You may have noticed something recently. I have been reviewing a lot of point-and-click adventures, four of my last six reviews in fact. There’s a good reason for that: I’m in love with the genre. But I’m aware that I’m starting to get a little too comfy, and I want to try something different. In an attempt to cattle prod myself out of my comfort zone, I’m going to dip my toes into something I really don’t play an awful lot of….a horror game! *thunderclap*
Well, it’s kinda horror. Certainly scarier than 99% of the stuff I play. Grab a bowl of popcorn and get ready to wash it down with my squeamish tears: here’s Stories Untold.
Developed by Glasgow-based studio No Code and published by behemoth Devolver Digital, Stories Untold is…erm…very hard to define. The game’s own Steam page describes itself as ‘a narrative-driven experimental adventure game’, which incorporates elements of text-based adventures as well as a little point-and-click influence. The gameplay is divided into four parts; each subsequent part becoming unlocked on completion of the part preceding it. These parts appear at first glance to be unrelated standalone stories, but they are in fact all linked together in some way. The tagline is ‘4 Stories. 1 Nightmare.’ *gulp*.
I don’t want to read too much further in for fear of scaring myself off, and I want to go into the game more or less blind so I can provide my pure, initial thoughts and feelings on the gameplay. So I’m going to stop prevaricating around the bush and butter this muffin.
If I can get the butter on my knife, which is hard with trembling hands.
I start the game and click on the first chapter: The House Abandon. Immediately the opening sequence commences. It’s an amalgam of rotating close-up shots of antiquated hardware, including retro computers, tape recorders, a CRT television with wooden panels….and an electric drill. The alarm bells in my head start ringing. The music is a huge throwback to the eighties; the golden age of movies with awesome synth soundtracks. You know what I’m talking about: Escape from New York, Bladerunner, Scarface, all of them heavily featured synthesizers in their musical scores. Stories Untold, with its choice of music and curious montage of retro AV equipment, feels like an homage to the eighties time period.
The sequence ends and I have a first-person view of the old TV and computer sitting at a desk. What’s noteworthy is that the line between CG and FMV is extremely blurry, as the desk contains framed photos of actual real-life children, and the graphics are incredibly sharp and polished. There’s a desk lamp, a corded phone on the wall, and unquestionably eighties wallpaper. You cannot look around the room, your view is fixed. The TV starts whirring and beeping and a game loads up: The House Abandon. Looks like fun! It’s a text adventure game, something I have never actually played before. As the story on the TV begins, I type in a few commands. The feedback from the in-game keyboard is almost deafening; huge clunky keys that audibly resemble a typewriter. In addition, there’s a deep thrum of bass that acts as background noise, which causes the immersion factor to skyrocket. This honestly feels like me sitting in this room, playing this old-school text game.
[WARNING: Very mild Spoilers (beginning only)]
As I write, my words appear on the TV and the story progresses. Everything’s cheery and light-hearted, we’re controlling a guy who has returned to his old and tenantless family home to spend a couple of nights. I spend a little while getting to grips with the basic commands: use, look at, read, open etc. The pause menu contains some helpful advice to get you started. I rattle along, explore some rooms, everything’s going great.
Then something happens which plants the first seeds of unease deep into my psyche. I’m choosing my words carefully here because I really don’t want to reveal too much. The best way to describe it is that the lines between your character sitting at the computer and the character he’s controlling in the text-adventure become…blurred. First come the vague stirrings of mild anxiety as you make the connection. Then, very quickly, the horror takes a firm hold like an oily claw gripping your stomach. Full disclosure: I played the last ten minutes of this chapter in the fetal position, watching through my knees. It’s an extremely disquieting and unsettling experience; not abject terror in the style of Outlast or Silent Hill but the intensity is in a class of its own. Then the chapter ends, and I take a deep drink of sweet respite. Only three more to go!
Chapters two and three feature more point-and-click elements, and in three you even get to stretch your legs WASD style. Though not as scary as the first, they still nonetheless continue the deeply disturbing theme. At an outward glance, the three chapters do appear to be unlinked and standalone tales. Finishing the third chapter I still had very little clue as what’s actually going on, and the overriding story into how the tales are related. The only thing they have in common is the idea that the character in each one is not as detached from the transpiring events as you might think.
But the fourth and final chapter is, in a word, masterful. Like a Michelin star chef, it manages to blend together what appears to be a mish-mash of discordant ingredients into a harmonious and immensely satisfying end product. Though no less intense and disturbing than the first three, we finally learn what connects the chapters, as well as the tragic nature of the story itself.
I’ve come away from Stories Untold with two seemingly ambivalent emotions: sadness and awe. Learning what set these events in motion left me reeling. But I’m also astounded at how adept this completely unique, unprecedented narrative technique was at conveying one single story. There’s seemingly no cohesion. No structure. No continuity from one chapter to another. You will spend the vast majority of gameplay time attempting to come up with theories and ideas about what’s happening. They will be wrong. And yet, by the end of the game we know exactly what has happened. It’s a one-of-kind storytelling experience that has to be played in order to be fully understood.
As I mentioned before, this is not my usual bag. I avidly enjoy mysteries and adventure, but when those mysteries start to get a bit too real and the fear factor gets cranked up, I tend to split like a waistband after Christmas. But Stories Untold was different, something I attribute to the disjointed but inextricably linked nature of the chapters, and the special way in which the story was told. Parked on Steam and GOG for £6.99 I believe it to be well priced for the three-ish hours it’ll take to complete. But you will not want to play it just once, oh no. On finishing, I had the unshakable urge to go back and play again, and see how many references, clues and hints I could pick up on my second playthrough. Any game that does that to me is winner in my book. A truly unique title unlike anything you’ve played before. Just…remember to have stuffed toys/sympathetic loved ones/bespectacled coconuts at the ready for support.
Letter grade: A+
Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to check out my twitter to be kept abreast of new review alerts, and let me know your thoughts if you’ve played/plan to play this title. Until next time,