Review: Stories Untold

Last Updated on August 10, 2020

The stories unfold

Warning: Major story spoilers ahead

Stories Untold was a horror/science-fiction, first person narrative adventure game developed by indie studio No Code. It created quite the buzz among interactive fiction communities around the time of its release. When you look it up, the first thing that pleased the eye was the bold, red logo. Its depiction of computers, that existed before most of its audience, floated across the screen. And there was the oh so familiar sound of 80s synthesizers.

It was developed as a four-episode series. It attracted several crowds: Generation Xers, parser enthusiasts, midnight gamers looking for their next favorite first person horror game, and Stranger Things fans attracted to the logo and pleading for more aliens and pulsating synthesizers. I fit in between parser enthusiasts and gamers hungry for spooks at night. But I’m not brave enough to play games during Witching Hour and I suck a lot at parsers. And I stopped watching Stranger Things by season two because I forgot my Netflix password.

Is There an Interactive Fiction Revival?

I bought Stories Untold during a Steam Winter Sale because I was attracted to the interactive fiction horror genre, and it was one of the few parser games I knew I was going to be able to beat at least once. Parsers are a niche medium in the Millennial generation, especially for the millennials who are born closer to Generation Z. It was one of the first text-based gaming genres that birthed classics such as Oregon Trail and Zork back in the late 70s. One of the oldest forms of gaming involved reading, minimal graphics, and typing in commands. I barely remember Oregon Trail. I’ve asked early millennial family members and friends if they remember Zork, and they do. But I don’t think they would ever play it again. I’m late to the genre and I still haven’t beaten Anchorhead after discovering it almost 4 years ago.

Stories Untold harks back to an era of gaming that began a new storytelling medium, while also preserving the complexity and visually cinematic interactivity that most people of that generation would have been vibrating with excitement if they’d gotten it before us. It pays tribute to several game mediums, genres, and eras. The series is also probably one of the few modern parser games to reach mainstream audiences. After all, most parser fans these days are writers of the genre.

Eventually, developers will embrace this new approach to the parser genre. After all, you can’t code in 3D graphics into Inform 7, which is one of the main design systems for parser games these days. But there will always be that one person who still clings to stark, white screens and limitations. But there is nothing wrong with that either. People do need to be reminded that gaming once was a much more exciting way to read a book.

Cursed Computers and Hauntings Beneath Your Desk

Stories Untold is not your usual first-person narrative game. Rather than the typical walking around in expansive environments, opening doors, collecting notes, and searching for the horrors and mysteries; Stories Untold simply places the nightmare right in your hands. And you must dissect it with your own problem-solving skills. Each episode takes place in at least one room. You are presented with a computer or host and a keyboard, then you press the power button (or someone or something else did), and voila, there is a parser game for you to “play”.

The first episode of Stories Untold. Beware of the shrieking.

In “The House Abandoned”, you are presented with a computer that oddly resembles a TV more than a desktop.  By its own initiative, it decides to unleash ear piercing electronic screeches and a screen of stark red and white 1-bit pixels that form a haunted house.

The puzzle of the game is simple. You get out of a car, and you are at a house that you fondly remember living in. There is nothing here that provokes any bitter feelings. But since your family moved out of the house years ago, you must find the key and turn on the electricity to restore the original feeling of “home”. When you finish exploring the dormancy of your house – a quite literal giant time capsule of your life – you return to your childhood bedroom and find your old computer and a giftbox with a game cartridge of “The House Abandoned” inside. So you plug the cartridge into your computer, which seems to beat the game, by simply turning on a game of “The House Abandoned” within “The House Abandoned”.

Soon after, lightning strikes the electricity in the real world, and you’re shrouded in darkness. “The House Abandoned” restarts. But there’s a twist: you are no longer in a tranquil house. You are surrounded by steel walls, the red numbers on your clock read “00:00”, the portraits of your family are blacked out, and someone or something writes “1986” in blood as you try to make sense of this dilapidated home you were suddenly thrusted into.

“The House Abandoned” makes an obvious tribute to Silent Hill. You cannot pretend that the feigning of normalcy, the fall into steel walls, rust, the taste of iron on your tongue, and the dissociation of the original self is not a tribute to the influential J-Horror. But nonetheless, “The House Abandoned” is a lorification of lying to yourself, suppressing the true narrative of trauma in your life, and finally getting the tightest grasp around your neck when you try to revisit it.

This is the only episode of Stories Untold that falls into traditional jump scare tactics. But the atmosphere is still genuine due to Omar Khan’s cinematic synthesizers. The parser game ends with “finally” after you type profusely, “it was my fault”, which echoes in your head when you get to the next episode, “The Lab Conduct”.

