Review: Stories Untold – Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Stories Untold is an anthology of 4 small games that draw on 80s nostalgia and technology. That, and old computer interfaces. Each vignette tells a small snack of a story, with the final one closing the thread by combining the previous three into a cohesive narrative. Sort of.

stories untold banner

The first story is a republishing of previous free interactive fiction game The House Abandon. Stories Untold is often described as a text based game, but it is only in this first vignette where that really is true. Modeled after 1980s interactive fiction, like an Infocom or Magic scrolls game, it sets the stage. The game has been made immersive by having you “play” it on a computer, with keyboard clicks and flickering lights. Naturally, you are naturally playing it in the dark with your desk lamp on. Its more creepy that way.

And Stories Untold is a creepy and unsettling game. There are a few jump scares but the creepiness comes through as you slowly reveal what is happening in each vignette. Halfway through each of these stories, the game will shift and uncover something unexpected. I tried to anticipate these little surprises but I was unable to at least half the time. When I was playing the third vignette, I had given up speculating what was to come and was just enjoying the wait for the reveal.

You won’t be able to “die” in these games, so in a way it is more of an experience, an interactive story. Each story bit has its own puzzles and its own old technology you need to interact with. The worst that can happen (and it can be immersion breaking) is not knowing what to do next while some character off screen is telling you to hurry.

The puzzles aren’t really difficult, but some are tedious. In the first segment, The House Abandon, NoCode used their own text parser which didn’t include common commands in text based interactive fiction. Commands such as N,S, UP, X THE CAR did not work, but these are standard shorthand even for text games in the 80s. It took me a bit to unlearn what I was used to and learn how this game’s commands worked.

Other moments of tedium come not necessarily from the game itself, but from wrestling with the old technology which the game depicts. When I say old, I mean old within the context of technological development. I was young, but alive, when these machines were in daily use.

Most of the time, this just adds to the immersion, drawing you into these bite size pocket worlds. Each stage is better than the last, introducing some new creepy and unexpected piece to play with.

Except the last game.

(Spoilers ahead)

The Fourth Chapter: Better Untold

Throughout these four vignettes, Stories Untold is trying to tell a singular story. It isn’t until you get to the fourth part where that clicks into place, at least it didn’t for me. The fourth game has you go through all three previous games but this time, you are doing what “actually” happened.

Each of the first three games are actually a combination of events that really happened and episodes of a television show called Stories Untold. You are actually in hospital, with what appears to be severe head trauma, and the doctors have been trying to get you to remember what happened on one fateful night.

Problem is, you spend most of your waking hours in a wheel chair watching one VHS tape of this Twilight Zone inspired show, so when you try to remember things, its a bit messy.

The reason I didn’t like this last game very much is not because it re-contextualizes everything you have gone through up to that point – that was pretty clever despite being superfluous. I didn’t like it because the heart of the story is a drunk driving accident that you were allegedly involved in and that got your best friend/crush and a former police officer killed.

This premise just feels, cliche. I don’t mean to be dismissive of drunk driving accidents (many of us know people who have died in those, I have lost classmates to such accidents) but that it is such a common tragedy in media. Perhaps its because it is kind of common in daily life, or at least comomon in teenagers, or maybe its just an easy way to write something tragic. Whatever the case, I found the rest of these games so creative, that the finisher would be something so … common?

And it’s not very necessary. I enjoyed each of the previous games much more when I could speculate on what happened, imagine what it meant, what it could be. This made the experience creepier than any jump scare. With the last game tying everything together, that feeling is robbed. Scary stories around campfires work because they are small, they give a glimpse into something scary.

Have you heard the scary story about the hook man who escaped from prison? It’s a trope, yes, but works because we know so little and our imagination fills in the rest, which means we use what we are scared of and imprint it into the story.

We can do the same in Stories Untold as long as we do not play the fourth chapter.

By the end of the game, the police and doctors get you to remember and admit your crime of driving drunk and trying to frame the former police officer.

Unless…unless the untold story is what really happened.

What Really Happened in Stories Untold

What if the story is not someone trying to escape what they have done, and instead is about the doctors and police “adjusting” your memories to clear the former police officer’s name? Your family doesn’t want to see you in the hospital, but yet play number games around you as you lie there in a coma.

Why did we hit a former police officer? That was a deliberate story beat and I do not believe NoCode chose that without purpose. Is it because it would then be convenient for the police to know that this persons was not a drinker, or because the police cover up their member’s crimes? The first two games in the anthology deal with a kind of disassociate self, as if a guilty part of the character is looking inwards. Could these instead be nefarious sources trying to insert a false narrative on our guilty selves?

I am not sure this reading holds up under close scrutiny , but it would have made the last chapter more interesting. Instead what we have is an anthology with three great entries and a final one which tries to tie it all together – perhaps unnecessarily. As usual, the less we are told, the greater the mystery, and there is value in that.

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