It’s Halloween, and as we take the two floors up to see William Pugh’s secret new project at GameCity, he narrates our journey – spinning an off-hand story about the ghosts haunting the lift shaft.
The rakish 20-year-old is clad head-to-toe in black and has hair that goes its own way. His humour is like that of The Stanley Parable – quick-fire and layered in irony. A bemused stranger sharing the lift won’t quite meet his gaze.
After the demo, I ask Pugh how things have changed since his game’s release over a year ago.
“What it’s been like since Stanley came out?” A pause. “Do you want me to actually answer? It’s just whether you want to go down that path. I can do a joke answer.”
I ask for the real answer, please. We go down that path.
Towards the end of last year, somebody sat at their desk and pushed a button to purchase the millionth copy of The Stanley Parable.
“It’s cool,” said Pugh. “It’s fun to say but it’s a number. That’s the way you’ve got to think about it. It doesn’t mean anything about you specifically. You can try and find validation in it but I was happy when we sold ten thousand.”
Validation has been playing on the minds of The Stanley Parable’s two creators. Almost a year ago, Pugh’s collaborator Davey Wreden drew a frank comic about the fleeting and ultimately hollow sense of happiness he’d been seeking in Game of the Year awards.
Like Wreden, Pugh is aware that he’s been “immeasurably” lucky with The Stanley Parable’s reception; that it can be “annoying” when successful people whine about what’s it like to be successful; that the “massive privilege” of being a part of an amazing project has far, far outweighed any resulting negativity.
But, like Wreden, Pugh has struggled to adapt to life after launch.
“I’m sure that you’ve heard from many places that people who make successful games and end up making a lot of money or getting a lot of attention don’t tend to adjust particularly well,” he said. “I’d say that’s just a typical human thing, that people need to take a while to adjust to large amounts of change in their life.”
The Stanley Parable’s success meant that Pugh didn’t have to think about short-term employment. It meant that he didn’t have to worry about the financial cost of his ideas. In short, it meant that the plans he’d made for where he was going to go and what he was going to do after release were suddenly irrelevant.
The contrast was unavoidably stark. Pugh had been pulling 16-hour days for the last few months of development, building momentum towards release. Afterwards, it turned out that the game didn’t need any patching whatsoever. The Stanley Parable was 100% bug free – an unheard of scenario in programming. Suddenly, Pugh looked up to find free time stretching out before him.
Into this gulf flooded the feedback of players and press. The tectonic shift in awareness was disorienting after so many months spent building the game in near-isolation.
“Of course, that’s very good,” pointed out Pugh. “But you’ve got to remember that the thing that people are judging you based on is work that you’ve been doing for a process of over two years, and that’s two years of people not caring really about what you’re working on.
“There have been points where I felt like I wished this had never happened or that things were back the way they were. Because in changing circumstances and in changing yourself you feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself and you’re no longer genuine.”
While Wreden was living in shared accommodation with other creative people in the US, Pugh was living across the ocean with his parents in Yorkshire. Remarkably, the two never met before The Stanley Parable was finished. When Wreden and his flatmates threw a big party at launch, Pugh phoned in over Skype.
“I don’t think I felt a massive desire to be involved with all of that,” said Pugh. “Initially I wanted to spend time with my family and friends because those were the people that I had to stop spending time with in order to get the game done.”
It was meeting other developers that first made the game’s impact real for Pugh. A week and a half after Stanley was finished he went to GameCity – the first games festival he’d attended of any kind – and met some “very lovely” peers, who promptly introduced him to lots of other peers.
But he wouldn’t want to spend too much of his free time with other indies, for fear of being driven “absolutely insane”.
“When I did acting before this, I used to hate spending spare time with actors,” he said. “Because you’d spend the whole working day with them, and then the last thing you want to do is go to a pub and chat with someone who has been in that same headspace. You take the headspace with you – it’s like being plugged constantly into Twitter.”
Coming face-to-face with fellow developers left Pugh feeling under pressure – not in the sense he had done during development, working to finish his levels for The Stanley Parable, but personally.
“I suddenly had a blank canvas to work with,” said Pugh. “And as a writer obviously you know that the hardest thing to start doing things with is a blank canvas.”
The award season that affected Wreden so dramatically didn’t hit Pugh in the same way. Instead, it was the notion of having the time and money to build whatever he wanted that left him paralysed.
Since then, however, new plans have “kinda” solidified.
“I’m doing stuff,” he said. “There was a long time where I wasn’t doing stuff, and I felt really bad about that, but I also couldn’t start doing something because I was just emotionally and physically wrecked for months after Stanley.”
Now Pugh’s developing again, he’s doing it differently. He’s no longer so interested in technical work, like the sound or texture editing he’d do for Stanley to save bringing another person on board. With less free time available, he wants to spend more of it doing the things he’s interested in. Like writing.
“I can say pretty confidently that I know my way around level design,” said Pugh. “But writing is a process that teaches you a bit about yourself and how you see the world and other people, I think. I don’t think you can get that out of level design.”
Writing on The Stanley Parable was almost exclusively handled by Wreden. Does Pugh’s new role mean the two are no longer collaborating?
“Davey and I are working on different projects at the moment,” confirmed Pugh. “We’re still very much in touch, and still help each other out with all sorts of stuff. [But] I love the team I’m working with now.”
This isn’t a break-up or studio closure: just a reflection of the way contemporary indie developers work.
“I think games are moving towards being like TV and film where the project dictates who works on it,” said Pugh. “With this, I wanted to write. With Davey principally being a writer, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to work on it.
“If another thing comes up where we want to work together on stuff, that’ll definitely happen.”
As conversation shifts to the particulars of The Stanley Parable, an apologetic Pugh cuts the question short. GameCity headquarters have emptied out during the time we’ve been talking. It’s been a long day and, more than that, it’s been an entire year since the game was released.
“It’s just my brain turns off when I have to start talking about Stanley Parable,” he explained. “You can find billions of interviews in which I talk to high heaven about it all.”
Pugh briefly covers his continued pride for Stanley’s non-linear level design, and the game’s similarities to first-person puzzle game Antichamber. Nonetheless, it’s clear that our chat is wrapping up. As we stand to leave, he thanks me in earnest for the interrogation. And then he disappears into the early evening, black boots following an Adventure Line only he can see.