Memory is a hell of a thing for media to cover, and the way visual mediums and stories
handle it usually cleanly marks it as something totally different - maybe a movie does a different
color grade or makes a flashback black-and-white. Maybe a game makes a different model and
hires a different voice actor. Sometimes there’s more interesting ways of handling it - Nobuhiko
Obayashi, director of House, shot on location for all of his movies, but used extensive
greenscreen nonetheless. He linked time as much as he did space, intermingling worlds and
creating impossible architectures, making something that used its artificiality as a deliberate
statement. What better way to underscore the grief of World War II than to superimpose living,
moving actors into the scant photos that we had of Hiroshima back then, before it was razed to
the ground in a flash?
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe does not go as hard as this, but it’s a useful framework
to view it through. It’s about sequels, yes, it’s about video games, yes, it’s about DLC and all that,
but the core of this expandalone sequel-remake is about revisiting something that Davey Wreden
wrote twelve years ago, wrote again eight years ago, and is now writing again. The only time that
Wreden and the player know when they’re on the right or the wrong track is when they’re in the
Memory Zone. Only there, drawn to the old like a moth to the flame, can they know for sure
they’re making real progress in getting somewhere new.
It’s that juxtaposition of the past and the future that makes the middle part so frustrating
and overlong. Obayashi’s films make its sum feel newer than its constituent parts, but here it’s
the opposite: whenever the player clutches the bucket, they are forced to play the game with
their old map of its systems and paths. The narrator’s laborious assertions that they’re
comforted by the bucket, of course, ring hollow - what’s really supposed to be comforting is the
hallways that are reflected in it and Kevan Brighting’s own wry observations, themselves growing
increasingly familiar as the player draws blood from the stone.
The Narrator plans a finale for Stanley, but he never lets himself end it. The player has to
do that for him - but the player, too, has to come back. Again, and again. They exit the game,
they come back to it, remind themselves of the inexorable march of time, and they play some
more. It’s only on the third go-around, after playing the original and once more with slightly more
content, where they can really expect to shake things up.
It’s in small glimmers that the game’s themes really come to life. The endless repetition
of Stanley’s life and game loop drawn into the larger nostalgic context of this newest release, the
frustration of writing more of something that was done excellently the first time around, and the
realization that no matter how much time is spent, something always gets forgotten. The New,
here, is less something that builds on the past to create something taller and broader. The
inverse of Obayashi’s method, it instead grows roots into the past, intertwining and entangling
until past, present, and future are impossible to differentiate fully.
The player goes to the end of time, accepts that Stanley will never end, and returns to the
loop once more to get an achievement. As they exit the start once again, The Narrator idly
ponders whether Stanley’s office has a painting or a photograph. Maybe it’s the player’s first time
going through it. Maybe it’s a homecoming after five, seven, nine years. Maybe they’re one of the
OGs who’ve been there since the days of the original mod. They probably can’t tell you what’s
inside that frame.