Review: STAY is Equal Measures Fascinating and Frustrating

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I’ve never played anything quite like STAY before.

Upon starting the game, you’re introduced to Quinn. He’s in a dark room, sat in front of an old PC. A chat window to you is all he has access to. He doesn’t know where he is, and he doesn’t know how he got there. He doesn’t know who you are either, and you don’t know him.

It seems to be the case that Quinn has been abducted. He doesn’t know who by, or why. And since you’re the only person he can communicate with, it comes down to you to help him figure out where the hell he is, and how (or if…) he can escape. Developed by Appnormals Team, STAY is probably best described as an interactive thriller. It’s akin to an old-school text adventure in that the game plays out via a chat window. Quinn’s fairly talkative, and the only input required is for you to make an occasional dialogue choice.

Giving the game more depth, though, is a small window mimicking a webcam display that shows Quinn’s face, and a number of gauges also measure his current mood and feelings. You can also check how your relationship is growing – a separate window shows your emotional bonding level, and how much Quinn trusts you. It starts out low, but as you progress, Quinn will (hopefully) grow to trust you more. The text is broken up by showing you pixelated cutscenes of Quinn exploring his surroundings. There’s also a number of puzzles for you to solve, but we’ll get to them later.

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Twisted Tamagotchi

STAY initially feels a little like a weird, twisted version of a Tamagotchi. Your time with Quinn is measured in real time, with one timer telling you how long you’ve spent with him and another telling you how long you’ve been away. Leaving Quinn always left me with unease – what was I going to find when I came back? Would he still be alive? Would something terrible have happened? You know, just like when you used to leave your Tamagotchi with your mum while you went to school. You’d never know what you’d come back to. (Spoiler: usually a dead Tamagotchi.)

Fortunately (and a little disappointingly) Quinn was always right where I left him. I was always glad to see he was safe, but it somewhat ruined the promise of the game that time would continue when I was away. I left him for an hour, then for 24 – and then because I forgot about the game for a few days, 72. Each time he was right there, in the middle of the conversation I’d left him. He’d sometimes acknowledge my return with a “hey, you’re back”, but that was it. We’d carry on like nothing had happened. Maybe I was just lucky.

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Decisions, decisions

What does affect Quinn’s wellbeing, though, are the choices you make. Sure, your choices are limited – usually having to choose one of two options – but they do open up branching narratives. What you choose will affect your relationship with Quinn, for better or worse, but sometimes they can have much more dire consequences, too. Like death. It’s hard to know whether a decision will be bad or good – I mean, how was I supposed to know that [redacted kitchen appliance] was going to electrocute the poor lad? Thankfully, if the choice you made does go wrong in the worst kind of way, you’re able to restart from the beginning of the chapter.

Choosing good options will further your progress through the game. Quinn will discover something new; be it a new room or a new object that could be a clue to his whereabouts. This is by far the highlight of the game. STAY‘s narrative is dark, foreboding and fascinating; you’re right inside of Quinn’s head, wondering what the hell is going on. I was constantly on tenterhooks, waiting for the next piece of the mystery to unravel. Despite being delivered in a simple way – and Quinn often going off on tangents, or nonsensically rambling – the story is incredibly effective. I desperately wanted to get to the end, to find out what was happening. There was only one thing standing in my way: the goddamn puzzles.

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Just bad puzzles

STAY‘s puzzles started out fairly innocuously. True, the first time I saw a puzzle I didn’t realise it was a puzzle for a few seconds; the game doesn’t make it obvious that your input is required. There are no instructions or button prompts. Puzzles are simply highlighted by a jigsaw piece symbol in the top right-hand corner. The first few were either obvious or easy to figure out – a block sliding puzzle, for instance, and a jigsaw. But from around the game’s half way point, they became much more obtuse and infuriating.

A couple of puzzles still didn’t make sense even after finding and using a solution online. Others – such as having to find your way through a maze of mirrors – are obvious enough in what they requirement from you, but are endlessly tedious to complete. They break the flow of the game; taking you away from your role as the stranger on the other side of the computer and placing you in direct control of Quinn. But more than that, they’re just plain badly designed. In the end, the puzzles frustrated me so much that I had to give up on Quinn altogether. And with several of them clearly designed with mouse controls in mind, it made controller inputs on console feel very clumsy. No matter how desperately I wanted to see how the story unravels, the puzzles just pose too much frustration.

I wanted to STAY, but…

I’m still impressed with what Appnormals Team has managed to create in STAY. It’s a very simple idea, but one that’s instantly captivating. It’s rare a story, so simply told with text and pixel art, grabs me so quickly. Never before have I cared about a video game character so much when I’ve turned the game off. After the first couple of sessions with the game, I’d find myself wondering how Quinn was, desperate to get back to my console to make sure he was okay.

It’s just a shame that my enthusiasm and interest was eventually fully deflated by obtuse puzzles that offer no guidance and ultimately feel superfluous to the game. Get rid of them altogether and you’ve got a gripping interactive story that’s dying to be told. But with the puzzles as they are, STAY is reduced to feeling more like a badly-designed old-school adventure game. I’m gutted. For me, and for Quinn. I truly cared about what was happening to him. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, Quinn.

STAY is available on PC and Xbox One. We reviewed the Xbox One version.