No Code and Devolver Digital‘s episodic sci-fi/horror adventure Untold Stories is a nostalgic trip into 80ies technology, but has a few genre surprises up its sleeve.
Stories Untold (PC)
(Scotland 2017, developer: No Code, publisher: Devolver Digital, platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch)
In The House Abandon, someone returns home after years of absence, only to find that he’s not alone in the house. In The Lab Conduit, Mr. Aition takes part in investigating an alien artifact. In The Station Process, James investigates weird radio waves outside his Arctic monitoring station. In The Last Session the connection between events and characters of the previous episodes are revealed.
Four tales of technology terror
What the four stories share is a mix of psychological horror and sci-fi, with supernatural elements going hand in hand with human drama. Due to their short playtime, they don’t have much story or character development, as plots end abruptly and with barely any explanations. If it weren’t for the final episode that ties them together, there wouldn’t be much background information to go on. This is too bad, because atmospherically, all present the player with some unsettling scenarios and unexpected twists.
The House Abandon builds atmosphere and expectations by making the player explore the house that turns into something else than what the protagonist remembers. But one doesn’t learn much about the family who lived there, the house itself or the person coming back home. While a title like Gone Home clearly takes its time for the player to get to know the surroundings and people who lived there, there’s neither much exploration or explanation of the ending.
Home computer horror
In its very short 25 minutes of playtime, one is presented with a text adventure that requires typing in commands to progress. There are a few easy puzzles, like turning on the light, but the focus is clearly on being immersed by reading creepy descriptions and experiencing disturbing breaking-the-fourth-wall scenes that make inventive use of sound and lighting effects. Suffice it to say that one won’t feel very comfortable the more one sees the lines blurring between real life and computer game.
An experiment gone wrong
The Lab Conduit offers a bit more story despite of being just 25 minutes long, but it’s still not much, not even for a short story. One is confined in a small space, a laboratory in which one has to follow instructions. Using various tools and equipment to analyze the strange object means sticking to procedures and reading manuals.
Out of control
Switching between these, objectives, and the control room screen is cumbersome, and it’s easy to miss pushing specific buttons if one doesn’t quite know where they are. Still, it makes for more varied gameplay that has a few scary sequences, playing with the player’s first-person perspective or by reading texts. Except for an obscure symbols/code puzzle, progressing in the game is smooth and even if the story ends when it becomes more interesting, it’s refreshingly different than the preceding episode.
The Station Process is probably the closest thing to a narrative, although there still isn’t much of an explanation of what is going on. With playtime of 50 minutes, it might be longer gameplay-wise, but one still doesn’t learn much about the characters. There are certainly enough creepy moments, but it’s more about the situation the player finds himself in, namely being isolated from the rest of the world, than the greater picture.
Coding and decoding
The episode offers more interaction, even if reading codes and hints on microfilms and fiddling with radio frequencies takes a lot of patience. Scrolling, zooming in and out, adjusting sharpness are all part of immersing the player, but are cumbersome tools to use. Deciphering codes requires a keen eye of observation, as every small detail counts. Typing in ever-increasing lines of code won’t be to anyone’s taste, either. One can also walk outside for the first time, but the first-person section is rather tedious, despite being atmospheric.
An unexpected finale
The Last Session is the most important episode and the most difficult to write about, as it mostly connects the previous ones and makes sense of them by providing context. It’s also the most realistic and emotional one, wrapping everything up in just 30 minutes.
Learning and doing
The gameplay is a mix of everything previous episodes made the player do, although this time it means having memorized all the mechanics, because there isn’t any handbook. In addition, the lack of clues makes this harder to complete, especially since the text adventure parts take over and rely on too much guessing at the correct words or actions.
While the episodes differ in terms of gameplay and storytelling, they still form a coherent whole, as they’re tied together by 80ies technology, be it old computers or contact via radio transmission. Unlike TV show Stranger Things, the episodes fortunately don’t fall back on piling up pop culture references on the player. The atmosphere certainly borrows from sci-fi and horror movies, e.g. John Carpenter’s The Thing, but story-wise each episode does its own thing without copying too much. The short runtime might hurt them somewhat, but as an atmospheric snippet of sci-fi/horror with metafictional elements, it works.
What is probably more interesting than the individual stories is how the medium of text adventure or interactive fiction is used, because only by experimenting with the genre and breaking its conventions is to possible to create something unique. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that there are some surprisingly effective scares that wouldn’t work in any other medium.
Dated and modern technology
Despite mostly taking place in stationary and confined settings, the graphics are detailed enough to evoke the feeling of sitting in front of all the equipment necessary to progress in the story. Even if a lot happens in small screens and the player types in commands or presses buttons, there’s a real sense of place that is made more atmospheric by visual effects. While voice acting isn’t always the best, the creepy sound design add to the subtle horror feeling. Music is excellent, too, with low-fi synthesizer tracks emulating the 80ies ambience, only without vocals.
A narrative experiment with unexpected results
At first Stories Untold seems to be aimed at fans of text adventures with its interface and to people growing up in the 80ies with its outdated technology and soundtrack. But the more one plays it, the more it transforms from a traditional game or interactive fiction into an experiment of the possibilities of storytelling. As the episodes are very short and too mysterious for their own good, with only the finale making sense of it all, it’s only partly successful in engaging the player on a narrative level.
Gameplay-wise, there aren’t many puzzles to speak of and there are a few too many instances when repetitive actions have to be performed. Still, despite all these flaws, it remains a memorable experience simply because of its tense atmosphere and unconventional genre mix.
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