Struggling with success is always a hard sell for empathy. It’s all too easy to dismiss such expressions with an easy, “Oh, you poor rich thing.” But it is, of course, far more complicated than that.
This is the opening to one of my favourite interviews featuring The Stanley Parable co-creators Davey Wreden and William Pugh speaking to John Walker. Six months after the release of the critically acclaimed game, the discussion is reflective of their time spent creating it, as well as the impact the game has had – both on the world of games, and them, as people. Even at age 25 and 20 respectively, these young designers read as introspective, contemplating the heady reality shift happening in this medium, with their creation at the centre.
Grappling with the likes of determinism, death of the author and choice (or lack thereof) in video games, The Stanley Parable was always a bucket filled to the brim with high-level concepts to chew on. In a lot of ways, it didn’t need an update at all – the game could have been ported to modern consoles as is and still would have been just as effective. But with time comes reflection, and it seems the two members of Galactic Cafe still have more to say about Employee Number 427.
Ultra Deluxe is, in line with its original release, hard to pin down with regular gaming vernacular. Is it an expansion, or a sequel? An update with new visuals and content, refining what was already there while tweaking bits and pieces, or something wholly new and fresh, recontextualizing what came before? A remake; a remaster; a reimagining?
The quick and dirty is that Ultra Deluxe supersedes the original, becoming the definitive version of The Stanley Parable for anyone looking to discover why this game sparks so much curiosity. At the same time, it’s a must-play for fans of the 2013 release, diving deeper into the mostly infinite hole with more surprises than you would expect from the first hour or so of play.
This is, for all intents and purposes, a follow up to a beloved classic. It also contains the entire original game in all its glory, from the jokes, to the textures, to the slight occasional stutter when a voice line is triggered (all this despite being remade entirely in Unity vs. the original’s Source engine). It is a reflective piece in line with its creators, simultaneously aware of its legacy while reinventing itself for audiences of the world today.
[NOTE: Please be aware that moving forward, this piece will explore the themes behind The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe. Some of what is discussed may be considered spoilers]
After the aforementioned interview, Wreden and Pugh somewhat parted ways. Though still close, the development cycle had left them in different places, with both needing to follow their own paths – especially Pugh, still so young at 20 years of age, with no real idea of what their future wanted to be. Wreden followed his introspection to The Beginner’s Guide, interpreted as a more sombre and philosophical reflection on his public experience around The Stanley Parable’s release. Pugh founded their own development studio Crows Crows Crows, focusing more on witty, game-referential works such as Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist and Accounting+.
Coming back together over the past few years to once again work on The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe, it’s clear they both have thought a lot about their original project, and how their futures have been shaped by it. Depending on whether you tell the game you have played the original release or not, you will sooner or later come across a door left ajar labelled “New Content”. Prior to this, you will have played through a couple of storylines, but they will be (mostly) the same as they were in the original game. Walking through this door opens the game up to a whole new level of possibility.
After somewhat of a gag in the form of The Jump Circle, the first major ‘new’ content you experience is a walk down memory lane. I mean that literally – exquisitely rendered and excellently narrated, Stanley walks through a rustic museum-esque structure, reflecting on not only what made the past game resonate with players, but also the reception and response from those same people. Actual reviews from GameSpot and Destructoid are printed on wall-sized posters, framed and displayed proudly centre stage. This place is a shrine to the past, a sepia tinted memoir to the best of what Stanley had to offer.
Walk out the back door, and Stanley is met with the opposite – shipping containers full of dreaded Steam reviews. A few negative ones are hand-picked and on display, leaning against walls in sheds and crumbling structures, readable to Stanley and the Narrator. These memories, despite the continued acclaim around the game – at time of writing, The Stanley Parable has 36,628 reviews, with a 92% positive rating, and an 88 on Metacritic – needle-like, a thorn in the Narrator’s side, spurring him to create and implement new features, such as a skip button.
It’s played for comedic effect, but there’s a tinge of melancholy bleeding through the implementation of a feature demanded by unhappy gamers, rather than a decision driven by the designers themselves.
After this section and one more hilarious (and sizable) ‘New New Content’ gag, we’re led into the meat of Ultra Deluxe. To talk around it in a semi-spoiler fashion, this addition essentially overlays the entirety of The Stanley Parable with one single trigger. With this addition, the entire game is re-done again, with new endings, new dialogue, new laughs and even more outrageous twists and turns.
