Developers Davey Wreden and William Pugh had a problem. Their upcoming project The Stanley Parable (trailer above) isn’t exactly your average video game, as it throws players into a surreal first-person tale of rule-breaking and narration.
The problem was how to properly convey what the game is all about through the use of a free demo. How exactly could they give players an idea of what to expect from The Stanley Parable without spoiling the main spectacle?
The solution, as it turns out, was a bit outlandish — the duo decided to make an entire new game in The Stanley Parable universe, that acts as a demonstration for the main game.
“The Stanley Parable is about the discovery of something surprising, something that catches you off guard,” Wreden explains. “I want your expectations to become elastic, to bend and shift according to whatever we throw at you.”
“So of course that means it’s really hard to explain ahead of time what the game is actually about!” he notes. “I could write a summary or a preview, or do a demo that’s representative of the content of the game, then you know what to expect and you’re less likely to be really surprised by it.”
With this in mind, Wreden and Pugh realized that the best way to demo an experience about being pleasantly confused was to create another pleasantly confusing experience to present it.
“A non-traditional demo like this is my attempt to tell players that their expectations don’t mean anything here,” Wreden tells me. “Since I can give this out for free without people feeling pressured by a price tag, I’m building trust through action rather than promise. I’m letting them figure out what’s interesting about this experience rather than having to tell them myself. I’m expressing trust that the player is smart enough to figure it out on their own.”
Wreden has found that people who play this “behind the scenes” demo come away from the experience with a stronger grasp on what exactly to expect from The Stanley Parable, than when he tries to explain the game through words.
“The truth is that if we actually showed you a ‘behind the scenes’ of The Stanley Parable, it might hurt your experience of the game,” he says. “The mysteries would become less mysterious, and you would know the limits of the game experience. In this sense, the ‘behind the scenes’ is a facade, a false gesture meant to convey that I want to mess with your perception, but I’m also going to try to make it actually entertaining and engaging.”
Taking the tradition out of the demo
When it comes to designing a non-traditional demo, Wreden says that there were a few main points that he wanted to convey.
“First is that this game is really hard to describe, and that knowing too much ahead of time might ruin your experience,” he explains. “You’re going to be confused, you’re going to be left with more questions than answers, you’re not going to be able to cleanly explain what you just played or what kind of game this is.”
The all-important follow-up to this point, is that Wreden wants players to understand that being confused doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all — in fact, The Stanley Parable revels in it.
“Confusion can be expressive,” he adds. “Asking questions is very engaging, and having questions is a great way to start a conversation with others. People like to come together to understand something obtuse, and I enjoy seeing players talk to one another about their experience with this demo and try to figure it out. Trying to put this experience into words and failing is actually a lot of fun.”
And his last point which he hopes to put across with the demo: “The game is funny, and it’s not all just lofty philosophical mumbo jumbo. Video games can tackle serious subjects with humor, you don’t have to take yourself that seriously.”
This is one of the key elements that he hopes players take away from the experience. “If I can make you smile and laugh, I can pull you in for when it gets really strange and obtuse, players know that the game does actually want them to be enjoying themselves as they play.”
You can grab the “demo” now for free from Steam. The Stanley Parable is out on October 17.
[Mike Rose wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]