The end is never the end is never the end....
The demo for The Stanley Parable is probably the best game demo I've ever played. It's its own separate entity, a self-contained experience that captures the spirit and tone of the main game without "spoiling" the specifics of the content.
In much the same way, it's hard to review a thing like The Stanley Parable, because discussing its structure and charm in any detail can rob them of their impact. Really, the best way to figure out if the game is for you or not is to just play the demo. It's free, it takes less than thirty minutes, and even if you don't play the full game afterwards, it's a cool little thing by itself.
you haven't really finished The Stanley Parable once until you've finished it ten times.
Anyway, you are Employee #427. Stanley, an office worker who literally just pushes buttons for a living. You're fairly happy with your tedious job and life, until one day you discover that all of your co-workers have mysteriously vanished. Guided by the instructions of a pleasantly British narrator, you explore the empty office building for clues, and well, that's when things get weird.
The narrator is very proud of his story, and if you let him guide you through it, you'll walk away with a very basic, yet relatively satisfying narrative.
But you haven't really finished The Stanley Parable once until you've finished it ten times. That simple story is just one of many layers - and it's the least interesting one. Disobey the narrator's instructions, and he'll berate you, complaining that you're ruining his carefully constructed experience.
And therein lies the fun: the game is all about breaking the game. It rewards experimentation at the expense of the fourth wall, so be as creative as you can in not playing along. Poke at the seams of game design: stand in that broom closet for ten minutes (really, do that, it's great), or incessantly click something trivial. In one playthrough, I closed Stanley's office door and refused to go out and investigate at all. The narrator commented on me being afraid of choice and responsibility, and promptly restarted the game.
Finding these little secrets, scattered throughout the single small(ish) environment, is the game's greatest pleasure. You might find "glitches", only to realise the game is aware of them and ready to make fun of you for bothering to seek them out. The same goes for its Achievements: are they really worth it? What satisfaction do you get out of them?
The more of the dozen or so endings you reach, the more The Stanley Parable will make you question the motions you always go through in video games. What is the nature of player choice? What is the relationship between the player and the character they control? How much control do you actually have? How far are you willing to go for fleeting in-game glory? What IS game? Is game art?
And while it does so in a mostly playful manner, there are some dark undertones at times. A genuine kernel of thoughtfulness lies underneath it all, approaching or on par with the "Would You Kindly" scenario of the original Bioshock.
The Final Verdict
Often humourous and always clever, The Stanley Parable does a fantastic job of tearing down the walls that all-too-often funnel us down the same old video game paths.
The more you poke at it, the deeper the rabbit hole goes, and there are some absolutely delightful Easter eggs to find, if you have the patience (or Google).