Metafiction comes in many forms of media. It can appear in forms that make use of cross-genre narratives (such as screenplays that mix in photographs in helping to tell a story) and intertextuality (the combining or reimagining of already established texts into something new). Certain games and digital literature have delved into it. There are even movies like Stranger than Fiction that play with narration as a force that, in its interpretation, influencing or controls the characters described.
In fact, given the expressive power of narration, I guess it makes sense that narratology (or studies into the structure of narratives), has emerged as an area of increasing interest within literary studies. If possible, I would even argue for narratology as a branch of Metafiction, since a narrative is inherently metafictional, and its study even more so. For in narratology, the position a narrator holds in a story gets examined as well.
As you might imagine, I then got pretty excited when I learned about The Stanley Parable. Written by Davey Wreden and William Pugh, and released through Steam, The Stanley Parable is simplistic on its surface. Initially, it purports to tell the tale of a character named Stanley, who after years of following the commands typed to him in his lonely office cubicle, suddenly finds that they stop appearing. He then must go forth into the uncertain landscape of the office building where he’s always worked to figure out what is happening.
The player controls Stanley, moving him around the office building, accompanied by a disembodied narrator (British voice actor Kevin Brighting) who seeks to guide Stanley along a particular plotline; and at first, he seems to be the usual third-person heterodiegetic narrator—which basically means that he exists as a third-party of sorts outside the story, describing what happened.
Where things get interesting, though, is that the player can choose to deviate from the narration, by ignoring the narrator’s instructions altogether, making different choices, or wandering off in another direction entirely. Even staying too long in any specific area usually gets treated, in and of itself, as a conscious deviation. At those points, then, the narrator seems to perform as increasingly homodiegetic, or involved as a character in his own right within the story at large.
Depending on the choices involved, he might either try to gently steer Stanley back towards the originally intended narrative, while still remaining in the third-person, or he will get frustrated to the point where he talks directly to Stanley (who, of course, cannot say anything in reply) as a metafictional narrator.
I came into The Stanley Parable completely blind as to what the game might hold in store, beyond the fact that I could deviate from what the narrator actually said. In addition, I knew that the game was trying to make a specific point about the power narratives can hold, as a means to make sense of the world, and also to influence the actions of characters (or even people, sometimes). My first inclination, therefore, was to not entirely trust and to disobey the narrator.
Perhaps, I thought, what we have here is an unreliable narrator, or a narrator who might or might not be telling how things really happened, or who may want to lead this Stanley character to some tragic fate he could otherwise avoid by not listening to the narration. Narration, based on what I’d seen in Stranger than Fiction, could get treated as a form of mind control—which meant the narrator could be seeking to be like a mind-control mechanism for Stanley.
So I didn’t do what the narrator said. When the first major choice to deviate came, in the form of choosing one of two doors, I chose to go to the right when the narrator said left. The more I disobeyed, the more frustrated and metafictional the narrator grew.
At this point, it is also interesting to note that the narrator in The Stanley Parable does get shown as having some influence over the environment or setting. He opens doors in front of the player, and then closes the doors after the player has passed through them. While disobeying him entirely, I had the initial impression that the narrator could purposefully create anything at all to punish me for not doing exactly what he said.
But the more often I disobeyed, the more endings (which I won’t spoil by detailing in their entirety) that I came to, the more I began to suspect that the narrator had limited control over this environment as well. In one instance, my narrative deviation actually caused what looked like glitches in the scenery, or even different scenery entirely, that surprised the narrator as much as they did for me. I heard the shuffling through of papers that indicated the narrator was trying to stick with a script he himself was supposed to follow.
Furthermore, I began to discover something intriguing—while The Stanley Parable is supposed to be about the character of Stanley, it is really and truly about the character of the narrator. A narrator who wants to perform a story, and who in fact must perform the story because it is the narrator’s assigned role. The player controls Stanley, and within certain bounds can do a great deal, but the narrator is stuck following the player as Stanley with the constant mission to perform one specific tale.
The narrator, in other words, gets revealed as truly a metafictional narrator that tries his best to act heterodiegetic. The player, in controlling the almost placeholder position of Stanley, is in the actual heterodiegetic position within The Stanley Parable. The player gets pointed out as the most metafictional character in the game (which is true in the case of every game, but becomes particularly highlighted here).
I have to say, the above was a refreshing revelation for me. I’d never seen a game ever do such a thing.
Then I must admit that I started to feel sympathetic for the narrator, viewing him as a character stuck in a game who was just trying to do his job (or perform his role). So I decided to go through the game, following his narration perfectly, to find out what would happen if I did.
And the end result?
Well, I have to say The Stanley Parable offered me a pleasant surprise at The End, in addition to giving me a fresh perspective on the role narrators might hold in a story.
So if you are interested in an interactive game that will challenge your concept of narratives, I would definitely recommend The Stanley Parable.