No Code/Devolver Digital
Genre: Text-Based Horror
Before all of the fancy graphical wonders and high-octane action sequences that developers have been crafting and hooking audiences onto in recent years, the wonders of the imagination ran free in a genre now referred to in most circles as “interactive fiction”. For anyone not familiar with these types of games, they tended to consist entirely of words describing the action and environment. From there, the player has to type out what they want to do with a series of commands or directions- want to go down that hallway to the north? “NORTH”. Think that desk might have something interesting? “LOOK AT DESK”. Everything was in your mind’s eye- for better or worse.
While the style has generally fallen out of fashion, there are plenty of folks who put together games akin to the old text-based adventures. One such group who has paid homage to the genre recently is No Code, the minds behind a moderately known game called Untold Stories. At first glance, it might look like the title card was swiped directly from an episode of Stranger Things. While it might seem derivative, though, it’s actually designed by Kyle Lambert, the artist who designed the posters for the show. Finding that out was step one to ending my hesitation about checking the game out.
Of course, amidst the ridiculous backlog hacking I’ve been doing recently, recommendations from trusted friends help pull certain titles forward. After a bit of praise from my buddy Brad over at Cheap Boss Attack (who you should totally check out, by the way), I decided to push up Untold Stories on my playlist since it seemed short and also seemed to have left quite the impression on my fellow horror gaming buff. I recently got to pop the game on and got ready to type my little frightened heart out.
Untold Stories opens up showing off four chapters that must be played in sequence. When one is completed, the next will open up. Each of them tasks you with a different objective and offers up a different take on horror that echoes some classic feeling situations. The first episode, “The House Abandon”, places the player just outside of their old childhood home just as night is falling. “The Lab Conduct” has the player at the controls of a testing lab, trying out some experiments on a specimen. The other two episodes also put you in seemingly benign enough situations.
Of course, since you know Stories Untold is a horror game, it’s easy to deduce how quickly that tends to wear off.
The real kicker to this game is that the less you know going into it, the better. Given the episodic nature of the game and how short it is (it might just reach five hours), even describing beyond the premise of each segment can start to open up the mysteries of the game. I hate to sound like I’m copping out of writing a full summary here, but I can confirm this much: the stories do have some kind of connection while still offering their own unique experience and approach to the horror genre.
At the heart of each of the episodes of Stories Untold lies the text-adventure mechanic. Each segment opens with the player at a computer. There is always some fitting motif for the scenario so that the player is technically typing on a computer that is being displayed on their monitor. By typing commands to navigate throughout the story being told through the computer on-screen, you’ll unravel the narrative of the scene and try to figure out what is going on so that you can solve the puzzles before you.
Thankfully, the game does a decent job of handholding for those uninitiated to this particular style of gaming. Offering a particular key to open up a “help” menu, Stories Untold will pop up a list of commands that can be used to make progress. In classic interactive fiction fashion, if a word or term is unfamiliar, the game will reject it. The vocabulary seems to be pretty solid for a game of this scope, though, so if you’re a little vague with your descriptions, there is leeway to be had.
The Good, The Bad, And…
While your mileage may vary on how much a game can scare you, I like to think that it takes a lot to viably creep me out. Starting this game at one in the morning, headphones in with the lights out, I made it about ten minutes in and had to stop for the night so I could continue when the sun was out or at least when I was a little less sleep-deprived. Something about the game got under my skin in a way that games haven’t for some time. Maybe it was the writing. Maybe it was the presentation of the game. When things take a dark turn in this game, though, the development team handles it with expertise. Whether you know the genre or not, this is not your typical text-adventure game.
In a mixed bag of factors, the best and worst part of the game is that it’s about the discovery of how each story builds. On the one hand, it makes for an incredibly interesting experience. If you’re a horror fan, you’d be hard-pressed to find something that doesn’t hook you in each tale. The reality of a game like this, though, is that you really can’t say much about it to entice your friends to play it. I know this is making this section much more “meta” than usual, but when word of mouth is one of the most powerful tools with the indie market, having a game that you can’t say much more than “trust me, you need to try this game” makes for frustration in doing things like- I don’t know- writing reviews or chatting it up extensively on social media.
On an impressive number of levels, Stories Untold keeps the basic visuals it has and makes them interesting to watch around your adventure. The focus of the computer at hand is well rendered and the environments feel like they would be right at home with any other game in similar genres like Gone Home. They do a great job of further differentiating the game’s chapters and making them feel more self-contained and aesthetically on point.
The sound design is great and builds off of the aesthetics in each piece to make it feel like you’re really sitting in the area being depicted. It sounds so simple, but the convincing ambient noises working with the (also surprisingly well-produced) soundtrack of the game helps a ton with player immersion. It’s a big deal with a game like this, and Stories Untold will surprise you when you think back after the credits roll as to how it works to envelop the player in its worlds. The voice acting is also very competent- when there actually is any voice acting to be had.
One part of me wants to apologize for how short this review is. I’ve probably spent an equal amount of time figuring out what to write and what not to write so as not to spoil anything. Obviously, the less you know going into any game at all will most likely enhance your experience. There should be no harm in giving a brief synopsis and chatting about particular points to sway people one way or another into playing or passing.
What I can say is that if anything in this mini-review sounds interesting to you, you should seriously consider playing Stories Untold. Once I picked up for the second time (I will repeat that I was too scared to play into it the first time), it had me hooked and didn’t let go until I had finished up all four sections of the game. Every chapter may not click with you on a genre level, but the game evolves and immerses the player so deeply in its short life that it’s hard not to appreciate it even just for what it aims to accomplish.