Review: Stories Untold
When you break horror games down, they tend to fit into a few convenient categories. Sometimes there are real monsters to fear, sometimes you end up in their domain, sometimes you’re struggling to stop them from running amok, and sometimes they’re all in your head. I’m not going to spoil Stories Untold by indicating which road it travels, but I have to be honest that it’s my least favorite one. And if it didn’t do everything else so very, very well that might be a dealbreaker for me. Luckily, it still manages to be exceptional in every way except its story. Ironic, isn’t it?
Stories Untold is a collection of four horror-themed vignettes built around interacting with old 1980s-era technology. The first, The House Abandon, is an old 80s-style text adventure played on an ancient, boxy computer. The second is set in a science lab with plenty of clicky, chunky audio/visual equipment to play with. The third is at a polar listening station where you must transmit coded radio messages. And the fourth vignette ties it all together very effectively. Each one works a creeping unease into your activities in different and clever ways, often by toying with your perspective as you mess with antiquated interfaces.
The real hook of Stories Untold is how you play it. Not content to simply give everything a thick 80s sheen of fake wood paneling and cathode ray tubes, your primary means of interacting with the game is via text parser. Not only that, but the computers you enter your text commands on are distinct entities within the game world. In The House Abandon, for example, you’re playing through a text adventure on an old Commodore-style terminal. Instead of just showing the screen, the monitor, keyboard, desk, and seemingly extraneous details like pictures and clocks are all modeled around it.
These elements are not actually extraneous, of course, because the way this game gets you is in how your text parsing adventures affect everything around them. Your commands are obviously going to have different effects between a text adventure, scientific equipment, and code transmitters, but the story also unfolds around you as you go through the motions of your tasks. There are further forms of interaction as well which are used to great effect, and can inspire surprising amounts of dread in how they diverge from your safe typing up to that point.
As effective as the moments are in Stories Unknown, I would be remiss not to clarify that they are inconsistent in their pacing and effectiveness. The House Abandon is an incredibly strong starter and sets the tone for the game perfectly, but the scares trail off a bit from there. The second chapter lost steam for me pretty quickly, and while the third has an excellent buildup, the payoff was weaker than I expected. This is less a function of how the scares are planned and executed and more how they tie into the overall story, which for me detracted from everything that was going on.
Mechanically the game is perfectly sound, and for a text parser I found the term recognition mostly adequate. You’re not going to have a ton of options at any point, so the game is mostly figuring out what command you need to enter to proceed. The third chapter in particular has you following a lot of coding instructions that feel like a play on how linear the actual gameplay is. Still, it forms a natural puzzle system where you can divine the next line to enter based on a little experimentation and observation. I only got stuck on one line at the very end of the game, only because the parser wanted me to specify the contents of a bottle instead of the bottle itself. Overly picky, but certainly not a dealbreaker.
The only potential dealbreaker is the story, and I wish I could expand on it for your benefit but it really is best experienced for yourself. That’s really where I’d put Stories Untold, as a game that’s worth experiencing so long as you’re prepared for what may or may not come in the end. As much as I dislike the story I adored the retro aesthetic and the tactile pleasure of hearing keys clicking as I typed into the terminals. Obviously if the story lands in the right spot for you this is an excellent buy, but even if it doesn’t this is a fine take on a dormant genre that proves text parsing can still carry a game.