Sitting in a carrel in the library, tip-tapping his way through another paper, Paul was immersed once again in the pure joy of turning the assignments on his syllabi into substance. His eyes were glazed over from this miracle of mental expansion, and his palms were sweating from the excitement of racing to make his next crucial deadline. He could not believe that he had been able to wait all weekend before finally getting started on this thesis, but now he knew that the wait had been worth it. He could now savor his essay’s delectable sensations, the absolute bliss of restructuring analytical paragraphs, and he could do it all in one glorious, concentrated sitting. What more, after all, could Paul want from his early twenties?
Or perhaps it did not feel so glamorous, at the time, to be me.
Perhaps I was not so enthused by my predicament. Maybe I was taking things a bit too seriously, and maybe the walls did seem to be closing in. It could even have been the case that I needed a mental reframing, a bit of outside perspective like the above, to keep me positive and well-humored in my peril. But how can one come to have such control over their own head? It turns out that you can train this. You can learn to positively push your buttons through a game.
“The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe,” a psychological-adventure game by Crows Crows Crows, places you as the protagonist into a special sort of guided interactive experience. In the game, you play as Stanley, a man who pushes buttons on his computer for a living. All of a sudden, as his screen goes blank, Stanley must get up from his computer to search for answers.
But it is not so simple, as all the while, Stanley is immersed in a play-by-play commentary and critique of his own choices. His first action, prompted by a voice (that of a dryly humorous and sarcastic British narrator), is to search for his colleagues in the nearby conference room. But the player can now choose to take a detour. If, instead, the player goes to the break room, they will earn themselves the voice’s first quip: that they are such a free-willed rebel, as they have chosen to stare at drab office paintings and make them wait. And so we see a bit of the game’s particular spin. By including a pedantic, though amusing, narrator, the player’s choices and mindset are picked apart. The game shows that it is open to your decisions but that it will aim to make your flaws humorously clear.
With your own tendencies of agency isolated and put on display, “The Stanley Parable” is tailored to get players to think about what can result from diverse mental paths. There are multiple endings: You can follow all of the voice’s orders and opt for a linear, though somewhat generic, experience with an ending that seems extraordinarily staged. Alternatively, you can disobey all orders, leap from the predetermined path and snub the voice, all for him to subject you to a slew of disparate though inconclusive experiences.
After encountering the full spectrum of all these choose-your-own-adventure engagements, the player is left with a much lighter and clearer interpretation of their own styles of thinking. Having seen the themes and the consequences of their actions as humorous products of their often predictable brains, the player is better equipped to tease their own thoughts, to act as their own nitpicky narrator and to find levity even when their inner voice is determined to be a downer.
The next time you feel like that assignment just isn’t getting done, try to be a bit more like an experienced Stanley. Picture yourself at your silly little desk and chide your actions in your best British accent. Try to give yourself the bigger picture, and then make it humorous, energetic and enlivened. Turn your work into the artifact that it is, of this moment and all that has led to it. And then maybe you will feel a bit more like you are playing a game, not writing an essay, and thus more able to direct the outcomes that you find at its end.