Stories Untold (Video Game)
Developed by No Code
Published by Devolver Digital
Available on PC through Steam
Suitable for ages 14+
Aside for those of the Japanese visual variant, I don’t know anyone that gets super excited when they see the line, “brand new text adventure.” I’m aware that there was a golden age of text adventures some twenty to forty years ago, but aside from giggling my way through The Secret of Monkey Island in college my only exposure to the genre was when I played the Zork Easter Egg in Call of Duty: Black Ops. I’m not into games being deliberately retro, as it always just feels to me like an excuse to make a game shittier than modern standards demand. So it should follow that I saw Stories Untold in my Steam New Releases section and gave it pass.
And that almost happened. Even when I know a game is going to be crap, I still add it to my wishlist in case some future sale leads to an opportunity for a late to the party parody review. The game’s description as, “a narrative-driven experimental adventure game, that bends the genre into something completely unique,” didn’t do it any favors. I know I sound jaded, but years hanging around indie game designers has made “experimental” and “doesn’t know what they’re doing” synonymous in my mind. But the game had some pretty intriguing screenshots that led me to believe this might be more than your typical indie adventure game. I also just happened to still have $8 in leftover Steam credit, which was enough to pick it up at the $7.50 sale price.
After having played it, I can’t tell if Stories Untold is horribly misbranded or if calling it experimental is just too on the nose. Labeling it as a text adventure is almost dishonest. Of the game’s four episodes, only the first could be considered a text adventure. And even though you’re typing in text in order to adventure, it requires almost no lateral thinking or creative problem solving to complete. It’s better described as an instruction manual simulator. Most levels have you bouncing between a manual and some instruments, doing what the voice over the intercom says in the correct order to get to the next task. Though accurate, this clinical classification removes all of the heart that makes the game exceptional. So I’m left begrudgingly agreeing with their original description; that the game is completely unique and experimental.
Super vague, I know, but the varying nature of each episode makes the game immune to generalizations. I won’t spoil anything, but each of Stories Untold’s four episodes feel and play totally different. The first, “The House Abandon,” plays like a classic text adventure. The orange letters slowly scrolling across the black glossy monitor take up about a third of the screen, with the rest of the visual real estate populated by the desk and surrounding room. It’s an interesting presentation, immersing you as an individual experiencing these events rather than just a player of some video game. As the text begins to influence things in the room, a sense of encroaching dread surrounds you. You can’t move, can’t turn, but you can certainly hear those footsteps creeping up behind you.
The second episode, “The Lab Conduct,” changes things up significantly. Taking place in a bizarre kind of lab, you’re tasked with completing a number of tests exactly as instructed. There’s an instruction manual for each of the tests on a monitor to your left, which you can press Tab at any time to switch to and from. Some of the instructions can be rather vague (I got stuck for a while because I couldn’t figure out how to charge something correctly), but it’s easy to get through most of it. There’s a tough part at the end, but that’s mostly because it triggered my epilepsy and finishing a puzzle while losing control of my bodily functions was rough.
“The Station Process” is the third and easily my favorite of the episodes. Set in a remote arctic base, you must tune into different frequencies and decode the cryptic messages they contain. These strings of numbers, letters, and sometimes just beeps have a corresponding codeword, that will tell you what three commands to enter to execute a program. All the while, you’re given hints into some greater threat you’re working to counteract. It’s genuinely challenging, but not to the point of obscurity. This is also where the game introduces actual movement briefly, culminating in a very spooky walk through an arctic blizzard.
The final episode, “The Last Session,” incorporates elements from each of the three previous episodes to bring these seemingly separate stories all together. This is the hardest one to explain without spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that you’ll do a little bit of everything. It’s actually the easiest of the three, functioning more as an extended cutscene than an actual series of puzzles. There’s still commands you have to put in and stuff you have to do, but there’s not a lot of brain work to get in the way of Stories Untold delivering the final twists and turns.
So it’s short and for the most part not terribly challenging, but I was constantly engaged. It only took me about 2.5 hours to complete, but every minute I was hooked. The macabre horror elements and vague terrors all make the routine instruction following gripping. I had no idea what would happen when I flipped the next switch and entered the newest code. And yet the game is almost entirely devoid of jump scares. It builds an atmosphere, and refuses to betray that for cheap shock value. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments in this game that made me genuinely uncomfortable with fear. But it did that through some great world building, not startling me.
I wouldn’t recommend Stories Untold to people just looking for another zombie shooter or spooky haunted house simulator. I’m not entirely sure just who I’m recommending this to. But I most certainly am recommending it. My interest in Stories Untold was so low going into it that I didn’t even bother emailing the devs to ask for a copy. And now that I’m done, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m writing this review because I just want to tell someone how good it is. Stories Untold certainly has a story to tell, and tells the hell out of it. If you’re down for something a little different, it won’t disappoint.