Review by Harvard L.
You’re using an old, text-only computer called the Futura – it’s the early 80’s; synthesisers are all the rage and science fiction is all you see on television. This is a game in the vein of The Twilight Zone, where reality is not what it seems and technological advancements always seem to encroach upon humanity’s predestination to hubris. Developed by No Code, a team with talent sourced from the terrific Aliens: Isolation, Stories Untold is a narrative game channelling the text-adventures of old, with some incredibly clever ideas that get put to remarkably sinister ends.
It’s hard to explain what makes Stories Untold great without spoiling the experience, so players who love stories that get under their skin with mind-bending plot twists would do well to avoid any more press and to play the game blind. This game fills the much needed niche of horror games which are best enjoyed on your lonesome – there’s a special quality about reading through Stories Untold in a dark room, with only the game’s clacky keyboard sounds to keep you company, which gets sullied if there’s another person in the room with you. No Code cleverly uses its first person perspective to draw the player into the narrative, lulling them into a false sense of security and then subverting their expectations in order to create fear.
This game isn’t afraid to take a walk on the metanarrative side either. Especially in the early episodes (and I don’t recommend reading other reviews of the game, because a lot of them spoil the first episode), the concept of the player as an agent is put into question. Exactly what are you doing, by playing this game? What are the consequences of the actions you undertake? And do these actions make you, the person on the other side of the screen, vulnerable? No Code twists the expectations of gaming as a medium to dazzle and disorient the player, conveying its narrative in a way I’ve never seen done before.
The narrative is carried along by some phenomenal graphic and sound design. The game’s insular, claustrophobic nature means that the developers can concentrate their efforts: every little detail looks exactly the way it should, and everything from colour to light to movement is choreographed perfectly to evoke an emotional response. (As a sidenote here, people suffering from epilepsy should beware, because there will be a strong strobing effect at some point.) The sound is similarly superb – little things like the gentle whirr of machinery or the howl of a strong, distant wind go a great length to immersing the player.
The game also seems to have an obsession with authentically recreating the technology of the 80’s, and subjecting players to the tedious and archaic mediums of the past. Throughout the course of the game you’ll play with CRT’s and radio tuners, primitive computers and obtuse software. It’s frustrating but also quietly enlightening, and the whole experience is to make the player feel like they’re in an unfamiliar environment where anything can happen.
And then there’s the ending. You see, so far Stories Untold is great – it perfectly replicates the Twilight Zone style open ended narrative with lots of speculation and no easy answers. The fourth chapter, however, seems to forget this ethos and veers wildly in tone and structure for no other reason than to feel like an “ending”. It’s incredibly difficult to discuss my feelings about it without ruining the entire game, so I’ll just say that it left me deeply unsatisfied, and did not provide adequate payoff to the novel and ambiguous universes which the earlier chapters conjured so vividly.
The other shortcoming to this game is that it tends to feel shallow when under scrutiny. Much of the game is a straight line, funnelling the player into exactly the moments the developers want, and in doing this No Code misunderstand the adventure games from which Stories Untold takes so much inspiration from. The appeal about old text adventures were that you were encouraged to try everything – to solve puzzles based on your own ingenuity and to see what little secrets were hidden by the developers. In Stories Untold on the other hand, there’s only ever one or two key phrases which will advance the game, and the “look around” command is interesting but only in specific moments.
The game’s puzzles are similarly lacking; they’re mostly just about reading a set of instructions the game gives you, and then following the procedure to a T. I understand that this can be argued as a positive, that the game wants you to feel disempowered, but my suspicion is that the puzzles are there as a lengthening exercise, and as a cheap way to let the player play a role without letting them have any say in the narrative. It means that Stories Untold is functionally a kinetic novel which occasionally stops everything to ask some comprehension questions, which I worry will be a disappointment to anyone expecting a proper text adventure experience.
After playing each episode twice, and with much regret do I write this, I find that Stories Untold is a bit like a magician’s illusion – it dazzles you the first time you see it, so much so that you absolutely must see it again. But the magician won’t do the trick again; he won’t let you watch him from a different angle, he even gets defensive when you ask for a closer look at the playing cards or handcuffs. Thus, the spell is immediately broken. I’m particularly reluctant to give any spoilers because surprise is so crucial to enjoyment of this game; without it, the game has trouble setting mood and the puzzles are sure to test your patience.
What could have been something lasting, something real, is instead a two dimensional narrative which brandishes plot twists and visual trickery to camouflage a lack of rich storytelling. Nonetheless, I would still highly recommend Stories Untold to writers and game developers: there are ideas in the first few episodes which are fascinating, and I’m dying to see where No Code’s metafictive experimentation might take the text adventure genre.