The second episode where you blow up someone’s heart and then you say “oh shit” to yourself.

“The Lab Conduct” shakes up the game mechanics, you’re no longer playing parser, this time you are addressed as “Mr. Aition”. You are expected to  twist knobs, press buttons for the right pressure and sound waves. You are a volunteer being supervised by scientists who apparently were too scared to perform this experiment themselves. You must read a manual and follow the instructions given to you on a computer. It’s a bit confusing at first, as you have to get used to pacing back and forth between the manual on the computer and the machines before you.

 After fiddling with the X-Ray screen and turning up the sound wave settings, you then find out that you are experimenting on a heart from a person or creature unbeknownst to you. Soon after, you blow up the heart and instead of being told that you’ve ruined the experiment – despite that it was the scientists’ fault –  you are told to stay as a host to the experiment and get possessed. The spirit of this heart’s owner is contained in a floating orb with a flashing red light and you’re told to gaze into its eyes. Much like “The House Abandoned” you are then presented with a parser game that allows you to navigate the last living moments of this displaced spirit. It is revealed to you in shrieking flashbacks, a woman walking through the halls of a hospital.

“The Lab Conduct” plot twist seems out of place compared to “The House Abandoned”. By now, you start to figure out that maybe “The House Abandoned” isn’t about a dysfunctional family, but rather that some kind of force is trying to dominate you into doing its bidding. In this episode, this being may be a victim of humans, as you refuse to listen to the authoritative scientists whilst under possession and decide to rescue whoever is taking up space within your head. You are then told, “One day, this will haunt you” before it cuts to the credits. Due to the technology that is present, this takes place at least a decade or more after “The House Abandoned”. Another possibility is that this spirit is from an alien and may have been a result of whatever happened in “The House Abandoned”. But it’s not quite clear.

In this episode, you get to play with the weird morse code signals you hear in “Gyroscope” by Boards of Canada.

In “The Station Process”, Mr. Aition’s given name is revealed as James. You are now wearing a heavy coat and sitting in front of a computer in Greenland. Due to the blizzard building up strength, you lose contact with other stations and you must translate your comrade’s radio sequences to ensure the rest of the team that they are alive and well. After sifting through microfilm, playing with radio signals, and getting into contact with every station, you find out that there is more than just the wrath of mother nature pounding on these flimsy walls. There is something roaming the frozen landscape, as everyone is warning people to not leave their station despite the chance of entrapment.

But you leave your station and your friends seemingly give up all hope and plead for you to make sense of this harrowing situation, “Tell them what happened” as you try to realign the transmitters to preserve connection with the other stations. Then when you return and finally find some warm shelter at a station, you find the same computer desk from “The House Abandoned” within.

This episode was the hardest for me. And is the longest episode recorded due to how difficult it is. The puzzle requires the use of sifting through microfilms, listening to radio signals, decrypting numbers, and plugging in codes. Those who are not familiar with morse code or like reading through text for answers repeatedly will spend the first 20 minutes lost. I had to use a guide for the sake of not making a video 2 hours long. Despite that, it was an interesting episode and I never thought I would ever have to sit back and listen to morse code to solve a puzzle.

Where you wake up and find yourself in therapy.

Finally, “The Last Session” begins with the usual opening screen that you watch with every episode. Floating tapes, TVs, computers, and then the game logo unfolds before you. But this time, there’s a pause, and you realize that this is the opening credits of a TV show. This is when Stories Untold gets metaphysical and all the pieces come together, revealing one big pile of lies and spare tools with no partners.

You are sitting on an armchair with a tape recorder in front of you. You have undergone several therapy sessions. But you refuse to tell anything but fictional stories from the Stories Untold program sheathed in its tape box on a table before you. You’re encouraged to hit the record button in the intervention room and gaze into the laser lights of the orb from “The Lab Conduct”, and get transferred back into the room from “The Station Process”. This time, you fill in the password input with words that were circled on the microfilm, which are “OUT OF ORDER”, “FATAL ACCIDENT”, “EMPTY WHISKEY” on a police report about you. “The Last Session” repeats previous game mechanics and rooms. You must perform “The Lab Conduct” again, except now you’re assisting a surgeon. You then play “The House Abandoned” again after a hallway sequence. The only difference is that now you get answers, and not whispers blaming you for failures unknown to you.

In “The Last Session”, you are still James Aition. And you have done something horrible and unforgivable. Each episode was meant for you to reconcile yourself to that fact, but you chose not to several times. All theories the players previously had are debunked. James Aition isn’t an alien. And he isn’t being chased by one. But he is haunted and isn’t innocent. His hands are stained bloody. He made it out of a car crash that killed his sister with a concussion and bruises. It took him way too long to accept this sin.

