FBT is in an office playing at trying to escape an office. FBT has left the office.
TSP might be the best game I’ve played since Portal. The comparisons are fair – Portal was an inspiration, it’s on the source engine, we play a hapless character trapped in a silent, empty place being toyed with by an omnipotent voice that seems trustworthy but might not have our best interests at heart. And it’s mind-boggling. I wish I’d picked this up on release.
But quickly I realised this isn’t the best game since Portal, it’s just ruined every game I’ve played since Portal. It’s not got the scope, detail or gameplay complexity of your average Triple A, and that’s its strongest element – it pricks at those games until you can’t take them seriously anymore. Or take my gamer-self seriously anymore. Or my office.
Stanley is a typical clip-on tie, white-shirt wearing office drone. One day, he notices the entire office is empty. Unsure of what to do without a memo or manager, Stanley ventures out of his cubicle and makes decisions on his own for the first time. At least, as far as the Narrator lets him.
As he explores, Stanley is accompanied by the narrator, an observational, jovial voice that calls to mind the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I follow his suggestions, expecting him to promise Cake, but I actually reached the ending in about five minutes. Oh. Well, that was cute. And that’s where it gets interesting.
The next go I disobeyed the narrator, who started narrating all the stuff I was doing instead, justifying my actions, making them seem intentional and interesting. I rebelled, kept taking random routes and backtracking but he had a comment for everything, it was like no matter what I did, the narrator made it clear my actions were expected, planned for, and even starting working with me to figure all this out. I even leapt off a parapet to Stanley’s death. And the narrator was ready for it.
TSP started out as a HL2 mod, when budding developer Davey Wreden (and William Pugh) realised even free-roam and choice-driven games have inescapable narratives no matter how much freedom you think you’re given. With TSP he sought to subvert that expectation. And oh boy did he.
The fun of TSP is trying to work out all the different endings, the ways the game anticipated and controlled your playthrough. They’re rarely obvious; some you uncover by accident, some build up and others are totally left-of-field. There’s some that parody gaming itself, like stepping outside the map or activating cheats. Although the game ends after each, it’s more like a loop than a restart; I kept hiding in the broom closet to the narrator’s annoyance, then later ran past to see the closet had been boarded up.
At times the narrator is a manipulative, nasty piece of work, other times you can turn the tables on him, and at times it seems the game is double-crossing him as much as Stanley; he's not infallible. A few endings take some doing to discover (as in, look up walkthroughs on YT – I think the Narrator would appreciate the irony of using someone else’s narration to reach endings) but they’re all rewarding, clever and satisfying. It even has one where another narrator steps in (the narrator’s narrator?), and you can end up in other games in the Narrator’s Steam Library … I managed 18 of the 19 (known) endings – I skipped the one that requires you to play a mini-game for 4 hours - but I can’t believe TSP actually has an ending.
Although TSP was fully released in 2013, it’s remained an intensely popular game – and a PC exclusive. But there's an ‘Ultra Deluxe’ version due for release on the Unity engine to allow console gamers a go. It’s an enhanced version with new adventures and endings for Stanley. I’m already looking forward to the ‘HD Remix’ version.
It’s not until you play TSP that you realise how much games have been lying to you. You don’t beat a game, you reach the end of a predetermined path. It doesn’t matter if you turn left or right, play good or bad, they all still lead to that last cut-scene. Even online games have an unescapable goal. It’s a painful parody of us thinking we have some input when we game – any decision you’ve agonised over, from which route to take in Gears of War to stopping the Reapers; TSP makes a mockery of your decision-making skills.
It’s also painful if you’ve ever worked in an office. It’s like the gamer version of Mike Judge’s Office Space - one time, the narrator tricked me into thinking I had a wife waiting at home, only to cruelly snatch the dream away and force me to tear down our home and replace it with my cubicle one keystroke at a time. That one hurt.
It’s also like Groundhog Day - you keep repeating your day job until you find the ending that means the most to you. You’d expect this to run out of steam quickly, but it’s so cleverly constructed I’ve been at it for hours. TSP is the one and only time I’ve been happy to be stuck in an office. It’s made me look at choice-driven games differently, and gaming in general – if wandering the same boring office for hours can be this much fun, what are other games doing?
Stanley had my number right from the start - while wandering the menus getting everything how I like it, I turned on Achievements – and got an achievement for turning on achievements. Leave me out of your parody. Oh God, I am Stanley. I should quit my job. But I won’t. I’ll just keep trying to get Stanley the ending he deserves.