It feels odd to be reviewing an 80’s style adventure game in 2017, but well, here we are doing just that. Nostalgia centric entertainment has been all the rage of late, with shows like Stranger Things tapping into the memories of 30 and 40 somethings in the Netflix crowd. Indeed, the rave reviews and hugely positive feedback that the cast and crew of Stranger Things have received means it should be no surprise that others try to tap into the same ideas that have made it so successful, which is where Stories Untold steps in.
Of course, it’s not entirely fair to simply say that No Code, the developers behind it are simply jumping onto a bandwagon here indeed, other than the fact that the games cover art is by Kyle Lambert the same artist responsible for Stranger Things poster, and the shared nostalgia that both Stranger Things and Stories Untold evoke in those of us old enough to remember the 80s the similarities soon end. There are no childhood friends here, no Demogorgon and no powerful little girls who have escaped from research labs. Indeed the story of Stories Untold starts with an online game jam, known as Ludum Dare #36, where developers from around the world race to get a game concepted and completed in a scant 72-hour window. Many of these developer jam events utilise themes to help provide focus to the dev teams taking part and to prevent the kind of mental blocks that having a completely blank canvas can often create, it just so happens that Luden Dare #36’s theme was ‘Ancient Technologies’. It was during this Jam, feeding from the inspiration provided by the theme that No Code came up with ‘The House Abandon’, one of the four text adventures that make up the content of Stories Untold. For those wary about dipping their toes into buying a game like this, The House Abandon is still currently available from itch.io
An Eerie Sense of Nostalgia
Right from the onset you are immersed in 80’s nostalgia, from the font and artwork used for the game’s logo and box art, which are reminiscent of 80’s horror novels and TV shows, through to the games title sequence and synth based music, the member berries are insanely strong with this one. This is also prevalent throughout the games UI, since No Code have taken an interesting choice and instead of just putting the game directly onto your screen, they sit you at an authentically modelled desk, with an old 8-bit Spectrum like computer – the Futuro 128K, an old wood grain effect, colour CRT TV which has the same flickering interface as seen on a game that No Code helped contribute towards, Alien Isolation. A digital alarm clock, wall mounted corded phone and lamp also adorn the desk. This helps to really reinforce the waves of nostalgia, since there is every chance many people growing up playing computer games in the 80s may remember a vaguely similar set up. Everything, from the dodgy wall paper, through to the eerily familiar looking family photos that adorn the desk has been perfectly designed to drive home that nostalgic feeling.
One of the problems with reviewing this game is as much as I want to try to explain why this is a successful title, its honestly best left to the individual to experience. It’s akin to trying to explain VR to someone who hasn’t used VR, for all the analogies and comparisons you can use. The game is episodic, but fully self-contained, with each episode merely being another adventure game that is loaded up, however it goes a tad deeper than this, since not only is each adventure interlinked, but according to the in-game fiction they are the remains of a long cancelled TV series of the same name, with each game having not only its own credit sequence, but also its own locale, meaning you quickly leave the comfortable cosy environment of your childhood desk and move to other locals, such as a science lab, or library. As each location changes so too does the nature of the game, moving from simple text-based entry to point and click, each new game playing on the equipment you have access to in the UI to modify how you interact with the specific chapter of the adventure itself.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Stories Untold is how it draws on and replicates games of the 80s and brings them to life in a way that is not only exceptionally clever and modern, but also very sympathetic to the limitations of the platforms of the time and the game play choices that had to be made because of them. The games UI is very much a part of the overall experience, without giving too much away it becomes very apparent that things aren’t quite as they appear to be, with in-game events reflect occurrences in the UI itself, from flickering lights, through to the adventure describing noises that you the player can hear even going as far as the games UI being controllable from the adventure game itself.
Clever, Thoughtful Game Design
The use of the surroundings as part of the games UI is an incredibly clever touch. It’s such a simple trick to use something that appears to be static to provide a sense of unease to a player as the surroundings subtly change and morph, add to this a reminiscent/nostalgic outlook, at least while playing The House Abandon, to put the player at ease before revealing the deceit of the situation I was left jumping at sounds in my own home and feeling a deeply uncomfortable sense of dread. Indeed, it’s the use of the surroundings in Stories Untold which is what makes it so successful as a horror game while being essentially a series of humble old style adventure games. Sure, good writing goes a hell of a way in horror, being a fan of Lovecraft as I am I know that letting the imagination do the heavy lifting, rather than relying on more obvious scares can be a powerful tool, but the fact that the games surrounding UI is impacted and used to drive home what your own mind is cooking up really gets the point across in a way that leaving things to your own imagination wouldn’t in my opinion.
Of course, building the basic games that make up the four stories in Stories Untold on 80s gameplay means that some quirks are present. Those of you who have played text-based adventures for example may remember frustration at knowing quite what to input, or knowing what or where to click in point and click adventures, the games in Stories untold while being more advanced than the games they are paying homage to still play by the same rules after all, meaning that there is little hand hold and few hints to fall back on. Of course, this is something that many may see as a negative, for me, having grown up playing games of this ilk and struggling through trying to work out the exact right syntax to make my character do what I wanted them to do, or clicking on the screen randomly in frustration in the hopes that the clue to a puzzle would manifest itself I see this as a potential positive, since it really does evoke memories of playing games like these as a kid and the sense of reward when their pieces fall in to place is significant, through frustrating at the same time.
It’s with no great shame that I admit to only playing this while someone else was in the house, even if it’s only for the re-assurance that any noise I heard was likely to be attributed to someone I expected to be present, rather than someone who wasn’t. I guess what I’m saying is that No Code have done a stellar job in terms of pushing the sense of dread and fear that games of this type need to allow them to thrive. For something that was little more than the price of a cup of coffee, this was a hugely unexpected game, hitting the right nostalgic notes to put me into my comfort zone, while using the UI of the game and subtle music queues to bring me right back out of it. While the nature of the games they are paying homage to forces a certain clumsiness to the game play, this is something soon forgotten as the story unfolds and you are left at the end of the experience to reflect on the twists and turns of the overarching plot line. No Code deserve every success with this release and I would love to see what they can achieve going forwards. While the game is only relatively short, being able to be completed in around 3 hours or so, its low-cost of entry makes it an easy purchase and something that I cannot recommend highly enough, my only regret is that it had to end and that their is currently no sequel.
- Exemplary use of retro gameplay in a modern style
- Enthralling and unnerving story line
- Beautiful use of nostalgia to really drag the player in
- Due to the nature of some of the game mechanics used in the 80s, some of the games in Stories untold can be a tad clumsy at times
- Could be accused of trying to tap into the hype surrounding Stranger Things