[NOTE: We'd highly recommend you play the mod, The Stanley Parable, without reading our feature describing why it is our 'Download of the Week' but if you do need convincing or if you have already played it please, read on!]
The previous games featured in our 'Download of the Week' have been games that have retailed through mainstream console storefronts or popular PC download platforms - this week's pick is something a bit different, indeed its very status as a videogame in the traditional sense is debatable.
The Stanley Parable is a Half-Life 2 mod from 'Cakebread' that can be run provided you have either Half-Life 2 or the Source SDK Base 2007 (which is free). In the mod there are no health bars, weapons or traditional objectives. It's difficult to explain the concept without ruining the game's appeal and power which largely resides in it being an experience you enter blindly. Needless to say it is a unique experience, thoughtful and thought provoking. Through the narration you hear and the choices you make you will find yourself pondering carefully what the game is attempting to say, taking the time to process your response to what is in many ways a visceral experience.
The mod is a relatively short, pursuing it fully will take you probably somewhere under an hour, but nonetheless it is an experience that sticks with you. The game comes complete with a written commentary from the developer which goes someway to describing what he hoped to achieve with the project - specifically focussing on how gamers accept videogame tropes blindly. This becomes clear as you progress through the mod, you are forced to confront the truth that videogames as a medium is defined by its interactivity, but in reality the choices we make in a videogame are preordained and limited by what the designers intended us to achieve. Indeed, we are conditioned to conform to the designer's will, to achieve their 'goals' and 'win'.
I'd go further and suggest that the same commentary could be expanded to our lives generally, with questions of how free our decisions truly are and our individual responses to authority. In many of the situations we see the protagonist in there lies an innate tragedy easily relatable to the mundane nature of everyday existence.
The Stanley Parable lacks some polish, there are some glitches, the menu is unchanged from the standard Source menu and there is a liberal recycling of Half-Life 2's textures and models, but these details are somewhat besides the point. As a mod and gaming experience it is both unique and challenging, indeed it can be seen as a challenge to Roger Ebert's assertion that videogames can not be art.
It's difficult to describe The Stanley Parable without ruining the experience, but the mod should be played by anyone who has an interest in videogaming as a medium above and beyond CoD multiplayer. It is a self-aware examination of what videogaming is and what the medium itself says about us, and a shining example that games can be much more than simple exercises in pointing and shooting.
The Stanley Parable is available to download for free from ModDB