A couple days ago, after playing it over a couple sittings, and even suspecting that I wasn't done with it, I decided to jot down all the thoughts bouncing around my head about this game. It really affected me in a way that games usually don't. The following writing is raw and unrevised.
The Stanley Parable has lodged itself in my subconscious and is making me revisit all the things I thought I had figured out about freedom and choice. While the game is, on its face, a kind of weird commentary on the nature of choice in games, I think it actually works better as a meditation on freedom and choice in life.
Part of the challenge in figuring out what The Stanley Parable means is that it's constantly telling me what it means - which means I have to re-frame the question of what it means to incorporate the fact that it's telling me what it means. It gets pretty meta and confusing, but I believe that's part of the point.
A room with two doors looks like a choice. Pick a door and go in and get your special ending. But then, after the "ending" is over, you're presented with the same choice again. The Stanley Parable knows it's a game, and it wants me to play it over and over again. The nature of choice and meaning determines that whatever I choose will be meaningful because it was chosen in lieu of another choice. But then, what happens when the same choice is presented again? And again?
The abundance of that first choice, left door or right, makes the choice somewhat meaningless. After playing the game over and over again, I know what's going to happen if I choose the left door or the right. There's no risk, and so no reward.
Yet the moment when the first choice in the game became meaningless to me is the moment when the game became meaningful. At that moment, I asked myself "if my choices are meaningless, why am I still playing?" The only answer I could come up with was that I wanted to see what would happen. The choice at that point was a choice to keep playing.
The genius of The Stanley Parable isn't that it's a clever commentary on soul-crushing desk jobs, video game narratives, or even itself. The Stanley Parable is genius because it can do nothing but question its own existence. At every level the game unravels itself, working upward, until I, the player, question the nature of my own freedom and choices. It makes me think: even if my life is stressful, even if crazy stuff is happening around me, maybe the only choice that really matters is the one I make to get out of bed every day.
The game makes me make a version of that choice right in front of it. If I played the game forever, it would be canonical within the game's story. I could live The Stanley Parable, pushing buttons in a certain order to keep the game going. But choosing to turn off The Stanley Parable is a choice to play a different game, whether it be Real-Life or something else on Steam. At one point, it even asks me to. Even when I turn it off, I'm under its spell.