Reviews March 16, 2017

Stories Untold

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Reviewed By: Kenneth Seward Jr.
System: PC  
Genre: Adventure
Rated: N/A
Players: 1
Cost: $9.99
Release Date: 02/27/2017
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: No Code

One of the scariest games I’ve ever played was a texted-based thriller called Sleuth. First released back in 1983, Sleuth placed players in the shoes of an investigator looking to solve a murder. This was done by searching through rooms in a large estate, interacting with objects and questioning guests. Once the player can identify the murder weapon, the murderer and the room where the murder took place, he or she will then round everyone up and accuse the culprit. Easy right?

Well, of course it isn’t. Not only is it tricky to figure out who did what – you must keep up with everyone’s stories to find out who is lying –  but you also have to do it before the killer takes notice. Obviously, they don’t want to you solve the mystery; your snooping about the place paints a giant target on your back. After you’ve started interviewing different suspects, the game will alert you that the killer is growing more and more suspicious. At one point, they’ll even start stalking you. What makes it scary is the lack visual/auditory information you’d get from more recent games, forcing you to use your imagination. As time goes on, the tension rises as your mind tries to deal with the idea of being stalked. And then, like a well-timed phone call to a fearful Drew Barrymore, the end is signaled by an alarm and bright red text explaining how the killer murdered you.

Now you may be wondering why I’m writing about Sleuth and/or what it has to do with No Code’s Stories Untold. The reasons are simple. For one, I wanted to explain how a text-based game could be scary without talking about the plot from Stories Untold. And two, note that at times, Stories Untold provides a more thrilling experience than one of the scariest games I’ve ever played.

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Stories Untold is a game with four text based adventures disguised as a compilation tape of sorts. The aesthetics scream creepy 80’s TV show as each “episode” begins with the same opening though they feature completely different stories (the font and musical score are reminiscent of Netflix’s hit show, Stranger Things). An overarching theme connects all four adventures, making way for a secondary plot as you complete each one. And…that is about as far as I want to go when it comes to a synopsis. Majority of the fun comes from trying to figure out what’s going on and how or why things are happening.

Strange things (heh) will happen while you play, some of which break the 4th wall in disturbing ways. This is mostly seen in the first adventure, The House Abandon. When it beings, you (the player and the protagonist) will be sitting at a computer playing a game called The House Abandon. The story will type itself out across the old CRT monitor, explaining how you’ve come to the house. From there, you’ll be able to type in key phrases to move things along. Typing “get out of the car” or “open the front door” and pressing enter will have the game shoot back a detailed description of how these actions were completed. At a certain point, the game within the game will start saying things that are a little too real.

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What’s great about Stories Untold, is that unlike Sleuth, the fear doesn’t just come from our imaginations. Things happen apart from the writing on the monitor; the opening of a door, for a second, fooled me into thinking that someone was behind me while I was playing. There’s also voice acting, harrowing music, and jump scares – none of which overshadow the innate eeriness of a text-based game. This results in a genuinely creepy 2017 version of a game from this genre.  

Unfortunately, some of the fear dissipates as you move through the later adventures. Some of this is due to the stories’ being broken into a series of puzzles. They aren’t especially tricky, but what’s needed to solve them often makes them more difficult than they should be. One of the adventures has you entering codes found on micro-film, which are hard to make out given the poor lighting and fuzzy images. Zooming in helped a little. Still, some numbers and letters resembled each other, unnecessarily prolonging the process.  

There’s also an issue with word recognition. For some reason, Stories Untold is strict on what words do what (or anything for that matter). It’s an old problem for text games in general but here it’s made worse by how specific everything tends to be. Typing in “go around back” doesn’t work while “follow the lawn” sends my character to the backyard. Even more baffling, a “check the backyard” might’ve resulted in a “I don’t understand what you’re saying” response. Mind you, the hints that were given told me to go to the backyard (like, the word backyard is in the description of what the game wants me to do).

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Constantly entering commands that don’t do anything or, in the worst case, cause you to accidently loop back to a room/object with a similar description to what you’re look for, acutely sucks all the tension away. Things would have been better if all of the adventures were structured like the first one. That’s not to say that I didn’t ultimately enjoy the experience. It just means the Stories Untold isn’t as amazing as it could have been…

Gameplay: 8
This text based adventure can send chills down one’s spine. The overly difficult puzzles and word recognition problems hurt the experience though.

Graphics: 8
The retro vibe is great,  the Stranger Things-like theme sells it. There are some hiccups when it comes to visual cues needed to solve puzzles.

Sound: 8
The music and voice acting was decent. The ambient sounds helped with immersion.

Replay Value: 4
There are some visual tricks that help to explain the hidden story. But they aren’t significant enough to cause one to replay the game if missed; basically, once the mystery is solved, there’s no point in replaying, at least not for a very long time.

Final Score:

7