The story of The Stanley Parable is the tale of a gaming phenomenon. And the background to it is the stuff of legend: two young lads working from their bedrooms, communicating via email and transatlantic phone calls, never meeting until the job is done.
Those two young men were Davey Wreden and William Pugh. One was in America. The other was in Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax. It was a life of voluntary isolation, long days and nose-to-the-grindstone slog. And the end result was an interactive game that took the world by storm.
Today Pugh is a bright-eyed 21-year-old with wild, leonine hair. The last two years have made him something of a global gaming celebrity. Yet even as he’s forming his own company and being championed by Bafta as a “Breakthrough Brit” he’s still living at home with his parents.
For those to whom the video game explosion is something of a mystery, Pugh has a few pointers. “There’s two trains of thought as to how to view video games,” he says. “Certainly at the moment the Government is treating it very much as a business. We’ve seen these big tax breaks that video games companies get. But then you can also see it inherently as an artistic medium that exists outside the capitalist notion of creating a product and selling it at a profit.
“Movies have been around for about 110 years. Games have been around for a fifth as long. They are a very immature medium right now but we are starting to see them being used for stuff like exploration of personal issues.”
The myth of the making of The Stanley Parable, in which the player becomes a character trapped in another person’s story, is that it was created by Wreden and further developed by Pugh in marathon 16-hour sessions. It presents Stanley, an office worker who begins exploring his building and finds it empty. The route he (and the player) then takes is what gives The Stanley Parable its appeal: a not-so simple case of choice and decisions.
“Through about two hours of play you will discover what it means to play a game, and you will also hopefully laugh at some points as well,” says Pugh. “And you don’t need to have played games before to enjoy it. There’s no shooting in it, no complex mechanics. You just walk and listen.”
The Stanley Parable was made on a shoestring budget that over the course of two years amounted to about £10,000. Pugh reveals neither he nor Wreden got paid “at all”, adding: “We just said we’d split the percentage of any money that we got once this thing sold. That’s done very well.”
The game’s immense success thrust Pugh onto the world stage. He’s found it tricky to cope with. After all, as a teenager his ambition was to be an actor. Aged 15 he joined Calderdale Theatre School. “I’ve found that being trained to pretend to be somebody else on a stage has helped a lot in terms of crafting a persona to be viewed by a majority of people.”
His life, he reveals, has “changed in every regard”. In some ways it has considerably improved, “like I’ve got a massive amount of freedom to travel, to see people that I want to see, to do business with people that I want to do business with, to make what I want to make. Creative freedoms.”
The success of The Stanley Parable has brought with it money, and presumably lots of it. That at least presented Pugh with the capability to move forward. Thus he has recently set up his own company, called Crows Crows Crows. But it has come at a price. “I’ve also developed general anxiety disorder over the past few years, and depression, both because of this massive amount of very swift change in my life,” he confesses.
“[When I] announced my new company I had to talk about the slightly awkward and weird part of the past two years, which is the strange amount of money that I have found myself with. I’ve been using that to surround myself with other more experienced and talented people in the hope that through osmosis I might exchange some luck for some actual knowledge and understanding.”
Is it a misconception to suggest that Pugh thrived on the isolation and long hours that delivered the game – and that now being out in the wider world makes him nervous? He counters the question by detailing the difference between indie gamers like him and the corporate monsters that dominate the industry. “There are two schools of production in terms of creating games. There are triple-A companies, which are the people who make Skyrim or Resident Evil or Mario – the games that people have heard about. Then there are indie developers who run small teams of anywhere from two to ten people. They’re traditionally a bit more isolated.
“I myself worked entirely in isolation for about two years making The Stanley Parable. I don’t think you need to be isolated in order to be creative but in order to play on the same level as companies that have hundreds and hundreds of people making one game you need to be very bold.”
That sense of isolation is further underlined by Pugh’s admission that he has left his friends behind; or, rather, while he was at the heart of a video game phenomenon, they moved on. “All the people that I grew up with… when I try to talk to them about this they obviously don’t have personal experience of what this weird situation is like.
“They were all making a whole new generation of friends. I didn’t go to university for three years while I was working away on this game. My new generation of friends have come out of a strange period of time where I’ve been travelling the world meeting quote/unquote clever and successful people. It’s been a wonderful journey that I’m immeasurably lucky to have gone on. It’s one that I don’t think I perhaps deserved but I’ve decided not to worry too much about that.”
To those who don’t “get” games, who don’t play them and consider them the lowest common denominator in the world of arts and culture, Pugh points to the approach of Bafta. “Bafta are very much seen as a respectable institution, and games aren’t. Not yet. But this medium is getting a lot wider and the extremes are getting pushed in both directions. Institutions like Bafta have been devilishly clever in putting games at the forefront.”
In parallel, Pugh is charting a course towards the type of games that inspire him. One of them is Journey, which follows the journey of a little person who’s climbing to the top of a mountain and in doing so explores the notion of love, trust, intimacy and human connection
He calls it “a video game by all sense of the word but it is also the most transcending and emotionally moving piece of art that I have ever seen. To lump the experience I had with that in with something like Call of Duty or Candy Crush on the iPhone is just a bit ridiculous.”
Then there is How Do You Do It? A finalist at the Independent Games Festival in America, it’s a short vignette game about a young girl who, with her parents out of the house, sets up her dolls as she tries to figure out how sex works.
“There’s a whole generation of these weird game experience-type things that deal with issues like consent or what it means to be transgender. The medium is growing in terms of diversity and that’s the sort of thing that’s most exciting to me: the idea that it’s becoming open and more inclusive. Everybody gets to see more weird stuff. That’s exciting.”