I didn’t think it would be long before the ’80s supernatural thriller genre that Stranger Things reminded my generation of would make its way into gaming. Stories Untold is an anthology of four “episodes” that at a glance (I haven’t played it yet, I do these opening paragraphs before touching the game, since recently) wears its inspiration on its sleeve.
The trailer promised a more or less static experience, with a lot of sitting at desks, so definitely atypical gameplay even for a narrative game. Plus, hey, it’s published by Devolver Digital so let’s just dive in and see what’s what.
Stories Untold: Windows PC [Reviewed]
Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: 27 February 2016
Price: 9.99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Stranger Stories Untold
Well, that was definitely a unique experience.
Stories Untold is framed as four episodes of a fictional Twilight Zone-like show from the 1980s. The first one, titled The House Abandon was originally published for free by the developer No Code as a stand-alone project late last year and it puts the player in front of an old Commodore 64-style HC playing an old text-based adventure game called, you guessed it, The House Abandon. During this stage, I grew increasingly frustrated with the game’s refusal to play along with what I, in my vast experience playing old text parser adventure games, considered standard commands, shorthands, synonyms and so on.
While it does have a high tolerance for typos, the game does require you to be very specific about your commands and do each action separately. You can’t just “go inside”, you first need to “get key”, “walk to door”, “unlock door” and “open door”. This was annoying at first, but I let it slide because Stories Untold uses a lot of the action description for pacing and tension. By the half point of the first episode, I was thoroughly hooked and creeped out.
The second episode’s framing offers a shift in game play, as you’re a scientist in an experiment room with a bunch of machinery and a manual on how to use them and obtain the correct parameters. The experiment’s coordinators explain that you have a sample you’re to expose to various stimuli and give you the instructions and parameters you need to achieve. This is not what I’d necessarily call challenging but it’s a bit more interactive than the first episode as you’re given direct visual feedback on what happens.
The third episode is by far both my favourite in terms of design as well as the most frustrating in terms of puzzle difficulty. You are in a weather station, monitoring radio frequencies during a storm. You have a microfilm manual you need to focus on, magnify and read in order to know what to do with the frequencies you are told to monitor and what to enter in the computer. There’s no time constraint, but the narrative manages to build tension nonetheless, as you try to decipher Morse code, mistake 0s for 8s in the blurry microfilm and keep going back and forth between your desk and the manual. It also features the game’s first sequence in which you walk around in first person.
The fourth episode is where it all comes together. Saying more would be spoiling.
The whole experience that is Stories Untold takes around 2-3 hours to complete and I’ve only run into trouble solving puzzles once or twice, nothing notable. The assets and textures are not the best looking but at the very least they’re serviceable for what the game wants to convey. The CRT effects on the monitors are a nice touch. In terms of sound design, I loved the opening theme that accompanies each episode which, as I mentioned before: synth wave. My jam.
I’ll get my major gripes out of the way first. Besides my problems with the text parser’s fickle nature, I also took issue with its unskippable sequences. Several times you’d have to revisit previous locations and the game would make you wait out while it sequentially renders entire paragraphs of descriptions you’ve read before, without allowing you to speed things along.
The first person sequences could do with some improvement. At the time that I’ve played it, the mouse sensitivity was off the charts (a common issue among Unity games) and there was a tiresome blur effect on the entire bit, but as I understand it, those problems have already been patched out at the time of writing, which is always nice to see.
My issues with Stories Untold were largely technical and are being fixed by the developers as I’m writing this piece. There are some design flaws that tend to break the flow, but I’d say that they account for less than 10% of the experience. While rather short at around 2-3 hours, the game does make up for that with unique takes on familiar gameplay elements and tropes and manages to tell an intricate and compelling story in a very interesting way.
Some of the puzzles and challenges, while not time-sensitive, will ask you to invest a bit of your brain power in solving them and it all builds up to a satisfying pay-off. Stories Untold tries something new and succeeds at delivering something fresh in terms of interactive storytelling (emphasising interactivity, rather than just narration). That its aesthetics and themes reminded me of Stranger Things is purely a bonus.