Friend, you are going to die. That’s the one thing I can say about you, without the tiniest shadow of a doubt, no matter who you are. It’s one of the few things that all humans share. Awareness of that universal truth might just be the thing that makes us human. We know we’re going to die, and we build glorious, airy structures of belief to help us deal with the Fear, or to convince ourselves it’s not going to happen. But it is. You’re going to die. And whether or not you’re a believer in some kind of continuity of self after death, it is still an End, of a sort. You can believe that you’ll flit around clouds, winged and be-harped with a smiling god enthroned and beaming, you can believe that an eternity of pain and torment and screaming and fear await you because of that time you rubbed your downbelows a bit in church, you can believe the quantum standing wave that instantiates your personality in your skull jelly will persist with or without the meat substrate, you can believe in a self made of spirit that will coalesce with the universal consciousness after your heart stops beating, you can believe in the great wheel of becoming and that you’ll return until you Level Up. Whatever you believe — even if you believe nothing, or have decided due to lack of concrete evidence that it’s best to reserve judgement — dying is going to be an Ending. And just possibly, in some ways, a beginning.
The Stanley Parable is about endings.
You have free will.
We feel, quite naturally, that our decisions matter. We agonize over our decisions, too often, because we see them as forks in the rivers of our lives, as the rushing torrent of time sweeps us ever onward, and choosing seems to us to have consequences. We look backwards — because memory is another thing humans share (but sometimes lose, sometimes mangle, sometimes hide from ourselves, deliberately or desperately) — and we reckon that this decision or that set us on the path we have taken since, and wonder what might have happened if we’d decided differently. Our experience of living lends to us a belief that we have free will. For a lot of us, the very suggestion that our will is shackled somehow — by chemistry, by a deity, by circumstance and environment — is distasteful. Even more upsetting to many is the suggestion that we don’t have any free will at all — that what we perceive as decisions were never really decisions at all, that we misunderstood acquiescence as agency. Some assuage this discomfort by passing human agency upstairs to their god — it’s god’s will, they say — while also believing that despite the guiding of their lives by an omnipotent deity, they still have free will to guide their own destinies. Some look (in attempts to confirm or to deny free will) to the latest ideas about Planck-scale quantum indeterminism, where nothing is certain, where randomness and statistical probabilities rule, and manifest themselves all the way up to universe-scale.
The Stanley Parable is about choice.
You are going to die.
You are never going to die.
A possible consequence of our growing understanding of the quantum substructure of our universe is that for each event at any scale that can have more than one result, all of the results actually ‘occur’, spawning a universe for each possible outcome, no matter how probabilistically unlikely. If this is so, there are an infinite number of universes. Didn’t marry your high-school sweetheart? There are an infinite number of universes in which you did, because infinity minus any arbitrarily large number is still
There are universes where the writer of the Stanley Parable is putting together a slightly turgid essay about a game called The Wonderchicken Parable.
infinity. Forgot to brush your teeth this morning? There are an infinite number of universes in which you didn’t. That leaf that blew in front you this morning? There are an infinite number of universes where it blew in an infinite number of different paths, including an infinite number of universes in which it hit you straight in the eyeball, and you tripped and busted your head open and died. Or didn’t. And so on scaling down to smaller and less significant events, and upward to worlds where our solar system never even formed. There are an infinite number of universes that contain an infinite number of versions of you, some nearly identical, some unrecognizable. There are universes where you died in the womb, and there are universes where you lived long enough to see the creation of technology to extend your life, or your consciousness, whatever that might be, indefinitely. You are never going to die. For some slightly confusing arbitrary value of ‘you’.
The Stanley Parable is about nothing ever really ending.
You have no free will.
Quantum physics is time-symmetric. We are as justified in saying that our choices set the cosmic initial conditions as we are in claiming the reverse, which our experience of time’s arrow leads us to naturally assume. An end is the same, in a sense, as a beginning. Every decision and choice we feel have made has been made, will be made: every fork in the river has been taken, in one universe or another. There are universes where, instead of writing this, I posted a picture of poop with googly eyes attached to it. There are universes where the writer of the Stanley Parable is putting together a slightly turgid essay about a game called The Wonderchicken Parable. The self that we perceive as unitary is one of an incomprehensibly vast branching cloud of selves, each of whom lives through the consequences of each of the possible paths we followed. Free will exists, but it is meaningless, because for every application of will that we believe ourselves to have exercised, every other choice was made by selves no less real, even though they are now inacessible to us.
The Stanley Parable is about choices not really mattering.
The Stanley Parable is a metacommentary, most people agree. It’s a game about gaming. But it’s not called The Stanley Parable for nothing — a parable is, after all, a short tale that illustrates a universal truth. It’s hilarious, but also a little disturbing, at least to me. It disturbs me, in a very pleasant way, because it makes me think about death, and endings, about free will, about whether or not choice is an Actual thing, and whether or not that’s important. The authors of the game may not have intended to freight it so heavily with Important Themes, but that’s just fine.
It’s a game that if you haven’t played, well, I think you really should. Because it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
stavros thewonderchicken has written 125 FGEC articles.