The number of paths that count as ‘endings’ built into the original is somewhat of a nebulous number depending on who you ask, but the general consensus sits at around 18 or 19. Once you know how to accomplish them, most can be seen in a matter of minutes from the initial opening of the game. These endings, both separately and taken together, poke at the nature of choice in video games, and how even when players are given a choice, the outcome is still already planned and accounted for. In a somewhat existisitential manner, the game as a whole can be taken as a commentary on determinism – arguing that free will is a myth, and everything is predetermined.
The flaw in this interpretation is that The Stanley Parable is a small, finite experience. By definition of it being an authored experience mostly built by two people, it can only take into account so many actions or reactions. With the addition of a single extra variable in Ultra Deluxe, the number of endings doubles, at least. With one simple tweak, the possibility space increases exponentially, adding a bucket load of content to the game.
Through the lens of The Stanley Parable’s poking at the idea of the death of the author on this increased scale, Ultra Deluxe refines its take on determinism somewhat – the outcomes might be predetermined, but the actions are not. Logic dictates results of actions taken – if I eat 15 hot dogs, I’m guaranteed to feel sick – but there is still a choice found in deciding whether to eat said hotdogs.
Just as it continues to be between the player and the Narrator throughout the game, it’s a fascinating wresting back and forth between player and designer in interpreting meaning from the lessons of The Stanley Parable. Ultra Deluxe works so well because it is a follow up to the original game; a meta commentary on a meta commentary. The end is never the end, is never the end.
About a month prior to Walker’s interview, Wreden had posted on the Galactic Cafe blog in contemplation of how the release and reception of The Stanley Parable had affected him (it has since been taken offline for unknown reasons, so I won’t link to it. If you are too curious for your own good, nothing is ever really gone from the internet). The post gets into Wreden’s stress, depression and isolation post-release, and how he was losing perspective of the game – and himself – in the process.
“Every time I turned to someone else’s opinion of the game, I felt less sure of my own opinion of it. I began to forget why I liked the game. I was losing the thing I had created.”
Pugh’s post-release experience was different, but just as life-altering and affecting. In an interview with PCGamesN in March 2016, Pugh comes across weary talking further about The Stanley Parable. Titled ‘The Big Interview: William Pugh closes the book on The Stanley Parable,’ much of the discussion leans into post-Parable life, and the adjustments that come with success and fame.
‘There have been points where I felt like I wished this had never happened or that things were back the way they were. Because in changing circumstances and in changing yourself you feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself and you’re no longer genuine.’
Ultra Deluxe, for all its extra jokes and expansions upon its philosophical musings, feels as much a re-orientation for its original creators. With the help of the fresh faces at Crows Crows Crows, along with a handful of years to go out into the world to grow and find themselves, these two designers have been able to take stock of the thing that changed their lives so drastically, then ask themselves: what does The Stanley Parable mean today? And, with the benefit of all the lessons learned since this creation was unleashed upon the world: what could it be?
It’s a question several creators of beloved media properties have been asking themselves in recent years; a burgeoning niche of reflective and responsive art attempting to reconcile the impact they’ve had on the world. Final Fantasy VII Remake is interesting for the ways in which the word ‘remake’ is being applied, relative to its origins. Rebuild of Evangelion tears down the messy, beloved and maligned anime, and constructs something both entirely new and intimately familiar from its parts. The Matrix 4 grapples with the cultural impact the original trilogy has had on society, sometimes correcting with authority, other times, recontextualising entirely.
The biggest successes of The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe play in this realm – looking at not only the broader cultural impact The Stanley Parable has had within the gaming and development communities, but also the personal influence it has had on the trajectory of the lives of its creators.
Ultra Deluxe adds to a beloved, somewhat niche classic in ways that only a game like this can revisit. The Stanley Parable was already a brilliant case study on choice in video games, fed through a main dish of philosophical debate on determinism, with a side of death-of-the-author musings, rounded out with a nice glass of disarming humour.
The 2022 release adds an Ultra Deluxe desert to the menu, elevating the night out from a lovely dinner to an indulgent feast. It’s a dining experience worth returning to for fans who already count The Stanley Parable among their favourite meals, balanced with providing the perfect place for new players to take a chance on something different. Regardless of which door you enter, the philosophical taste is likely to linger long after you’re finished.
Five Stars: ★★★★★
The PC version of The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe was provided and played for the purposes of this review.