Stories Untold is an engrossing adventure game that layers up storytelling in clever and surprising ways. With a brief runtime of just four hours, does it achieve everything it sets out to do?
This is going to be one of those reviews where I stay vague and ambiguous while trying to advise you as much as possible. Much of the joys of Stories Untold comes from going in blind, so I’m not going to take that away from you. All I had to go by was a handful of screenshots, a one-minute trailer and a positive rating on Steam. For someone that makes a concerted effort to avoid knowing too much about a game before purchase, that was plenty for me.
Booting up the game, the tone is immediately apparent. A droning synthesizer provides the main menu with an ominous backdrop as you stare at the lonely VHS case on the table. Everything about it oozes 80’s nostalgia, and while many games are adopting this style, for better or worse, Stories Untold owns it. Not only is it an aesthetic choice but it’s a mechanical one too, as you’ll be interacting with a range of equipment from that era across the four episodes. A fair chunk of Stories Untold consists of text-based adventuring but deviates in clever ways, leap frogging various mechanics as you progress.
That’s what was most surprising to me. No Code have managed to take age old gameplay and inject modern ideas for a level of inventive design that truly put me on edge. Let me explain.
The first episode, one released as a proof of concept back in August 2016, sits you in front of an old computer to play a game called House Abandon. Older gamers will definitely get that sweet hit of nostalgia as the title builds on screen, screeching and groaning with every row of pixels that appear. Younger gamers may finally understand what they had to deal with.
As you play, everything will feel relatively normal at first, you may even forget that you’re playing a game within a game. After navigating your way through the house, you’ll trigger something that flips the game on it’s head. Objects within the room begin reacting to events in House Abandon. I won’t detail any specifics but, as the game runs with this idea, you can expect to find the whole experience quite mind bending.
The following episodes are variations on the same concept but will have you interacting in a somewhat different fashion. The second episode, for example, sees you in a cramped laboratory carrying out an experiment. You’ll be flicking switches, tuning sine-waves and operating a series of equipment as directed by a manual found on a nearby computer. Like me, you’ll probably fumble around for the first few minutes as you figure out what everything does, but you’ll acclimatise eventually. There’s no failure state to speak of and you can take Stories Untold as slow as you’d like. All the game asks is that you carry out the necessary motions to uncover more of the story.
Honestly, these motions do feel like busy work at times. Often you’ll be repeating the same tasks until the story makes its next development. I will also admit that the game gets less scary with time, something I was a little disappointed to find out. This isn’t because you become desensitised to the spooks, but because it starts to make trade-offs to tell a deeply personal story.
In spite of this, it kept me heavily engaged. Stories Untold has a wide array of interesting storytelling techniques that were enticing enough that I felt compelled to carry on. The whole game is presented like a television show with a theme tune and opening credits. You could treat it as such and play one episode at a time. I ended up so engrossed in the story and concepts that I played through the entire game in one sitting. I recommend you do the same.
Where this game truly shines is in its tone and atmosphere. The warm lights contrasted against cold environments is very reminiscent of 80’s movies. The machines, in the lifespan of technology, feel ancient and clunky. Interacting with the variety of analogue and digital interfaces is very immersive and lends itself well to the experience. The mostly static viewpoints are brought to life by smart sound design that not only induces nerves, but makes each press of a button and flick of a switch have a satisfying weight to it.
This is vastly different from anything you’ll probably play this year, and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed. Yes, its a short experience, not really unusual this day and age, but its a unique one. And if you don’t enjoy Stories Untold? Well the price point of £7/$10 is low enough that it’ll eliminate any regrets.