The short story form factor, whether that be in books or the episodic content of TV programmes, has had something of a rise in popularity in recent times: programmes like the Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected gave the viewer unique individual stories set over half an hour, all framed in a sort of uber-universe of the strange. Stories Untold reminds of that format especially, as it comes complete with four different episodes with each one starting with its own credit sequence and logo. However, Stories Untold does a great job of making you feel comfortable with the format, before pulling the rug from underneath your feet and spinning it in the air. And without a word of a lie, I love it.
Stories Untold comes from the brains of those behind the amazing Alien Isolation and the most excellent Observation. It was first released in 2017, gaining a cult following and rave reviews. Now though it has popped up on Xbox One, suddenly released at the end of October 2020 without any fanfare or notice. And that’s a shame, as it would be crazy to see this gem get lost in the huge hype of blockbusters that are rolling out.
When you first fire up Stories Untold you will find four episodes to play in sequential order. The first episode puts you in a room with an old 80’s computer in front of you, complete with huge monitor. It isn’t long before you discover you are playing a text adventure about someone arriving at their home, left to utilise commands on screen; GO KITCHEN, LOOK AROUND, OPEN DOOR. The story tells the tale of someone exploring their old home, but things turn very meta extremely quickly. For instance, the text adventure you are playing may mention “a door opens behind you”, then in the actual room you are in, the sound of a door opening behind you is heard, sending shivers down your spine.
The second episode goes off in a completely different direction, whereby you find yourself in a lab taking part in an experiment. There is a monitor filled with instructions of the experiment asking you to, for instance, operate the X-Ray Machine. You then can look deep into the experiment itself via some scientific-looking machines that you have to operate in order to complete specific tasks in the correct order. Thankfully there is a manual in place, letting you use it as a guide if you get stuck, but the overriding feel is that once again things aren’t what they seem to be.
The third episode takes place in the middle of the Arctic, in what seems to be a weather station; this time you’ll be working a radio signal and making use of old code words that need to be added into a computer. For reference, it is an old-fashioned microfiche that you need to read, all in order to find clues for the codes that need to be added. As this episode progresses the world surrounding the weather station gets spooky, and strange things happen once more. In the final episode… actually, I’m not going to say any more. All you need to know is that it’s brilliantly done and has moments of excellence like those I’ve never experienced in a game before.
Stories Untold has a great visual style, one that is capable of dealing with the ordinary and switching to the unusual in the blink of an eye. It ensures that you will constantly question what is both real and fiction, all through the events that happen in front of your eyes. There is an attention to detail found in all the scenes, especially in the machines and equipment, that is perfectly designed and utterly accurate. The sound design is also outstanding, pretty much from the start to finish with an amazing score and voice-over that creates atmosphere and tension throughout.
Stories Untold is a game that has surprised me with every moment, from the change in gameplay, to the narrative reveals to looking through a microfiche again for the first time since 1989. All four episodes are very different in their approach and gaming style, but all link together perfectly, even if it will require you to play through the entirety of the game in order to fully understand why. If I had one criticism to make, and it’s hard to poke holes in a brilliant game, but it would be on the switch and translation from PC to Xbox; there are moments where the cursor isn’t as accurate as a mouse would be, failing to register clicks.
Stories Untold on Xbox One should be applauded. It’s a masterclass in storytelling and an experimental success when it comes to how you find yourself engaging with gameplay and game styles all in one package. It will turn your head inside out, but it will also leave you thinking about what has happened long after you finish. It’s helped that it also comes in at an extremely cheap price point.