A psychological thriller down nostalgia highway!
Time, as we know goes all too quickly. One year passes into another and many technological advances have been made in a relatively small amount of time, from the very first computer all the way to virtual reality. Yet despite moving into a new century, we always come back to nostalgic influences, especially the 1980s which still influences our popular culture today, from fashion, music, TV and even video games. It seems we just cannot get enough of that retro aesthetic, and for me personally, I LOVE the 80’s!
Stories Untold has newly been remastered from its initial episode back in 2016 and subsequent full 2017 release on the PC and macOS and it does a great job of ticking all those nostalgic sweet spots. So what are these untold stories I hear you say? Well, Stories Untold takes you down memory lane over the course of 4 short, somewhat horrific episodes each with their own genre of gameplay teeming with memorable technology from the 80’s. Fans of Jon McKellan and his work on Alien: Isolation will find a similar vibe here, and for those like myself who just wish to jump into the world of Stranger Things you will feel right at home, especially with artist Kyle Lambert on board!
As the adventure you will soon embark upon is primarily a narrative-driven experience, I will, of course, keep much untold to you but certainly enough to ignite your curiosity. Stories Untold is set in 1986 spread over 4 episodes, each coming in at just under 1 hour, totalling 4 hours for a mind-bending and disquieting experience.
A well-written narrative and a good imagination is all you need to immerse and lose yourself in it
Episode 1 – The House Abandon is a text-based adventure game that is perhaps the most terrifying of them all! Not that you would imagine so, after a beautiful 80’s inspired sequence delighting your inner childhood memories with all that glorious old technology and elevating 80’s synth-wave music. Now I must say for this one, if you truly want an immersive experience, pop yourself down at a desk, turn off all the lights except for one lamp and put on those noise-cancelling headphones, go on, trust me! Why do you ask? Well, let me set the scene for you. The House Abandon sits you at a desk with a wood-panelled TV, alarm clock, lamp, telephone, a mug, some childhood photos and a superb rendition of a ZX Spectrum known in-game as a Futuro 128k +2 computer, all rendered in low fidelity. Sounds all cosy and right at home, right? And just like those great text-based games of old, the narrative for this story is displayed on the TV itself and sets the scene. You arrive at your old family home, in the dark. An idyllic place that feels good to be back. To proceed with the story you must open up the input interface which allows you to select and input instructions such as ‘Look House’ and ‘Open Door’. As with any good story worth its salt, a well-written narrative and a good imagination is all you need to immerse and lose yourself in it, of course, this here is a bit more unique and impeccably accomplished.
As you input commands and explore your home you eventually come to your bedroom, a place filled with many good memories. You set up your old Futuro 128k +2 computer and load up a copy of a new horror game, The House Abandoned (looks ace!). That’s right, its inception, with a game inside a game! This, however, is where things take a turn. As you load the game, a storm hits and the lights go out and the game reloads with the screen upside down, with a whole Stranger Things and twilight zone vibe and we find ourselves back at the beginning of our game, the same but different, such as now scored out eyes on the photographs. Now I won’t go into too much more detail here as it is very much something you need to experience yourself. It is from this point on that the episode turns into a psychological thriller, where fear and trepidation permeates the air. As the scene and noises around you change to reflect actions you make in the game, all sense of reality becomes lost as the lines blur between you as the player and you as the playable character in the game. In short, all sense of who you actually are is muddled as this first episode really psyches you out!
Moving on to Episode 2 – The Lab Conduct, the setting now turns a little more sci-fi in a run-down laboratory that focuses more on puzzle-solving and point and click gameplay. You are a volunteer assisting with a series of experiments on what appears to be someone or somethings heart. This is where the gameplay becomes a little more complex, switching between two perspectives to carry out a brief using a set of manual instructions on one desk and activating the equipment on another. These experiments, much like any require attention to detail and following precise procedures to achieve the right result. With each experiment, the tension increases and everything becomes more uncomfortable. The Lab Conduct immerses you in a new way, allowing you to become more involved in the action by constantly flicking between instructions on a computer screen then turning to activate various buttons, dials and switches on some old school equipment. I myself decided to get stuck right into the technical details and even drew myself diagrams and notes to save myself the constant back and forth, a handy tip if you find it too tedious.
Episode 3 – The Station Process transports you to a totally different setting, this time as a volunteer at a cold, bleak remote weather station in Greenland Denmark and incorporates a mixture of puzzle-solving and first-person exploration gameplay. Something is amiss, and you must work with the other stations to try and get to the bottom of what is going on, all with a broken microphone which adds to the sense of isolation. As with the previous episode, you are able to switch between two perspectives, one containing a Microfiche reader and the other with your computer and a two-way broadcasting radio. You will have to solve a series of puzzles which will see you navigating various broadcast frequencies which in turn will provide you with a code which will then need to be deciphered using code words, morse code and the phonetic alphabet in order to input an authorisation key. Now that might sound like a lot, and believe me it is certainly the most complex episode out of them all, especially when a sense of urgency and an air of disquiet pushes you to scroll through that microfilm at speed for fear of time running out. Once these are complete, however, a slight sense of relief sets in until you are asked to venture out into the low visibility landscape to complete some final tasks, where prior warnings of things lurking around make this a trip full of apprehension.
Finally, Episode 4 – The Last Session brings an accumulation of all of these individual stories into conclusion. The sense of who we are finally coming into focus as we piece together memories and fragments of our past using previous gameplay elements from the prior episodes, though some I found to be a bit too cryptic this time around. Overall, this episode serves to answer all the questions we may have had throughout this experience, however, some stories are best left untold and I cannot help but feel being left with a little more ambiguity may have been a little more satisfactory to our imaginations.
Stories Untold certainly is a unique experience and a great throwback to how games used to be, proving that a strong narrative can invoke fear and a vivid imagination without all the high resolution and open worlds.
Though it was only a short experience, it certainly leaves a poignant impression. It also leaves me with some questions and deep thoughts. Are some stories better off untold? Is it better to remain ignorant? Our psyche is such a delicate thing and our minds hold the tremendous power of imagination to create various realities, influenced by our many experiences and the media we digest. This can be used for good, to create experiences for others to enjoy, but it also highlights a real mental health issue on how our minds can shelter us from harsh truths and coping with traumatic events.