The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe Asks How Far We’ve Come Since the Original

Have we as a culture learned anything new about video games, and who we are when we play them?

When The Stanley Parable released in 2013, it caught mainstream attention for its dense narrative examining the nature of free will and decision making in video games. While it wasn’t the first to take a meta spin on the medium’s typical conventions, it gained notoriety and critical acclaim for its deep layers of metafictional meaning.

That was nine years ago. In the ensuing near-decade, video games have done an awful lot of navel gazing, making games that are about games that are about media that are about games. You could write a whole We Didn’t Start the Fire about all the titles that have sought to pick up where The Stanley Parable left off in rolling the perennial “are video games art?” boulder uphill ad infinitum. Have we as a culture learned anything new about video games, and who we are when we play them?

Whether or not we’ve sufficiently changed in all this time, it’s much easier to identify how video games have changed. The advent of games-as-a-service and the business model of the modern game have changed how players interact with their games. From microtransactions to gacha pulls to concerts and canonical events in Star Wars happening in Fortnite, to everything regarding the metaverse, developers behind the most prominent titles have adopted a More is More approach. While of course we still have plenty of single-player experiences and thoughtful, short-form games, the larger landscape of video gaming as an industry and an idea space has gone the way of Blade Runner billboards: bigger, brighter, and all-encompassing. Ultra Deluxe takes all of these external market trends and filters them through the prism of The Stanley Parable’s signature wit to make something equally timely and timeless.

Ostensibly, Ultra Deluxe is an expansion to the original Stanley Parable, not a sequel. The original game still exists as it did before, at least until you open a door plainly labeled ‘New Content.’ Releasing the new elements of Ultra Deluxe on their own, and calling it The Stanley Parable 2, would surely have been a more sure-fire headline grabber. And yet, the developers of Crows Crows Crows elected not to do that. Their intentions with Ultra Deluxe hinge upon it being an expansion of The Stanley Parable, not a separate entity.

The Stanley Parable is, or at least was until recently, a finished game. Reviews were written about it, video essays analyzed it, and people all over the world played it, responded to it, then moved on. The developers made other games, ported The Stanley Parable to new platforms, and let it be what it was. This is how it goes with most games, after all, and with most media: projects conclude, and the people who made them go on to make other things. In modern gaming though, this is not necessarily the case – games can have “seasons,” overflowing with themed events, modes, characters, and equipment. Years-long development cycles can continue even after a game has shipped. Some games are designed to extend indefinitely – as long as there are players to play them and put coins in the metaphorical slot, the onslaught of “new” continues.  In the modern parlance often used for battle royale games like Apex Legends, The Stanley Parable is a “dead game,” making this sudden reemergence all the more curious. What could have been worth coming back after so long?

Playing through Ultra Deluxe, the answer to this question of “why now” is intentionally hard to spot. At first, it’s just the same great The Stanley Parable that you remember: You control Stanley as he walks through an eerily empty office, with the running commentary from Kevan Brighting’s prim British narrator your only guidance. You can either listen to the voice or disregard its instructions, with multiple decision paths that branch in a variety of ways, leading to multiple endings of varying thematic profundity and out-of-left-field gonzo spectacle.

The new elements of Ultra Deluxe don’t change the core mechanics of The Stanley Parable: You still mostly walk from room to room, at or against the behest of the voice in your head. There are occasionally items you can interact with and pick up – some for little more than fleeting jokes, others in ways that alter how you navigate every pre-existing ending. The sometimes dismissive term of “walking sim” still applies.

When you do find the New Content in Ultra Deluxe, it’s literally behind a door with the words ‘New Content’ written on it, which is a very welcome and straightforward way to let returning players know where to find the new stuff. Once you poke your head into that door, the real scope and breadth of Ultra Deluxe comes into view, but in typical The Stanley Parable fashion, the reveals keep coming and compounding on themselves in a series of elaborate expansions – a sort of reverse Matryoshka doll wherein you repeatedly escape from one strata of Ultra Deluxe into another, even larger, layer. The constant progression of reveal after reveal, peeling away layer upon layer to see how just how deep the new ideas go, is a thrilling experience, as you really start to feel like you and the narrator are playing a game together — a four-dimensional hide-and-seek that always has something new and unpredictable just out of sight.

Parts of Ultra Deluxe are genuinely hilarious, making the player feel like they’re in control of the humor’s rhythm. The narrator plays the Abbott to your Costello, making you the funniest person in the room (granted, the room is just the two of you, but still). The satire in Ultra Deluxe is much more pointed in its critique of the games industry than in The Stanley Parable, and while some jokes may seem a bit broad, others are much more attuned to the imminently lampoonable current landscape of the video game industry, like a lengthy dissection of a single user review that goes from snarky to sincere before you realize this single review’s significance.

It’s not all a clown show though, as Ultra Deluxe also builds on and complicates our understanding of who Stanley is to the narrator, and how the game of The Stanley Parable itself views the player. Can a game be codependent with its player? Can a game disagree with its developers? Where is the line between creator, creation, and customer? Whereas the original Stanley Parable was about existentialism and free will through the lens of video games, Ultra Deluxe is about The Stanley Parable. Not since Bioshock 2 has a game been so preoccupied with itself, its legacy, and the way its own original ideas might not have been sufficient.

