One word from the spiel about Stay really caught my ear. A game about a kidnapped man, locked in a room with a computer that's linked to yours, the general atmosphere would seem to be pretty sinister. But the word that really surprises me is 'Tamagotchi.'
I'm sure you all know this but Tamagotchi is a late-90s toy/game device, shaped like an egg, containing a 'live' creature that has to be looked after. It needs feeding, cleaning, and petting at regular intervals in order to be kept alive and healthy, though inevitably at some point it will 'die' and you start over. If you ask me they're a pain in the arse but (a) I wasn't the target market and (b) the general idea of daily tasks has long-since permeated gaming in a wider sense.
Here the comparison really fits – not least because one aspect of the game is that the character you're communicating with can die. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Stay is a game of mixed styles – visual novel, multiple choice, puzzler – that is built around one man locked in a room. His name is Quinn and in the game's opening cutscene you see him kidnapped from his bed for unknown reasons, before waking up in a room that contains little more than a chair and a computer. The PC's only connection is to a chat room, where the only other presence is you.
It's a great premise, and the sinister undertones to it (who the hell are you playing as, being the obvious question) instantly give the setting an Oldboy vibe. As his only link to the outside in this bizarre situation, Quinn starts off wary but ends up typing sentence after sentence – what it's like in the room, what he remembers. Soon enough he's asking your advice, and you'll have two possible responses. Through this you can prompt him to explore the room's confines, or wait, or many other contextual activities.
As you do this, the game sometimes shows a small diagram of forking paths, illuminating the one you've just chosen to travel – an overtly game-y touch in a title that's otherwise about creating a specific kind of atmosphere, but one that also lets you see where you're having an impact. Over time, depending on your answers, Quinn will change in his attitude towards you – becoming more trusting, or more paranoid, or melancholic, or mad. One especially interesting touch is that the game distinguishes between your 'emotional bond' and how much Quinn trusts you. And so here's where the little Tamagotchi influence enters: the game runs in realtime.
After you've started a save file, the in-game clock starts ticking alongside your PC's clock. And Quinn's in that room on his own, with you his only means of communication. If you're away for 15 minutes or even a few hours he'll barely notice, but disappear for a day and he might be concerned. Disappear for a few days and he'll be pissed. Log off and return a week later, and he's either going to be furious or, even worse, dead. That's the other thing about Stay. It starts off with sinister undertones but, once you hit the second chapter, things start getting more overtly consequential for Quinn.
The final game will have 24 chapters in total (I played up to and including the third, they seem roughly 15 minutes long), and the game does allow you to restart from chapters you've previously unlocked. This matters because, much to my surprise, I killed Quinn quite suddenly in chapter two. I hadn't really been thinking about my choices much, but I pushed him to examine something, force it to move, and then when it still wouldn't budge force it again. I think he even tried to warn me. One explosion later, Quinn was gone and I couldn't help but feel that, rather than being the puppetmaster, I might be having my strings pulled.
Stay's visual design helps sell this lo-fi horror-stroke-mystery vibe thanks to a minimalist UI that concentrates on realising Quinn. You see his face in the top right of your screen, an image from the camera on his PC, and it constantly moves and looks around – the eyes are especially nice. When he does something in the room, you watch it play out from a side-on perspective or see still screens of art (hidden cameras?), and as he types a new message you watch and hear him on the keyboard. Most of the screen's real estate is taken up by the messaging client, with other elements showing Quinn's current disposition and the clock. And it all means you come to focus quite intently on this little dude.
This is a game where to go into any more detail would probably do it a disservice. A significant part of the enjoyment is watching things unfold, wondering about your own role in events, and accidentally killing Quinn before considering what you could have done differently. The way it uses time is fascinating and, given a playthrough will probably only take a few hours and it has multiple routes, seems to strike a nice balance between doing something interesting and making daft demands of people with busy lives.
I'm kind of glad that the save file I was using on this early build was deleted. I want to go back and talk to Quinn later this year. I just don't want him to realise I left him alone for months.