Who knew a text adventure brought out in 2017 could be so engaging! I was prepared for the worst. I’d made a run for the local supermarket before booting up Stories Untold and had filled the cupboard with feel good food. I figured if I became frustrated, I could calm myself with a velvet cupcake or a cool can of lager – because text adventures can be incredibly picky about syntax, and there’s only so many ways of trying to open a box when; ‘open the box’ doesn’t cut it. Your level of interaction in these games also tends to be very restricted: You type words, and more words appear on the screen, and then you type more words. There’s a reason the newest Call of Duty game isn’t a text adventure…
Developed by No Code, Stories Untold is not your typical text adventure. Not. At. All. I’m going to try to avoid spoiling anything in this review, but my words will inevitably spoil something, so, if you like your horror and have a few quid to spend, I advise you stop reading and play through it now. Have you gone? Hello? Anyone? Good.
It becomes clear midway through the first chapter that this is not your typical text adventure. The unnamed player is sat at a virtual desk, and has just powered up a cassette text adventure game by the name of The House Abandon. It’s late. The clock reads past ten, and the desk is bathed in the sharp light from a nearby lamp. The images on the monitor flicker as they load up, scrambling to form a coherent image. The game begins.
You type your way through the horror whilst lulled into a false sense of security. The game does a fantastic job of building tension through use of sound and visual signifiers – thunder cracks overhead, and lightning flashes at the window. It sounds cheap, but it’s incredibly effective and in no way feels cliché. The horror here is deeply psychological; the lateness of the hour and the silence of the house around you whispers, ‘alone’, and I was instantly taken into this atmosphere – reminding me of my late teens, staying up into the early hours watching horror films whilst the rest of the family were away on holiday. If you listen closely, you can hear the house breathing around you.
The second chapter turns Cronenburg-esque. It’s subtle body horror that builds and builds. You’re instructed to operate a number of complex machines, guided by a mysterious voice in the other room. It becomes quickly clear that all is not as it seems. The move away from a single monitor is far from uncomfortable, and the realistic portrayal of the equipment furthered my sense of unease – and this is true too of the marvellous voice acting; real voices expressing tonally accurate speech. The third episode echoes these mechanics, and then adds more – and it was at this point that I became intensely aware that each episode seemed to offer its own specific kind of horror.
Stories Untold is a photograph developing. Each episode opens further mechanics and the puzzles become progressively more complex. It’s a narrative heavy title, and isn’t afraid of losing the player in its intricacies – I can see how this would infuriate some – but be patient. Sense can be found here. But it’s not all a steady walk to the end. There are a couple of tricksy moments where the solutions are very unclear – in these instances it’s not obvious where the player is standing, or how they can interact with the objects around them. There is a similar issue with interactivity when you step away from a monitor, but the issue is slight. Besides, adding a button prompt over a game like this would be a real shame.
The fourth episode – well… there’s no way I can talk about it without giving it away. Let’s just say it stands up as strong as the others, and brings much-needed context to them all. That said, I found the first and second chapters particularly effective – the tension here is amplified by your solitude, which dissipates as more characters enter the picture. I was holding on the back of my chair as thunder cracked in the opening chapter, and more than once I had to leave my chair in the second – it was so intense! The operating procedure really got under my skin (pun intended).
Stories Untold is an eerie collection of tales that subvert the text-adventure genre, twisting it into something unfamiliar and horrific. It’s a game that has to be played. There are a few rough edges, it only has a short play time, but it’s bang for your buck – an experience you can really write home about. The first chapter is a great way to scare the pants off friends when they come round too! I’ve now got my eyes set on anything fresh from the developers, No Code. They really nailed it with this title. Give me more!
Grab Stories Untold on Steam today!