The Parable of Stanley versus the Railroad

“Art Games” have been around for a long while, and have a wide variety of styles of challenges and options like exploration games like “Journey” or interactive novels like “Dear Ester” or even playing up monotony with integrated story elements like “Papers, Please” and “Cart Life”. The Stanley Parable is another one of these games where the player guides Stanley through a surreal environment while the narrator delivers exposition. The player has the opportunity to make numerous decisions on which paths to take, and because at times the narrator says what Stanley will do next, the player can choose to ignore the narration and make a different choice. Every choice made by the player is commented on by the narrator, and depending on the choices the player makes, they will encounter different endings to the game before it restarts.

I had known about this game for a while, having seen it being played in the original version years ago,but it wasn’t until watching someone playing the remake and they talk about how it emphasized a railroading tabletop GM and the player choosing whether to go along with the story or take a new path. Of course, part of the fun in Stanley Parable is seeing all those alternate endings and jokes throughout, as this GM works to adapt the challenges you present into the narrative unlike a lot of railroad GMs I’ve seen before trying to close off all paths with bland reasons why.

A railroad in tabletop game is not a bad thing, just like how an ‘on-rails’ video game is not a bad thing. There are a large number of On Rails shooters that sell pretty well and are popular, and that is because the game is made to be interesting and engaging. When you look at a tabletop railroad, players want to go in a different direction because they want to try something new, something more interesting. Look at how the Stanley Parable endings are mapped out, and you can see how with just a few key choice points, you have an adventure that seems to give them a larger world to explore but is only keyed to certain pivot points. There are certain situations where the player will see another path open up and by going against the narrator/GM they can explore an area of the game that was not originally available to them. Video games will illustrate this illusion of choice in many ways, such as using arrows, signage and lighting, sound effects all to funnel the player into locations they want. A GM can do the same with writing and plot design, giving them possible other approaches, other paths leading to the same general area. Stanley Parable used the same building, mostly the same pathways to take with just slight variations on area and a little bit of variation in narrator.

The Stanley Parable design began with an idea, “what would happen if you could disobey the narrator?” and this is a question GMs should ask themselves before they throw a plot at the players. What is their fallback in case the players do not take this choice. What are you going to give your players if they do something different than what you were expecting at a key point? A Star Wars plot I once played in had a key point near the start of the game where we rescued someone from being attacked who later turned out to be the big bad evil. I asked the GM at the end of the campaign what they would have done if we hadn’t saved them and their answer was ‘I didn’t have a plan for that, it would have ended the plot’. You need to have an escape hatch in case things go wrong. It could be a secondary plot thread to pull out to distract the players with while you salvage the main pieces of your storyline, or maybe it is a literal escape hatch to get your key figure to safety, like one of the tropes in this list. Just don’t be too heavy handed in it, so that you’re not invalidating everything the players have done.

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