Stories Untold is an interesting piece of storytelling that draws obvious inspiration from Twilight Zone, Black Mirror and, most recently, Stranger Things. It uses distinctly 80’s aesthetics and technology to tell four separate yet connected stories. Unfortunately, while it’s an interesting experiment, the themes don’t always work together as well as they should.
Stories Untold has four episodes, each being unlocked by playing through the previous episode. Each one is short, taking only an hour or so to complete. Even less if you race your way through. Each episode usually involves you sitting in place and performing various instructions given to you. The first episode has you play through a text adventure while the others give you various pieces of equipment and instructions on how to operate them.
That’s the biggest problem with Stories Untold: the gameplay. While there is some initial novelty with regards to playing a text adventure within a game, it wears off FAST and the slow trickle of plot just isn’t enough to keep the game interesting. I found myself thinking of The Stanley Parable often and not in a good way.
The text adventure portion of the game is alright although it’s almost entirely linear and is often unclear in what it wants you to do. At the very beginning, the game tells you how you drive up to your old house and it looks great. I started trying to explore the house and look at the house and enter the house but the game said it didn’t understand what I wanted to do. Turns out, it didn’t understand me because it needed me to get out of the car first.
This wouldn’t be a big deal except that the granularity of these text adventure puzzles changes frequently. At some points, it’s perfectly acceptable to simply type “Go into Bedroom” but other times, the game requires you to first “Unlock door” “Open Door”, “Go into room”. In the screenshot above, simply starting the car isn’t specific enough, you have to first put the keys into the ignition, start the engine, release the handbrake and then drive. I believe these sections are meant to create tension but the effect for me was oftentimes the opposite. I knew where the story was going but I couldn’t figure out how to get the game there and it just caused frustration and further boredom.
If this was the whole game, it would have been fine. The frustrations with the text parser were minor compared to the sheer boredom of the other segments of the game. The other segments plop you in a chair and have you follow specific instructions given to you by someone through a radio by using an instruction manual. It is every bit as tedious and boring as it sounds.
You’ll be given instructions such as “Perform an X-Ray”. You then must go to the instruction manual, flip through until you find the instructions on how to setup the X-Ray machine. You’ll probably also need to reference a chart showing which machines are which unless your random 80’s tech knowledge is much more robust than mine. Bounce back and forth between the manual and this pile of machines, performing the requested steps and then click a green button. Rinse and repeat several times.
To make matters worse, at least one section is either extremely misleading or straight-up wrong, I can’t quite figure out which. In the above section of the game, there are general instructions in the manual that say to turn off any machines that aren’t part of the current experiment. This isn’t entirely true as the camera on top and the TV monitor have to stay on throughout the entire section of the game, even when the instructions don’t tell you they are needed. The game doesn’t tell you this and after about 20 minutes of fiddling, I wound up having to look online to determine what the problem was. I actually restarted the game since I thought it had glitched.
Stories Untold isn’t really about the gameplay, though. The gameplay is really just there to further the story and the story isn’t bad but it isn’t perfect either. The pacing is too slow and it’s initially unclear if there is any connection between the episodes. You seem to follow the instructions, some type of horror event happens and then it abruptly ends without any explanation. It isn’t until the end of Episode 3 that anything suggests these are more than standalone events. That means you have to play through several hours before anything starts to even make the smallest bit of sense. For a game all about pressing whatever button it tells you to push, this is too long.
While things do eventually come together in an interesting way, one issue I took with the story was that the 80’s aesthetic is ultimately meaningless. Yes, the story takes place in the 80’s but it could have taken place at any time and it wouldn’t have changed anything at all. Shows like Stranger Things or games like Gone Home use their setting to evoke an atmosphere and perhaps engage in commentary about the times. Reflecting on how things were different then versus now or playing on our perceptions of those times. Stories Untold doesn’t do any of this. It simply uses 80’s technology because it takes place in the 80’s and that’s it. If there is social commentary or if the aesthetic was trying to make some point, it went completely over my head.
Stories Untold isn’t a bad piece of fiction. It does have an interesting story to tell but it takes too long to get there and the gameplay it forces you through feels like a slog. If you have run out of narrative games like Gone Home, Tacoma, Dear Esther or Firewatch or if you just desperately crave more 80’s, then Stories Untold might be worth your $10. Otherwise, there are better games out there.