Saturday, 22 April 2017

Stories Untold - Review

Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital 
Platforms: PC 

A quick glance at the game’s cover and you’ll already know what Stories Untold is going for. You’ve watched Stranger Things, right? Well, if not, go watch it.

Stories Untold is divided up into four interconnected short tales. Genre-wise they fit into that weird cross-over of part sci-fi, part horror and part something else entirely. There’s hints of Lovecraft, a dash of John Carpenter, and a host of other major and minor elements that run throughout the overarching story that glues together each tale.

The game itself is actually expanded from an original, shorter concept. “A House Abandoned” was initially a stand-alone text adventure but now, with some enhancements, serves as the opening episode of No Code’s mini quadrilogy.

It might go some way to explaining why “A House Abandoned” is still the strongest episode here. Concept wise it’s a typical haunted house fare, coupled together with some retro-inspired touches as you play a text-adventure game on your computer whilst sat at a desk.

There’s some spooky atmospherics; lights flicker and go out, the phone rings, you open a door within the game, only to find a door ominously creak open behind you. All the while you’re just stuck at the desk, unable to move. There’s a wonderfully unsettling feeling about playing a character that’s playing a game, or even just someone operating a computer. Go play Her Story if you haven’t, to know what I mean. Maybe it’s the sense of vulnerability that it creates for the player, I’m not sure, but Stories Untold uses that sense of fear to full effect in its first episode.

And the episode knows not to overstay its welcome, either. It creeps along at a strong pace, steadily building up the tension until it’s about to burst. It works because of its simplicity, and by sticking to nothing but a desk, TV and keyboard the game manages to do far more to unsettle the player simply because it’s not trying to juggle too many plates.

The subsequent two episodes, “The Lab Conduct” and “The Station Process”, add on additional elements to the basic text adventure, whilst also delving into other genres. “The Lab Conduct” is the sci-fi horror of the group, with you playing as some nameless test operator at some nondescript lab. I won’t spoil too much in terms of the actually story as it’s the best part here, alongside the first episode.

One of the advantages of video game horror is creating scares and unease through mundanity. You can’t really do this all that well in film, we’re always watching someone act; they’re do something. It doesn’t work all that well in a book either, and whenever either medium attempts to do this kind of horror it always risks genuinely boring the audience/reader rather than terrifying them.

Video games, however, don’t suffer from this problem, and Stories Untold uses that to its full advantage. The opening half of “The Lab Conduct” is doing nothing but tinkering with lab equipment as you conduct some bizarre experiment. It’s unsettling precisely because nothing is happening, but there’s always that eerie threat of what you’re working on, and what could happen. Like with “A House Abandoned”, “The Lab Conduct” cranks up its tension inch by inch, having you turn a dial at one point to boost a frequency to literally crank up the tension, as the machine slowly begins to whine louder and louder. You know something bad is going to happen, and No Code know it too, so they’re going to wring as much out of that basic scenario as possible.

It’s a shame then, that the end of the episode starts to hint at the cracks in Stories Untold structure, and by half way through “The Station Process”, it’s clear that in an effort to expand a simple concept, the game begins to slowly lose its way.

“The Station Process” continues with the mundane horror through its use of obscure puzzles. Radio chatter from your workstation is sometimes unsettling, and you’re left to decode messages whilst someone, or something, would appear to be stalking outside in the blizzard. The episode is not without its highlights but by the end, when the game takes a bizarre left turn into a walking simulator, (and not a particularly good walking simulator at that), it’s hard not to feel like the game has lost what was its primary charm by no longer welding you to one fixed location.

The final episode, “The Last Session” sees the entire game brought full circle. It’s hard to talk about this episode at all without spoilers, but suffice to say the biggest problem is that the game tries too hard to tie its four episodes together into a neat little bow. The ending twist isn’t so much a shock as it is “that’s it?”, with the twist itself being predicted long before the game tries to deliver it with an emotional punch.

The issue here is that by the end of the game, it’s lost all of its weirdness. Operating on some strange throbbing heart in a lab, or exploring an ominous abandoned house whilst also playing a video game are creepy precisely because they’re weird and because there’s not really and context to why you’re doing it. That lack of context is what makes it unsettling. By tying everything together so neatly, too neatly, the game undermines what makes its opening half work so effectively.

There’s other issues here, too, it must be said. Whilst the game tries its hardest to emulate the awkwardness and clunkiness of early text adventure games, it’s sometimes too clunky and obscure even by ‘80s standards. The game rarely seems to grasp synonyms, meaning sequences can grind to a halt as you type multiple different word combinations, waiting for the right to work. And nothing quite kills fear like boredom.

Other puzzles suffer from needlessly obscure elements as well. Part of why “The Station Process” isn’t as good as the previous two episodes is that so much of it involves reading text that’s far to blurry, even when you’ve zoomed into it. There’s a sense it’s deliberately like that just to make these sequences more challenging, except it doesn’t, it just makes them more annoying.

Lastly, whilst I appreciate the nods to Stranger Things and classic ‘80s weirdness, it all feels rather tacked on here. Bar the obvious ‘80s text adventure format, (which the game becomes less and less reliant upon as it progresses), there’s not a whole lot of reason as to why it has that style, other than as a gimmick. With an opening that plays out with a bloopy synth score, it’s clear what the developers were aiming for, but I can’t help but shrug my shoulders and go “so what?”. Stranger Things works because the time and setting are intrinsic to the story being told. By contrast, Stories Untold's nods to ‘80s culture are more like a flavour, a coat of paint, that’s rather inconsequential to the story that it ultimately decides to tell.

It’s hard to actively dislike Stories Untold, primarily because that first episode is so effective and so damn good. It’s hard to dislike the rest of it, too, because there’s some great ideas amidst all the chaff. Stories Untold is a case of a simple concept losing that simplicity as it expands and not being as effective as a result, and no amount of nostalgia pandering is going to cover that up.

At the very least, play through “The House Abandon”. Just prepare for disappointment if you dare to venture any further.


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