just do a new ending? Which led to… why don’t we just do another one? So me and Davey Wreden (Stanley Parable writer and voice of the Eight button), we sit down, and go, what would be funny? What if this happened, and that happened? So Davey would go off, write some ideas, come back… and he’d present these things. And I’d say… hmm. If we do this, we can probably still hit our release date (originally, back in 2019). But then more ideas come. And more.”
Eventually, what they foolishly assume is a final script gets locked down in late 2019. At this point, more content gets added, more finessing occurs, and as this is happening, they find themselves adding more still. The door, as William pointed out with his metaphor, has been blown off its hinges. Cats everywhere. “Kevan Brighting, to be fair,” adds William, “has been patient; an absolute legend. We sent… you know the bucket stuff?” I nod. (Once you play the game, you’ll encounter and love it.) “The amount of bucket stuff he recorded over the course of this process has been… Paul. A lot. And he never said, are you sure you know what you’re doing? He’s never come back and said… William. This is a lot of crap you’re asking of me. But he just does it, with the same enthusiasm and creativity as always! We don’t write any performance notes in there. There’s occasionally something small, but for the vast majority, it’s all him. All Kevan”
The Narrator remains the beating heart of The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe, with even more fiendish ways to mess with (and be messed around by) the player, i.e., Stanley himself. But stepping back into that role after having aged eight years must be an immense challenge, especially given how easy it would be to internalise almost a decade’s worth of adulation. Voice-over artists often have an older take played back to them, so that they can flow on and match the tone, the delivery. What was it like to pick up almost a decade later?
“That was a tricky thing to do,” Kevan Brighting tells me over the phone. “Even with the first script! The original script was recorded over a period of… four years? It wasn’t one big, long script, it was a paragraph here, two paragraphs there, three pages here. So before every session, I used to have to play that original paragraph back to myself! And copy it. And I used to always record the original again at the start of every session, just to get back to the rhythm, the flow, the pitch. But I’m kind of pleased and surprised that after all this time… no, I don’t think my voice has changed that much! Compared to the original, that is. I mean, we are years and years down the road, but I have that reference all the time. It’s sort of part of my life now, and it’s burned into my head how it should sound!”
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is a game that grapples with what happens after a roaring success. It frequently jousts with the pitfalls associated with living under the withering glare of an audience’s expectations, dealing with negative reviews, and a very real fear creatives have: running out of ideas altogether. I ask William if The Stanley Parable changed him at all, personally. “Oh hell yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I talk to my therapist about it, and she knows what the game is.”
William is laughing. “Is that a joke?” I ask. “No, no, she really does”, he assures me. “I’ve been going to them for a year or so, and at some point, I went, ok. So the game that I talk about, all the time? It’s called The Stanley Parable. Right? And she’s like… I know. I know what The Stanley Parable is. I deliberately hadn’t mentioned the game, but they already knew.”
“Look”, he says, “before I talk about my experience working on the game, there’s easily, like, a dozen people who made this game a reality. On the 2013 version, people worked for no money upfront, a percentage share – these people put their faith in the game and did programming, 3D art, sound design… there’s so many people who did incredible work. Everybody who worked on Ultra Deluxe got paid upfront, by the way. But speaking solely from my experience, though? It’s pretty complex. I was 19 when the game came out, and 17 when I started work on it. Too young to get famous. That’s a life-changing, anxiety-inducing period which brought so much internal stuff to the top. Previously, I was just a little dude running around doing theatre and some TF2 maps… but then the game came out, and alienated my life experience. It’s just weird. I feel so thankful to have had good friends who put the work in the keep me grounded!”
Is there an Ultra Deluxe William Pugh, though? Has William undergone a painstaking labyrinthine revamp like the game has? “God, yes. The game has been delayed for three fucking years. Love everyone on the project, and it’s so good.. but there’s been times where you look at it and think… this thing is torturing me. And by extension, torturing everyone who cares about me, everyone in the company… we want it done, but because of expectations, it needs to be good. That’s just stressful; pure, unadulterated, chemical stress. That trickles down to everyone around you, right? Then, on top of that… COVID! I’ve not been home in coming up on two and a half years! And then… the process of the release is abstract and bizarre. You work on it for years and years – I’ve got nearly a decade of emotional investment in The Stanley Parable at this point. But it’s going really well, Paul. And now we’re all going on a holiday.” Two things are readily clear: William is deadly serious, and the entire team deserve that holiday. Maybe two.
Kevan has a slightly different take on critical acclaim. “I mean… they do all the hard work. I do all the easy stuff! Davey and William have done all the tough stuff on this, and what they’ve come up with is something highly creative, and they’ve gifted me with a beautiful script – probably one of the best scripts I’ve ever done. It’s the most enjoyable job I have ever had, in the whole of my acting career. By a million miles. It’s just been huge fun! I used to look forward to the scripts coming in, I loved doing them, I loved the freedom of them… because they gave me such artistic license with them. I wasn’t being dictated to by a fussy director, know what I mean? That’ll kill comedy stone dead. It needs that flow, and they weren’t too bothered if I went off script a little.”
I ask Kevan if it was always so easy, the process of bringing The Narrator to life. “It got easier as I went along! Because as the character got more peevish and angry with Stanley, it was easy to expand some of those things, off the top of my head. Nearly everything you hear is… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s nearly always first take. There’s hardly any second takes – it’s in real-time, boom, straight off the script.”
Turns out COVID didn’t just land mid-remake; it also lined up with the experiences of people playing the game “This might be to do with the stresses of lockdown”, Kevan says, “but I get emails from people saying that The Stanley Parable has helped them through times with difficult mental health. I have no idea how that works – I’m not an expert – I mean, if it’s helped, I’m truly pleased, but I don’t know what it is about this weird authority figure who wants to control your life that makes some people slightly more content!”
So what next for The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe? Horse armour DLC? An actual sequel? William looks right at me. “We want to do a bunch of additional localisations… there are some… Paul. There are…” He begins convincingly crying. “…There are bugs, Paul. There are some bugs,… that I cry about. Every night! When I see the streamers playing the game, and they encounter a bug, I think… damn it, this isn’t right! We gotta FIX this!”
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is out now.