Stories Untold - Brutal Backlog

July 8, 2019
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

The Epic Store might just be Steam with a different face and owner, but wooing gamers by throwing quality titles at them for free is undoubtedly a shrewd marketing move. One such game is Stories Untold, which was recently in their fortnightly giveaway. I recognised its Child’s Play-style cover art immediately and vaguely recall it being raved about upon release, but couldn’t remember a single other detail about it.

Still, free is free, so I snapped it up and then immediately found that I’d bought it almost a year ago on Steam. Oh, the irony. With two copies now lined up, I guess I really don’t have an excuse not to play it.

Two Minutes In

A dim room. A monitor painfully revealing a pixellated loading screen a layer at a time. The god awful screech of the tape deck booting up a game. The blinking cursor of a text adventure awaiting your command. This couldn’t have hit my nostalgia nerve harder if it had come bundled with a stuffed SuperTed and a Push Pop.

Ah, memories.

The first episode of Stories Untold is named The House Abandon and as anyone who has ever played an 8-bit text adventure knows, the verb dictionary and its associated responses are absolutely pivotal to the success or failure of the game. While studios such as Infocom had a far more generous parser, you basically had to learn to be a walking thesaurus if you wanted to crack some of the tougher adventures on the market. Much of this was down to the memory available on the computer; 64KB of RAM might seem tiny, but you could do a hell of a lot with it back then. Then there was the engine the adventure was built on — the Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC), for instance, was far more limited in its responses than the Professional Adventure Writer (PAW). The best developers would anticipate the myriad commands a player would use and try to accommodate them all — some of them would even respond humorously to swearing (and if you have ever played an adventure as a kid and claim not to have typed “shit” into the parser… well, you’re a liar).

All of this leads me onto the question: if this is supposed to be a homage to text adventures, why the hell can’t I use the verb “examine”? The two go hand in hand. It’s like playing a Walking Dead game without a quick time event, or Call of Duty without experiencing a wave of cynicism. Instead I have to use “look at”. Seriously. “Look at”? I’m going to have to write a strongly worded letter to No Code about this heresy.

There's enough difference between each chapter's gameplay to keep you interested.

Other things missing: cardinal directions. There’s no place for “Go North” here, which is fine since it isn’t mentioned in the text. “Up”, however, is. Yet, when I’m at the bottom of the stairs and type “up”, it isn’t recognised. A similar situation happens when turning on power to the house. A note tells me I need to “fire up” the generator but doesn’t let me use that phrase. To be honest, this is all perfectly manageable. Hitting Escape gives you a list of suggested commands and you’re unlikely to stray far from those at any point. Still, it feels a bit like the presentation has trumped the experience in many respects; the atmosphere of the text at this early stage doesn’t feel anywhere near as sinister as the music is trying to portray it to be.

Fifteen Minutes In

An effective piece of meta-narrative almost made me soil myself, and I take back everything I just said about it not being scary.

Twenty Minutes In

I’ve been truly suckered. While some of my criticisms of The House Abandon could be considered valid, in the context of what the game was actually doing they are rendered almost moot. My expectations about the genre were played on and I was manipulated brilliantly. This is one of the reasons I fell in love with text adventures (and subsequently, writing) in the first place — if done right, there is something about the written word far more unsettling than visual horror, and this first episode not only excels at storytelling, but integrates the visual and audio presentation into the narrative spectacularly. For a story so simple, it is done very well indeed. Considering the story in more detail once the dust settles may lead to a slightly unsatisfactory feeling overall, but on the whole the atmosphere was absolutely nailed. Next up: The Lab Conduct.

Forty Minutes In

This story is told in two halves. The first saw me using a computer and numerous bits of lab equipment to perform an experiment on “something” in a sealed chamber. It was a straightforward enough process of matching instruments to expected values and watching the results. However, after that the episode’s focus shifts again to a text adventure format. This time though, the parser is even more unforgiving. No reference to what I need to do is given on the screen — I’m trapped in a pod and need to escape an airlock which is controlled remotely. The command I had to use referenced an object which wasn’t mentioned anywhere else and the parser refuses to recognise even the simplest of items I’ve pulled from the description. This is very, very frustrating.

The first part of The Lab Conduct is much more consistent, gameplay-wise.

Fifty Minutes In

I’ve completed the second chapter, but only by trial and error. The story has a similar theme to the first, but the reveal of your character’s role is handled differently to the text-based gameplay which was used in The House Abandon. It’s more of a visual surprise, but still as effective. Style and story are definitely trumping the mechanics halfway through, but it’s fun in a B-movie way.

One Hour In

Now I’m in a remote outpost in The Station Process, trying to decipher codes on microfiche while my colleagues on the radio talk about a loss of communication with the outside world. There is a definite Twilight Zone meets The Outer Limits vibe here, which I love. The puzzles in this third chapter feel more like something you’d get in an escape room, namely cross-referencing numbers to grids which lead to other grids, and then back to more numbers to type into a computer. It’s engaging without being exciting, though given the other stories were also slow starters I’m expecting things to ramp up shortly.

Tip: Find the zoom slider as soon as you can.

One Hour and Twenty Minutes In

I only worked out how to zoom in on the microfiche after two-thirds of the way through. I vaguely recall my home town library having a microfiche reader, but my goodness, trying to recall how to use one after almost three decades was a stretch for my memory. It didn’t help that the GUI made the buttons I needed to use look so much like part of the scenery I barely noticed their existence. Also, unlike the first two episodes, this one ended a little oddly and in a fairly unsatisfying way. The final third mixed things up from the desk-based shenanigans I’d been used to up until now, but the finale seemed to be leading directly into the final episode, given the “To be concluded” message which flashed up. On to the final part!

One Hour and Forty Minutes In

I can’t really talk about The Final Session without spoiling the game completely, but it does a fantastic job of pulling together the plot threads of the seemingly disparate chapters that came before it in a way that makes complete sense. The text adventure portion of the last part sadly suffers from the same issues that The House Abandon had, but even more so. You need to talk to people, but the description of the rooms you go into gives you barely any information about where they are. This seems to be a theme with No Code’s output; their recent release Observation was high on drama and presentation, but also suffered from poor signposting and an inconsistent GUI which left me wandering around aimlessly until I stumbled upon the right solution. However, I cannot fault what they’ve done narratively — it proves that you can tell a great story (or in this case, stories) in just a couple of hours.


Final Verdict

Despite some moments of confusion, particularly in the text adventure parts of the game, Stories Untold is a lovely collection of unsettling tales which are tied together neatly in the final chapter. Other studios should take note of how this kind of interactive narrative has been created — it’s short enough to finish in an evening, and each element of the compendium offers something different. If you can handle the inconsistencies with the interface, it will provide an entertaining and nostalgic experience.

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Worth playing? YES - it's still enjoyable today.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.