Interview: The Stanley Parable developer Davey Wreden

By Jeff Mattas, Sep 27, 2011 5:00pm PDT

Developer Davey Wreden made quite a few waves in the indie gaming pond with the relatively recent release of his free, narrative-driven adventure, The Stanley Parable. Built using Valve's Source SDK, The Stanley Parable effectively plays with pre-established conventions when it comes to storytelling, and raises some thought-provoking questions about game design in general.

More impressive still is that the game--Wreden's first, self-taught, solo effort--has received an almost universally positive response from those who've played it, largely because it manages to be a great conversation-starter without beating players over the head with a definitive message. It's also surprisingly funny.

I recently had a chance to ask Wreden some questions about his gaming influences, developing The Stanley Parable (and the upcoming remake), the experience of becoming an overnight internet sensation among hardcore gamers, and what's in store for the future. What impressed me most about his responses is that while he's still a fledgling game developer, his "expectation-breaking" approach to design sounds like that of a seasoned designer.

Shacknews: Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself and about some of your most memorable or influential gaming experiences?

Davey Wreden: My name's Davey, I'm 23, and I recently graduated from college in California where I've spent most of my life. A lot of the work I do is inspired by an entire lifetime of gaming, which early on was mostly about Nintendo platformers, so no matter what Nintendo does with each new Mario game I eat it up like a kid in a candy shop. But the last few years I've really been taken by the games that get creative with their storytelling, like the MGS games, Bioshock, Portal, Braid, Half Life 2, all of which I've set down the controller after finishing and just stared in awe at the screen. So I split my time between goofy oldschool arcade-style games and fresh innovative genre-bending ones.

Shack: What factors, (specific or general) inspired you to make The Stanley Parable?

DW: Career ambition for one thing, but mostly just a desire to do something that hadn't really been done before. I just had an idea for a kind of game that broke player expectations, that delivered a familiar experience in a new way. That came from having played games my entire life, from asking "what if" over and over while playing. I tried to describe my ideas to people and they didn't have ANY idea what I was talking about, so I figured I'd better go ahead and make it just to see if it could be pulled off.

Shack: How did you begin tackling the development process as a first-time modder? Are there any particularly good resources you'd recommend to someone looking into making their first game?

DW: Everything I learned came from the community, both from the Source Wiki and from message boards. Every modder I know just sat down and began teaching themselves the tools, while going to these community resources, which is basically the only way to do it since Valve doesn't really support the SDK. If you're using an engine like Source, the product you come up with generally has 100% to do with how much hard work you slaved through to teach yourself to use it!

Shack: TSP is a game that plays with the notion of obeying (or disobeying) a disembodied narrator and it consciously (and regularly) breaks the theatrical "fourth wall" in the process. Did you intend to structure the experience to illustrate any specific points or shortcomings of how many modern games deliver their stories and tackle issues of choice and consequence, or was that more the byproduct of your intended vision?

DW: The very first thing I asked with the game was "what would happen if you could disobey the narrator?" And I actually had no idea what the answer was, so I just started designing a game around it to see what would happen! As it turns out the game that popped around that question is about the perception and limitations of freedom in video gaming--which is cool, but it's more like something I discovered rather than something I created. To me the Stanley Parable is first and foremost about the question that started it, a desire to know something about video games that hadn't really been explored.

As modern games go, many developers simply don't ask many questions, they make assumptions based on how we've already been doing things. I still love games, but most of the AAA stuff coming out today kinda bores me; I can't remember the last time I paid $60 for a game. I don't want to be pedantic about the "shortcomings" of modern games or say that anyone's at fault, but I do want to point out that when you approach your design with a question in mind about how to break the rules and create more interesting games, people seem to recognize it and respond to it. The "message" about choice and consequence is really just in the details; it's the kind of thing that seems to emerge naturally from open inquiry rather than being consciously programmed into the game.

Shack: The fan-response to TSP has been incredibly positive. When did you first realize that what you had created was resonating so strongly with its audience? Did the response surprise you?

DW: The first person I showed the full game to was a friend who thinks a lot like me, and as soon as he finished we launched into this long discussion about freedom, choice, the nature of games. It was the kind of conversation we'd typically have about Chris Nolan or Charlie Kauffman films, except we were talking about something I had made! It breathed life back into the game for me. Then when the very first handful of reviews came in on ModDB--before the game blew up--and people were talking about how special an experience it was for them, I began to realize that this had the potential to become something that people really cared about.

