FBT was expecting a fun romp through his 80s childhood.
Stories Untold is worth telling, but to describe the plot is to ruin it – and undersell it. And make a mess of it. The topline is it’s a simple narrative puzzler with adventure and horror elements. The bottomline is it’s like piecing together a dream that is actually a nightmare.
Split into four seemingly unrelated episodic parts, we’re unseen characters sitting at a computer. That’s it. We’re sitting down playing a game playing a game while sitting down. That’s about as clear as I can be...
Stories Untold oozes 80s horror but that’s just a decoy - once you realise what you’re really in for, you’re intrigued, compelled to figure it out. It left me moved, and angry. It’s an incredible piece of work; I was glued to my desk – both in game and in the real world.
In the first episode, The House Abandon, we’re seated at what looks like an Amstrad Spectrum 128k +2 with the built-in cassette player. I am home. Well, my childhood home. As is the character. A text-based adventure game loads up, and the in-game-in-game character is also returning home. At first it’s great, then I wonder if it’s great just because I’ve fallen for the retro-feel; I’ve tried to replay those actual games on a Spectrum emulator and always immediately give up. About a minute of ‘you’re at a crossroads’/‘turn left’/'you can’t do that’/’look left’/’I don’t understand’/'go left’/'there’s no left turning’ and I give up.
But eventually I slip into my old 80s mindset of learning the verbs and adjectives the game will anticipate and soon I’m exploring the house. But why? Is this it, did I just buy a text adventure? Is this one indie hipster game too far? But there is something foreboding – the text describes the house in an almost fairytale-like way, a forced happiness; I start to notice odd little things, references and comments that don’t add up. Then the character in the game finds the same computer my character is using, and the same game we’re playing... Oh. Oh… ohho…
When you type ‘play game’ within the game within the game (still with me?) it’s not the happy childhood home, it’s describing a rundown house filled with horror and I find myself hesitating to type ‘look around’, I start to hear noises; wait, they're corresponding to what I’m doing onscreen. I type ‘go upstairs’ and hear footsteps coming up the stairs. Whoa. A text adventure is freaking me out...
That was not just some text adventure. It was frustrating at times but fathoming the text actions, where and what to look for was part of the experience, and once it went Twilight Zone on me, it became something else. And that's about all I can say without spoiling episode 1. Episode 2 though...
As I start episode 2, ‘Lab Conduct’, I’m nervous. I’m seated opposite an old computer and some experimentation equipment. I miss my Amstrad Spectrum 128k +2 with the built-in cassette player. That was comforting. Ep2 seems unconnected but I’m now wary it’s going to go sideways at some point.
We’re some kind of lab assistant, aiding an unseen voice experimenting on ‘Artifact 23’, sealed inside a test chamber. I turn dials, press buttons using the manual to figure out what the voice wants, wondering what’s happening inside the box. Then I start to overhear the voice discussing me, as if we’re actually the one being observed, like some Milgram Experiment. It’s unnerving but not as compelling as House Abandon – that is until … well, I can't really say. Not because I'm being spoiler-free but I just don't know what happened, other than its cool and intense and scary AF.
Ep2 isn’t really a puzzler, the manual explains each experiment so you’re just pressing buttons, but we’re here to experience the event, not solve it. It’s largely the same for ‘Station Process’, the third episode. It has The Thing vibes; we’re in a radio monitoring station in a snowed in area, and it’s our job to relay signals by decoding messages which the radio voice intimates is part of some increasingly serious world event. While something outside tries to get inside. I’ve decided this is all aliens experimenting or invading or I’m on their spaceship or … I have no idea. All I know is, this is like trying to recall a dream, or a drunken night where you have an awareness you did something stupid and you’re not sure you want to be reminded.
Ep3 is perhaps the least exciting one from a gameplay perspective, going to a microfiche to figure out a code then relay it, but the building threat and Cold War vibes trigger weird memories of Where The Wind Blows, and naturally we have to go outside – the first time we’ve stood up – and it’s actually terrifying. What’s out there, how does this all connect? Episode four has some explaining to do.
Episode Four, The Last Session really messes you up. We’re in a hospital, told we’ve been in a coma, that we’re mixing up dreams and reality, that none of this is happening. I’ve seen enough 80s sci-fi to know that’s not truth. My money’s still on aliens.
Episode 4 is like a flashback where everything slots into place and the truth is revealed, but rather than some quick montage we have to relive every moment as all four episodes interlock and reveal their purpose; you can't trust anything - even the menu. Back at that Spectrum – who would have thought a text adventure would be so gripping - it becomes unbearable, hard to read, difficult to type as it all starts to make sense.
Untold Stories requires you to do little more than unlock what is untold, yet there’s something incredibly compelling about it. It is pretty much just a disjointed narrative but the way it’s told, through comforting 80s refs and settings, hints and connections, it keeps you completely off-balanced, nervous, even scared; especially when you start to figure it all out. It’s incredibly effective, and that’s before you get to the reveal which leaves you haunted.
Never thought I’d find a sitting sim exciting. I bought Stories Untold based on the Stranger Things-inspired cover (it’s designed by the same guy). I was left shaken and shocked by what it explored. The way it delves into certain themes is extraordinary. I’m so glad it wasn’t aliens. Or was it … sit and find out for yourself.