Switch version tested
As an 80s baby my favourite games growing up were text adventure games, even when those flashy console things started to invade I stayed true to my trusty Commodore 64. Then years of spilt lemonade took its toll and I fully went the way of the console warrior, but to this day I still miss the gentle clickity-clack of typing “Go Door” and “Use Tinderbox” and seeing the cursor blink back that profound message; “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
My textual tipple of choice back in the day was Inceptor Micros’ Karn series. The thrills, the story, the graphics…
Then taking out the end boss with an on fire magic carpet (spoilers!).
So when I see something that’s going to get my nostalgia glands going, especially something that promises text adventures of a creepy kind, naturally I’m going all in!
Developed by No Code, the team who gave us the critically acclaimed Observation, and published by Devolver Digital, Stories Untold is an episodic puzzle adventure game which mashes sci-fi, horror and psychological thriller genres with text-adventure and point and click gameplay.
It’s not an epic yarn and can be completed in around 2 to 3 hours. Each of the 4 episodes are around 30 to 40 minutes in length depending on how deep you want to dive, and they all open with a title sequence created by Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert, so you’re left with the sense of sitting in to watch a Netflix boxset.
The series is set in 1986 with each episode set across different locations. The House Abandon is a purely text-based game set in the protagonist’s old bedroom. The Lab Conduct is a point and click and text adventure set in a science lab. The Station Process is another mix of point and click and text, set in a weather station, and The Last Session is an amalgamation of gameplay set in a hospital.
It’s difficult to pin point my favourite episode, but I think The House Abandon is very much up there. The Futuro 128k that the protagonist uses is a barely legally distinct copy of an old ZX Spectrum 128k +2. As a Commodore 64 fanatic I cannot tell you how delighted I was to hear the frantic digital squeals of an old school game loading up, like R2D2 having a wild relationship with a dial-up modem.
As simple as the first episode is in comparison with the others, the slow build of tension is phenomenal, the sense of dread made worse knowing that you are rooted to the spot typing into your Futuro. The fourth wall breaking in this episode adds to this sense of dread as you play through a dark reversal of the initial cheery start and you start to notice subtle environmental changes. The photos on the desk, the grime on the lamp and the message on the wall, reflecting what’s happening in the game. It’s a brilliant touch, although some of this detail can be missed if you’re playing this handheld.
The Lab Conduct and The Station Process both reminded me of old school sci-fi horrors. The experimentation on an unknown alien object reminded me a little of Quatermass and the Pit and the unknown threat in the arctic conditions of The Station Process started giving me The Thing flashbacks.
Both these episodes are quite similar in their gameplay. This time you can switch from a single viewpoint of a computer to other equipment in the room so you can interpret what it is you need to do. They share a similar plot of an unknown, possibly extra-terrestrial threat, and it’s also the first time you hear any dialogue as you follow commands and respond to other characters.
The puzzles in these episodes are not hugely complicated, and they reminded me a little of Observation as you flick from manuals or microfiche documents to help you input the right command or do the appropriate task. I preferred The Station Process as the tasks felt more involved and complex in comparison to the ones in the lab. There was something satisfying in tuning in to coded radio messages and then spooling through response procedures, flow charts and Morse code tables to input the correct information.
Episode 3 is also the first time where you can walk about, although given the circumstances you actively do not want to go out in the snow when the time comes. Some have criticised this episode as being the weakest, and while I would agree it may not be the strongest, it’s the first major indication that nothing is what it seems in this game. The end of this episode is a horrible confusing revelation, almost but not quite on a par with the “Would you kindly?” manipulation, and if you’ve been paying attention things start to slot into place in a tremendously satisfying but dreadful conclusion.
The final episode I can’t adequately do justice to without revealing major spoilers. Like all psychological thrillers this episode is all about the plot twist and that as protagonist you have been an unreliable narrator all along. It creates such a sense of discomfort and unease when you realise what the inevitable conclusion is.
I say inevitable because again some players may resent the railroading toward the end of the game. But this is a game all about guilt, the all-consuming kind that we desperately try to ignore, so the game forcing you to accept something makes perfect sense and ties in with the overall narrative. It also means that the game achieves what it set out to do, that slow burning dread which has ebbed and flowed through the earlier episodes now comes to fully claim you as you realise what’s coming. It’s horribly effective, and much like the character I was playing, I actively tried to avoid it.
If you find the ending a bit on the preachy side, maybe that says more about you than the game itself. It’s a cautionary tale, and not an entirely unfamiliar one with a few tropes here and there, but it’s still well done.
Once you’ve completed the game, you realise how good the set up was and I’ve played through it twice now to fully appreciate the hints planted early on. I also wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and there were a couple of text-based options that I didn’t do early on which were worth replaying.
Moving away from the story to the actual gameplay itself, the decision to add complexity to each episode is I think a good one. Just doing basic text adventure gameplay could potentially get dull, and on a console it’s quite an odd thing to control. Entering text generally feels like picking dialogue options in a RPG and can get very repetitive. The point and click sections are a welcome change, however the cursor control can get a bit fiddly when you’re using other machines that need a bit more precision.
In terms of design there is a sort of flatness and simplicity to the graphics, but there are some details like the PAT testing stickers on the scientific equipment in Episode 2 that I absolutely love! If I’m being an absolute historical stickler I’m not entirely certain the green PAT labels were a thing back in 1986 but it’s still a nice touch.
The voice acting is generally pretty good and I’d recommend playing this game with headphones or the sound on as there are some audio clues and bits of noise-based storytelling that are worth tuning in to.
Stories Untold came out on PC in 2017 and even though this Switch port is good, it can get fiddly and frustrating on the point and click sections and it feels like a keyboard and mouse would be a better option.
There was one moment where I had to look up a puzzle solution because it felt too entirely random, but overall the puzzles are generally self-explanatory and the stories are clever anthology of unease and apprehension with an absolute gut punch at the end.
For £8.99, or one month’s subscription of Netflix, this is a box set I would encourage you to binge.
TBG Score: 8.5/10
Platform: Steam, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 16/01/2020
No. of Players: 1
Category: Adventure, Other, Puzzle
Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Download link: eShop