Stories Untold is an adventure game quite unlike any other, smartly weaving-together elements of ghost stories and horror films to create something new and unsettling.
In August last year I wrote about a game called The House Abandon. It was made in three days as an entry to the Ludum Dare game jam and came from a team headed up by Jon McKellan, one of Alien: Isolation's designers. It appeared to be a classic text adventure, with you sat in front of a computer entering commands like 'Open door', 'Use key', and 'Look around' to explore an abandoned house. However, the deeper you got into the house and the more you investigated the stranger it all became, knocking holes in the fourth wall willy-nilly.
The House Abandon forms the first of four chapters in Stories Untold. Like episodes of The Twilight Zone, each chapter is a different adventure, seemingly unconnected from the others. All four of the stories play with your expectations of an adventure game, having you type commands into an in-game computer. But they also have you break away from the screen and interact with the world in surprising ways.
For instance, in the second story you play a scientist performing experiments on some debris recovered from a crash site. The debris is in a sealed chamber - but you can interact with it by switching on and configuring the equipment in your lab (things like an X-Ray device, a signal generator, a drill). The third chapter has you holed up in a polar research station decoding messages coming over the radio, translating Morse code into instructions to feed back into your computer terminal.
That may not sound like fun but the low-level manual labour of the stories is deeply absorbing. It's easy to lose yourself in finely-tuning the amplifier gain on the signal generator, or copying lines of code from a microfilm display into a terminal. In this way the story sidles into your mind, and realisations about what you're doing rise unbidden: a couple of moments of revelation, which I couldn't possibly hint at, are impeccably-executed.
One consistent frustration, however, is that I'd often find myself unsure of what to do next. Not because I was scratching my head at a puzzle, but because there wasn't adequate guidance. This is something I found in the original Ludum Dare entry, and was hoping had been smoothed-out a little in the full game. In older text adventure games you often had a list of verbs you knew the game could parse, which was its own kind of guide to how things would proceed. That's not the case with Stories Untold. If you haven't played a text adventure before, you may not even know to type something like 'Open glovebox'. In most instances I eventually hit on the right verb to make my character do what I wanted, but there would be times where I'd enter ten or more different instructions and just get "I'm sorry I don't understand." I did give in to frustration on one occasion and dive into the Steam Forums to get a hint. If the game just let you type 'Help' to get a list of commands, that would be a huge... help.
Another pain was knowing where to click. There are no on-screen hints of the"Press 'E' to use" variety, so there were times I didn't know whether I was trying to use something I couldn't, or clicking just next to the pixel I was trying to hit. At one point I thought I needed to turn off a tape player, and so tried clicking it. Nothing happened, so I went on a full explore of the environment, later coming back because there was nothing else I could do. Turned out, I should've clicked a millimetre or so to the right on the tape recorder. Stories Untold has a minimalist approach to things like the HUD anyway, all part of creating this unique atmosphere, but slightly-better signposting needn't have cheapened that effect.
Those niggles are minor in the context of an otherwise beautifully-focused game. Stories Untold isn't a huge adventure, over in around four hours, but that time is brimming with fresh ideas and more than a few trouser-troubling moments. I can't think of another game that has aped the pulp fiction style of ghost stories so well, at times you feel you can almost smell and taste these environments, like you're in the character's head. These stories may not be told flawlessly but, in the way they reach towards the future, they're well worth paying heed to.