“One day, Mr Aitian, this will haunt you.”
Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: Feburary 28, 2017
Weren’t the 80s great? A perfect little microcosm of wacky neon culture, bad haircuts, and technology becoming more household-staple than hopeful futurism. There was an air of mystery that home technology brought to families everywhere. But none were as mysterious, or had as much mystery projected onto them in 80s popular culture as computers, and by extension computer games. Stories Untold brings the technological mystery of that wonderful decade into modernity. A classical horror game, broken up into four distinct chapters that I can only describe as a modern Twilight Zone text adventure that will occasionally break its own rules just to screw with you.
Now if you want to go into this game as blind as possible, I suggest you stop reading now, buy the game for 10 US dollars, and play it. It’s a solid 4 out of 5, you can knock it out in around three hours, and have something to think about after you’re done.
Stories Untold mostly has you in command of a computer screen and a keyboard across the four varied chapters, typing away to make the scene move along, occasionally interacting with various machines and notes in the scene around you to clue you in on what it is you actually need to type. From a house that’s more than meets the eye, to a Numbers Station high in the snowy mountains of Greenland, the four episodes of Stories Untold are individually unique yet share one common theme that I hadn’t experienced in a game, experimental Twilight Zone text adventure or otherwise.
This is a game about guilt. Deep, unrelenting, unforgiving guilt. The excellent narratives that each of the chapters weave with that one theme are sublime. For example, the first chapter, “The House Abandon”, has you sitting in someone’s bedroom playing a text adventure game on an old 80s computer called, fittingly, The House Abandon. The chapter uses the text adventure format to craft a fairly simple story about how being away from your home and family can be somewhat selfish. The chapter then turns that narrative on its head into something far more menacing, which we’ll get into later. No game I’ve played has tackled guilt, especially in this fashion, and it’s great that games are experimenting outside of conventional themes.
The talented folks at No Code have lovingly recreated the 80s aesthetic with a capital A. Screens flicker while the text on them flashes and fades. The nu-digital tech of the decade is modelled and textured to the highest degree. Even the “bleep bloop” soundtrack is as much a loving homage as any 80s nostalgia piece out there. This should come as no surprise considering that lead dev, Jon McKellen, previously worked on Alien: Isolation. His technical achievements as UI designer for Isolation translates spectacularly to Stories Untold, nothing is put to waste here.
Gameplay is pretty minimalistic here, you spend most of your time in the four episodes sitting in a chair staring at a computer, typing instructions to machines that you can sometimes interact with physically. Knowing text-adventure language for these bits is a plus, as the game sometimes has trouble figuring out what you want to do. It’s not game-breaking, but there are a couple of moments where you’ll have to figure out another way of saying “GO TO [THING]”. Other times you’ll be using the computer in front of you to read instructions on how to operate funky 80s lab machinery, or figuring out how to work a microfilm reader so you can read instructions on how to work the radio to punch in number codes on your computer. All of these present their own challenges and tension-building moments, which is a feat for a game where you’re predominantly staring at a screen within your own screen.
This isn’t to say that computer-staring is all there is, as each episode can and will break genre to ramp up the tension, keeping you on your toes and then hitting you with a new thing to worry about, be it a new puzzle element or entirely different gameplay. This could easily have been jarring but Stories Untold’s…stories do these changes in gameplay in a way that is surprising, but also terrifying. Going back to the first chapter, “The House Abandon”, the theme of guilt is mild at first, as you’re playing a text adventure about coming home in the bedroom of some unknown house. Things get freakier, however, when The House Abandon game suddenly has you controlling the actions of someone inside the house. You type that your character turns on the power and the lights come on, you get him to go upstairs and you hear muffled footsteps outside the bedroom. You type “OPEN BEDROOM DOOR” before the screen starts screaming at you in all-caps about how it’s all your fault. What’s all your fault? You’ll have to play to find out.
The horror element of Stories Untold is slow, methodical, and unpredictable. I won’t go into too much more detail than I already have as it’s absolutely something you should experience for yourself, but the game’s four chapters do it beautifully and tackle it in their own individual ways.
Stories Untold is short but packs a punch and is definitely worth your time, a small indie experiment that works and a profound 80s nostalgia trip not seen since Stranger Things.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Final Recommendation: It’s like a Twilight Zone text adventure set in an episode of The Twilight Zone. What more do you need, really?