Stories Untold Review 2017-03-30 12:55:24
The free release of The House Abandon on itch.io last August caught on slowly among horror enthusiasts, eventually developing a solid following. It wields the aesthetics of an old text adventure–right down to the computer itself, which is positioned on a wooden desk next to family photos, giving you a ‘game within a game’ perspective–and twists them into something horrifying.
The Lab Conduit starts strange and does not let up.
An updated version of The House Abandon headlines Stories Untold, a four-part horror anthology about poking around with old technology until that technology pokes you back. It’s the simplest episode in the package, tasking you with typing in commands that will be familiar to anyone who has ever typed ‘use key on door’. Straightforward, simple instructions (‘move to hallway’, ‘check note’) are typically all you need, although it requires you to be quite precise with your wording, sometimes irritatingly so. For the first half of The House Abandon you mentally map out your character’s family home, where he has returned for what seems like a much-needed holiday. Things take a turn when you find your old computer in-game, and load up the game inside of it, and The House Abandon goes a bit Inception on you – you’re playing a game within a game within a game, but your actions start to reverberate right back to the first layer. To say too much more, or to talk about how much the game manages to do with its one static fixed camera angle, would detract from its effect.
It’s a great introduction for the collection, where all four episodes focus on the aesthetics and potent strangeness of older technologies. The episodes move between different settings, but the setup is always the same – you’re sitting in front of various pieces of technology, and you need to figure out how to interact with them to move forward. Most of the time you have access to only one or two areas, which you can flit between with the tab key, and your actions are limited to clicking and pulling at objects with the mouse or typing commands. There’s a strong sense of being trapped, of your fate being inevitable and tied to these old, dying pieces of technology, that Stories Untold feeds off of. Taken as a whole, these episodes elegantly explore the central tension of many horror games–that the player is the driving force, and able to stop playing and put an end to their fears at any point. One of the major themes running through the anthology as a whole is that the horrors visited upon the player are avoidable, and that you’re bringing them upon yourself through your actions. Finishing each episode means pushing forward well beyond the point where it makes sense to do so, but that’s not a bad thing–the tension ramps right up when you start to feel yourself heading in a bad direction. In this way, Stories Untold is an introspective game, one that seems keen to examine the horror genre just as much as it wants to exist within it.
The House Abandon is the scariest part of the package, but the second and third episodes–The Lab Conduct and The Station Process–are both more engaging and difficult. Both involve manipulating various apparatuses with the mouse, while reading in-game manuals that give you instructions for different operations. They’re entirely focused on flicking switches and twisting knobs, on recreating often awkward physical interactions with digital artefacts, conducting mundane actions that ultimately bring about horrifying results.
In The Lab Conduit, you’re operating on a mysterious heart that pulsates from within the box it’s held in. It’s a strange set-up that retains its mystique over the episode’s hour-long playtime. You follow instructions from a bored voice over a PA, flitting between the equipment provided and the instruction manual, which is stored on a creaky old black-and-green monitor. Eventually the episode twists in a brilliantly odd direction, throwing lots of concepts your way at once and asking you to try and digest a sudden influx of knowledge. The actions the game requires of you can be quite mundane and a tad repetitive, but the outcomes, and ever-increasing strangeness of your situation, imbue actions as simple as turning a dial with real tension.
In The Station Process, you’re monitoring activity from a snowy research base, tuning your equipment to pick up increasingly panicked radio broadcasts from the other facilities. This episode offers the compilation’s most challenging puzzles, requiring you to navigate your way through a painfully laid-out manual, twisting its orientation and shifting zoom and focus with knobs and sliders to figure out what to do next. A cold wind rattles the windows, and it becomes increasingly clear that something awful is happening outside.
These two episodes are Stories Untold at its best. They do a great job of evoking the weird mechanics, the soft hums, and the awkward controls of the old devices you’re interacting with, and they both unfurl into fantastic, thought-provoking narratives. They’re not scary, but they’re shocking in ways that, again, would be spoiled if I revealed too many details. The Station Process ends in such a strange, exciting way that I went into the last episode with extremely high hopes.
Unfortunately, The Last Session–the fourth and final part of the package–is the compilation’s equivalent of that one film in every long running horror franchise that decides the viewer needs an explanation for why all those awful things happened. It’s the instalment that fails to recognise that the first three were successful, in part, because they were vague and mysterious, their weirdness left to fester in the player’s brain. The Last Session mixes gameplay elements from all the previous episodes, but it’s more focused on narrative than the puzzles themselves. By trying to act as a conclusion to the whole package all it manages to do is confirm information many players will have already gleaned, and give unsatisfactory answers for questions that were best left unasked. It’s not without some cool moments, but part of me wishes I had stopped after three episodes.
Stories Untold’s first three episodes are very effective as retro horror vignettes, though, and the fourth can’t undo that. This is a unique package with a strong sense of identity, one that finds a new, exciting way to weaponize nostalgia. Just know that you might not look at the old Spectrum or Commodore 64 you’ve got packed away in the attic quite the same way again after playing.