That absolutely shocked me. It's something I simultaneously really wanted to happen but never had any inclination actually would. Anyone who makes creative work learns to temper their expectations. You go into a project thinking "This will change the world!" but knowing in your head that it won't, actually. Otherwise, your ego would never be able to handle the ups and downs! I had convinced myself by the end that no one would ever care about this game, and all of a sudden I'm being told that "No, you were right in the first place." I'm incredibly grateful for that, but for a while it felt like I couldn't trust myself, like I didn't know which part of my brain to believe. Becoming an overnight internet "sensation" is difficult for the ego to process; you kind of have to take yourself out of the equation or you'll go crazy trying to figure out why your work got the response it did. I'm shocked and amazed and delighted, but I also try not to think about it too much.

Shack: You've mentioned how personally taxing the development of TSP became towards the end of the project. If you could go back and time and give the pre-TSP Davey Wreden some helpful advice, knowing what you know now, what might that be?

DW: I don't think there's anything I could tell myself that would be as significant as what I was told by people who liked the game. At PAX I met several people who lit up talking about the game, who were so moved by it because they’re passionate about gaming the same way that I am. Initially, I had been making TSP for myself, which is why development was so brutal: I just sat at my desk working on it alone. I didn't realize until I began talking with people who played it that really the game was for them--it spoke to their interests and gave them an outlet to explore these new ideas.

I can see it now, but I never would have known that until the game came out. And now I feel more open to working with others, I feel supported by people who want me to continue to make games, [and] I feel like a part of this incredible community. That's the lifeblood that drives my development now.

Shack: Are there any design or gameplay elements that you had initially envisioned that ended up on the cutting room floor that you wish you'd been able to include?

DW: Actually, most of what I'd envisioned made it into the game. Only a handful of things didn't work for technical reasons, but by the end I didn't care; I was just happy to have shipped something.

Shack: Word on the street is that you're bringing some other designers on-board to remake TSP. How's that coming along? What sort of differences can we expect from the new iteration (without spoiling anything, of course)?

DW: The remake is a great way for me to fix the development mistakes I made the first time around: I'm collaborating with others, iterating the game and story throughout development, getting more feedback along the way, and actually having fun!

I was concerned for a while what people would think of the remake; everyone has their own opinion about what it should be and what direction it should go, so I was a bit stressed trying to figure out how much I should change and how much I should leave the same. But as soon I sat down with the guy I brought on board to do the level design, I found that I was having so much fun just kicking new ideas around that I didn't even care! Every piece of new content that's currently in the remake is something that we were chatting about and fell in love with because it sounded so cool, just a fun new direction to take the story or the Narrator's character. The design document the whole way through has been purely: if it's fun for us to design, it'll probably be fun for someone to play. I really don’t know what kind of game that will make it, but I'm enjoying the process so much that I don't really care any more. It's about making something that surprises and moves me rather than meeting anyone's expectations.

I would say that the remake has a lighter tone to it; we're pushing the narrator in a few bizarre and fun new directions. I wanted to emphasize that these games are not something you should take too seriously, and that as much as it's easy to get into a "games as art" discussion here, primarily I want my games to be something that people enjoy playing. My gut says that people will enjoy playing the remake, but this is the first game I've made with an actual development crew, so who knows!

Shack: You've mentioned that you've been receiving offers to work with other developers since you launched TSP. Anything projects in the works on that front?

DW: I've received offers to work at a few major game studios, all of which I've turned down. It's just not the kind of scene I want to work in at the moment. What I'm doing primarily is assembling the talents of the many independent developers who know mapping, modeling, animation, coding, etc. to form a (seemingly) well function team of people from all over the world. All primary work is on the remake right now, but at least one future game is in early development. The next game will be rather different than Stanley.

Shack: Is there anything else you'd like to share with fans of The Stanley Parable?

DW: The fans are the only reason I’m having this interview right now! I couldn't be more grateful for every person who really connected with the game and who has reached out to tell me about their experiences. To me the most important part of TSP is what happens when you stop playing, having a nice conversation with a friend or just going about your life, so it's been wonderful to have so many people to be able to talk with the game about. That's the reason I'm still making games.

If you liked TSP and you want to get an early peek at the remake, email me at dwreden@gmail.com and perhaps I'll send you a pre-release version for a little play testing.

Shack: Thanks very much for your time, Davey!

DW: Thank you, Jeff!

If you haven't had a chance to play The Stanley Parable for yourself, I highly recommend remedying that. The game itself can be grabbed from Shacknews, and while it doesn't require a copy of Half-Life 2, you will need Steam installed. (See The Stanley Parable readme.txt file for simple installation instructions.) Despite having multiple endings, you'll be able to see all of the content in less than an hour (including the recommended multiple playthroughs).

We'll be sure to keep you posted about Davey Wreden's upcoming ventures, as more information becomes available.

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