Stories Untold was born from a creation of last year's Ludum Dare game jam. Created over the course of two days, No Code's The House Abandon stood out as something frighteningly atmospheric, unique and wonderfully metafictional.
The theme for the jam was 'Ancient Techonology'. So, of course, the Scottish team went off and created a horror-themed text adventure set in the most antique of machinery: an old CRT computer. The strangest thing; you are playing a game within a game. Sitting in an old, silent room, numerous items lay on a desk in front of you; a flickering lamp, some framed family photos and, taking pride of place, a computer booting up a video game - The House Abandon.
"[Stories Untold] is something so perfectly unlike anything else that, if this was a perfect world, you would just go and play it right now, completely blind to any of the game's mechanics, hooks or narrative twists."
The premise for No Code's first game is an incredibly enticing one – and one that surprises in many more ways than a thirty-minute game has any right to. Stories Untold is a collection of four 'episodes' that build expertly on the narrative and mechanical loops present in said game. By now, you'll have probably noticed I'm not actually saying what happens to make The House Abandon so wonderful – and for good reason. You see, the first episode of Stories Untold is a remaster of last year's game jam standout so spoiling would be improper.
In fact, it's hard to describe Stories Untold at all without spoiling anything that makes it so great – because I don't want to. Like The Stanley Parable, Undertale or last year's Pony Island, No Code's first full release is something so perfectly unlike anything else that, if this was a perfect world, you would just go and play it right now, completely blind to any of the game's mechanics, hooks or narrative twists.
Unfortunately, it's not a perfect world, and even the very best of games cost money (and I have a job to review this particular game). At first, Stories Untold just seems like a simple expansion of The House Abandon's strange take on a text adventure. It describes to you an idyllic, deserted house that belonged to your family and you must navigate your way around using simple commands you must type in: "go to house", "look around" and "use key".
From the in-game desk you sit playing at, you'll wander the house, searching through mementos and relics of a past era. Then, you'll wander upstairs to your childhood room and "look around" – an old Futuro computer sits on a desk, accompanied by a copy of a video game, The House Abandon. And then you realise; when you opened the front door in game, you heard a door downstairs open, you heard something walk up the stairs. Finally, you heard the door behind you creak open and... well, like I said, I won't spoil too much.
The House Abandon succeeds as a horror game because it works on a multi-tiered level. Doing something in-game causes something out of game to occur. It's not a monster or beast that's terrifying you - it's you. From there, Stories Untold introduces its most compelling and enduring feature: mystery. Just why do you appear to be in two places at once? What happened to the abandoned house? And who are you?
It's the mystery that comes first and foremost in subsequent episodes. Each seemingly takes place in an entirely different setting with a new narrative and mechanics. However, you'll slowly begin to connect the dots and realise each episode connects in an unexpected way and, often, loops back around into the core mechanics of The House Abandon.
"Stories Untold places a hidden story within a hidden story; a puzzle that only reveals itself once you piece together its outer layers - and it's one of the most fascinating and unique tales you can play this year."
One takes place within a laboratory, as you receive instructions to conduct an experiment - fiddling with radio waves, frequencies and lasers. Another, in an isolated research station as you tune into radio signals and analyse morse code, forcing you to take notes and work quickly. It's strikingly compelling stuff, creating numerous complex puzzle ideas that are both grounded in reality and unlike anything in other puzzle games.
It's not perfect, though. As anyone who has played The House Abandon or Event will know, having to fully type in a precise response doesn't always work. When wanting to approach the front door of a house, typing "go to front door" won't work but, oddly, "go to house" will. You may often find yourself stuck in a particular room not sure whether you're doing the wrong thing or just typing it in wrong.
As you play, adjusting to continous new mechanics and ideas, you'll notice small details and continue to connect the narrative dots up. It's then - just when you think you've put it all together - that Stories Untold drops what is, perhaps, one of the most intelligent and expertly-made final scenes I've played in years.
To say anything more would be unacceptable – I've already said too much! When you finally complete the closing and most grand puzzle it has to offer, every single sound, detail, mechanic and narrative hook takes on an entirely new meaning. Stories Untold places a hidden story within a hidden story; a puzzle that only reveals itself once you piece together its outer layers – and it's one of the most fascinating and unique tales you can play this year.