Ultra Deluxe is about sequels, and the ethos of “More is More” that has become pervasive in the games industry. There are jokes about franchises that run on nearly identical installments, live-service games, achievement hunters, and the cult of personality that hit indie games can inadvertently inspire. The satire on these topics can sometimes turn pitch black, and veer into genuine expressions of creative desperation. The writing is, as is to be expected, extremely powerful. Ultra Deluxe slides from wry wit to venomous resentment to earnest heartfelt yearning, all in a few minutes. Topics like Steam Reviews or players’ desire for a Skip Dialogue button, become elaborate set pieces, filtered through The Stanley Parable’s typical lens of modernist absurdism.

One new area involves a strange gallery show of potential ideas for what a sequel to The Stanley Parable might be, and it highlights the ways in which Ultra Deluxe understands the ways time has continued past its original release. From this perspective, Ultra Deluxe is also about what it means to have put a finished work into the world, and having to live with its reception. Nine years is a long time — for The Stanley Parable to come back in any meaningful way, it has to grapple with its own legacy as what was, at the time, a smart, boundary-pushing title.

Such self-reflection does mean Ultra Deluxe runs the risk of being self-indulgent or self-absorbed. Yet again, though, The Stanley Parable anticipates what’s predictable and goes further — the narrator subverts any amount of self-aggrandizement with outright self-loathing and artistic insecurity. The narrator acts as a stand-in for the developers as they reckon with the limitations of their original creation. Is it still self-indulgent? Yes, it’s a meta-layered follow up to a meta-layered video game that can’t stop from name dropping itself every two minutes. But just because it’s self-indulgent doesn’t mean it doesn’t work — this indulgence serves Ultra Deluxe’s purpose of challenging exactly how insightful and groundbreaking a game can even be in the first place.

Staying with the narrator, he has some new perspectives in Ultra Deluxe, as he ultimately becomes not just a stand-in for the developers at Crows Crows Crows, but also a representation of the fans of The Stanley Parable going back to its roots as a Half-Life 2 mod. He’s as much a protagonist as Stanley is (as you the player are). There’s an infectious warmth in Brighting’s voice when the narrator shares something they’re excited about, devilish snark when he belittles us, and even acute pain when he feels the sanctity of the original Stanley Parable is being challenged. As our guide through what’s old and what’s new, he frames all of these thematic discussions about how art is received, repurposed, and repackaged, and Brighting’s performance does a remarkable job humanizing the struggle of a formerly single-installment walking sim from the time of the Obama administration.

You May Also Like:

When The Stanley Parable was initially released, there was still a lot of nuance to the idea that video games could provide a lens through which we could examine how our existence was scripted, and that any attempt to subvert or undermine our reality was, itself, an expected and programmed path in the structures that we allow to run our lives. The challenge of the original Stanley Parable seemed to be in finding a means of escaping the game, and breaking away from any path that the narrator could follow us on. The game’s setting being an eerie liminal office space gave us all the justification we’d need to want to escape.

In 2022, this premise feels more familiar and well-trod. In video games, we’ve had plenty of meta-minded titles to challenge the barrier between character and player and push back on how we view virtual worlds in conjunction with our own. In the real world, The Stanley Parable’s original brand of white-collar paranoia and surrealist drudgery now feels like a quaint throwback to a time before we realized how trapped we truly were. All those scripted paths for Stanley were still more avenues than most people have in their lives. We’ve been running out of potential futures for a while now.

One aspect of The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe that manages to connect the game’s past version with its current status and legacy, is the third word in its title. If The Stanley Parable is indeed a parable, a simple story meant to demonstrate a spiritual lesson or idea, then what exactly is that parable, and how does Ultra Deluxe develop on it? It could be a lesson on free will, and the way humans frame powerless situations as ones in which they still have agency, or it could be the opposite: a way of celebrating the endless strange ways our lives can change following the simplest actions outside of the ordinary, and fundamental power we have to defy the voice of order in our heads and find a different way out.

The potential parables of Ultra Deluxe are more specific, and much harder to pin down in a simple answer: what do we owe the games of yesteryear, and why do we still hold on to media from the past that’s meaningful to us? Can artistic integrity survive in the modern marketplace of late-stage capitalism? Is there any room for new ideas in gaming, in art in general, or will the market dictate that we just play the hits? In a world where capitalism will even reduce the subversive and insightful media into carbon-copies of itself for diminishing returns, can anything special about the original be salvaged?

The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is an oddity and a wonder — a follow up that expands on and deepens everything interesting about the original game, but does so in a way that could never be separated into a standalone sequel. The expansion takes a long hard look at itself, doesn’t like everything it sees, and puts that discomfort in the player’s hands with humor and style. It doesn’t offer easy answers, but maybe a parable shouldn’t. Give us the story, and let us work for the lesson.