The game ends with James seemingly coming to terms with his crime and deciding to watch Stories Untold all over again, despite claiming that he can’t stand to watch it anymore.

Killing Your Own Theories and Button Mashing

Stories Untold received generally positive reviews because it hits the notes of every audience: nostalgia, horror, and guilt. James Aition killed his sister in a car crash. He knew that he was drunk. But he decided to drive her anyway because he felt that was his duty as a sibling and as a person deemed a failure. But when he crashes and kills his sister, he chickens out and places the evidence on another casualty instead of owning up to it, proving to society once again that he is a perpetual failure. James’ decision to tamper the scene he created shows that he cared more about himself and not the grace of his deceased sibling. This ending hits differently than most stories about guilt because you’re not even sure if you should feel bad about James Aition. His sister haunts him throughout the game. And he is forced to admit fault, but his denials made the bucket heavier.

I was disappointed that James Aition wasn’t really an alien or being captured by one! Stories Untold leaves a lot of unanswered questions. This floating orb shaped bot that leads you throughout the game is not a piece of technology that existed in the 80s or even now. The parser games were a manifestation of James’ consciousness that is plagued with guilt, death, childhood, and vintage horror TV shows. But I have a hard time accepting that this whole game was merely James projecting his guilt on TV shows. I really do want to believe that the government had decided to use James as an experiment for alien technology to invade his body and force out a confession, that his brain and body is being filled with alien blood and memories. But I guess I can’t have every story my way. Stories Untold is still one of the best narrative adventures games produced, with brutal visuals and meticulous design that leave players mouth agape and scrunched brows. But there were a few key issues I had with the game.

This game was likely coded in Unity C# with some plugins or homebrewed code. The parsers functioned well. But having to see the text refresh and repeat itself gets annoying after a while. I don’t understand why they couldn’t make the text bigger. I feel bad for anyone that played “The House Abandoned” and has near-sightedness. There were also times when I began button mashing in frustration because while the puzzles seem simple, they’re not. Parser games are infamous at times for having vague environments and actions. And you spend time button mashing every command you can think of.

The parser game in “The Last Session” is a perfect example. I’m not a parser aficionado. But I hate when parser games have specific commands and answers and then expect the player to figure out you are supposed to type exactly “Talk to Jennifer” when she’s not even mentioned in the room. You will also find instances of me button mashing in “The House Abandoned” because I could not figure out how to turn off a clock in a parser world that is ringing in the real world of Stories Untold. I know it’s about pushing your imagination. But there were times, as you can see in my playthrough, where I just fumbled for the right words. I spent a vast majority of my playthrough with a walkthrough opened on my iPod touch. Again, I’m not in denial that I am bad at parser games. But there are times where I just wish parsers weren’t literal computers and they understood human language just a little better.

This next nitpick is personal. A very classic deficiency in Unity-produced first-person narrative games is the cursor not staying within the screen while you move around. My recording of “The Last Session” is crude enough to begin with. But there is a freeze that occurs because I accidentally clicked out of the game while walking through the hallway. One can say, “Just be careful”. But I was going to be angry if I accidentally exited the game. My cursor hovering over the exit button was much scarier than me picking up tape recordings in the hallway. I did not want to replay the beginning of “The Last Session” for the 3rd time because I accidentally exited the game while walking through one of the dark hospital rooms to look at a shelf. 

What actually made me restart “The Last Session” two times, to the point where I  almost considered not playing the game anymore, was a game breaking bug that occurred while you were performing as a surgeon’s assistant. I do admit that the last time I played “The Lab Conduct” was almost a month ago, which is why I scrambled and hit the wrong buttons, trying to appease the surgeon. But I have no clue how a bug that basically freezes the game because you didn’t click the right buttons in the right order would fly over the heads of the QA team. I googled and apparently it was not just me, several people on Steam have complained about this infamous XRAY bug. The only way to fix it was to restart and be very mindful not to turn on the drill before turning off the radio signal and flipping to XRAY on the screen. If I didn’t use a walkthrough and kept pressing the wrong buttons in the wrong order, I would have kept encountering the bug. But I didn’t give up. I finished my playthrough on the 3rd replay.

Deserving of Praise

Despite one game breaking bug and some personal quirks, Stories Untold does deserve the praise it got in 2017. I hope that No Code produces a sequel or at least something similar. The graphics, storytelling, and music production is up to par, but I wish the ending weren’t only slightly above typical. Stories Untold could possibly be about some of the military experiments that began in the 80s but it isn’t extremely obvious at first and to add to the creep factor of the game, this will remain unanswered.

I highly recommend the game for interactive fiction and narrative game enthusiasts, but I wouldn’t recommend it for people who hate puzzles and for people who have the unfortunate talent of predicting plot twists.

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