The Stanley Parable makes the gameplay unfamiliar in the right way

The Stanley Parable

The effect of poetic gameplay can be undermined by unnecessary difficulties related to story or mechanics.

Alex Mitchell, Yuin Theng Sim and Liting Kway from the National University of Singapore have studied the experience of poetic gameplay in their article “Making it Unfamiliar in the “Right” Way- An Empirical Study of Poetic Gameplay”. According to Mitchell, poetic gameplay uses techniques like defamiliarizing and foregrounding to draw the players attention to the manner the game impacts the player. This then prompts the player to contemplate the form of the game. Defamiliarization makes the object unfamiliar and difficult to perceive, while foregrounding makes automatized acts consciously executed. The study included three games, video recording of their play and interviewing the participants.

The Graveyard

The three games used in the study were The Graveyard (Tale of Tales 2008), Thirty Flights of Loving (Blendo Games 2012) and The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe 2013). These games were selected because they contain several different techniques of defamiliarization. In the Graveyard the player character is an old woman, who walks in the cemetery. The character can only sit on a bench and walk around. Continuous walking causes limping and normal walking is restored only after resting a bit. The game ends when the character goes back to the cemetery gates.

Thirty Flights of Loving is designed to look like a first-person shooter, but the player cannot perform any combat or talk to other characters. It also has several movie-like “jump-cuts” that disrupt the temporality of the game. In The Stanley Parable the player character explores a surreal environment, trying to find out what happened to Stanley. One of the prominent features in the game is an unnatural all seeing narrator, who reacts to what the player (not the player character) is doing.

21 undergraduates with varying gaming habits were asked to play the selected games while they were video-recorded. After the play session they were asked to watch the video that was just filmed and explain what they were doing and why. This retrospective was audio recorded, as well as the semi-structured interview that followed. The video and audio recordings were analyzed by the three researchers by using different coding methods.

Thirty Flights of Loving

All of the three games have poetic gameplay that was noticed by the participants. In The Graveyard the slowness of the moment was used to draw attention to the experience of old age and in Thirty Flights of Loving the unfulfilled expectations were used to blur the boundaries between a game and a film. However, these aspects were overshadowed by the difficulties not related to the poetic gameplay the players faced. The controls and camera were difficult to use in The Graveyard and the goal of the game was unclear. In  Thirty Flights of Loving the narrative was overly complicated by the shifts in linearity and most of the participants were distracted by that, focusing on trying to understand the story.

In The Stanley Parable expectations of the gamer were also played with and the game broke the fourth wall by introducing a narrator that was trying to influence and perhaps controlling the player. In contrast to the other two games, the player expectations of a traditional game were met and they were able to focus on the poetic gameplay aspects and the game at the same time. Clear goal and clear actions helped the players engage with the game as a game, while they simultaneously and after the game reflected the role of the narrator and the limits of the interaction. According to Mitchell and his colleagues this suggests that in order the poetic gameplay to be effective, the game needs to be unfamiliar in a meaningful way.

The results of the study will contribute to the formation of design knowledge of poetic gameplay. Mitchell and his colleagues plan to extend their empirical study to other games as well, in order to provide a more broader array of techniques for poetic gameplay. They hope to provide a better understanding of the differences between art games and mainstream games and different techniques can be used to create poetic gameplay.


Mitchell A., Sim Yuing T. and Kway L. 2017. Making it Unfamiliar in the “Right” Way – An Empirical Study of Poetic Gameplay. DiGRA ’17 – Proceedings of the 2017 DiGRA International Conference