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In Stories Untold, Narrative is Everything

Stories Untold

Previously only available on PC, No Code’s delightfully eerie Stories Untold is now available on Nintendo Switch, making it accessible to a whole new legion of players.

If you’re someone who hasn’t experienced Stories Untold before, I urge you to pick it up. I’m not going to review it – Ruaraidh Dempster wrote an excellent review for us back in 2017 when the game originally released, and besides a few tweaks to the control system, the Switch release boasts nothing new. His review still stands as a fine encapsulation of what Stories Untold is, so another review would largely be repeating his sentiments.

Warning: I’ll be talking about Stories Untold’s narrative here, but I’m doing my best to avoid heavy spoilers. If you’ve not played before and would rather avoid too much talk of the narrative, our review is spoiler-free.

Stories Untold presents itself as an anthology of four separate games. I say ‘presents itself’, because that’s very important. Nothing in Stories Untold is what it seems, but you won’t know that until much later on. There are connected themes throughout each of the four games, and it’s fair to assume that it’s simply the nature of the collection; thematic ties, if you will. The first of the games, The House Abandon, has you playing through a text adventure in which you visit your family’s old holiday house.

It’s set out as a game within a game; your character is the person sat in front of an old computer, playing the text adventure, rather than directly playing the text adventure yourself. Or are you? Midway through, the lights go out, the screen flickers, and everything… changes. The story in the game seems to be about you. It’s hard to portray horror when your only real means of display is a two-colour monitor filled only with text, but The House Abandon oozes atmosphere and tension. It perfectly sets the scene for everything else that’s to come in Stories Untold – but it’s not until you’ve finished the game that you’ll truly understand why.

The second title, The Lab Conduct, changes things completely – at least to begin with – and as the player you’re fooled into thinking that actually, these four games (or chapters, episodes, whatever you want to call them) aren’t at all related to each other. Stories Untold‘s greatest power is of subverting the truth, and it’s something it does with abandon for most of its running time.

In The Lab Conduct, you’re presented as a scientist, running an experiment. You’re given little background information on what exactly the experiment is, but you get the sense it’s quite dangerous. Perhaps there’s something… alien about what you’re experimenting on. At least, that’s what Stories Untold wants you to think. In front of you is a computer screen, providing instructions and details of the experiment, and to your right is the apparatus you’ll need to use to carry out the experiment. It’s retro, it’s fascinating, but it’s completely baffling. There are buttons to press and knobs to turn, and the computer provides all the information we need in order to complete the experiment successfully.

Part way through The Lab Conduct, I started to ponder whether was the experiment. Is Stories Untold messing with me; forcing me to carry out objectives simply to see whether I would follow instruction without question? Perhaps that’s part of it, and Stories Untold made me uncomfortably aware of my own conformability. Alas, if I wanted to continue playing, I had little choice but to go along with the demands of the faceless scientists speaking in my ear. And by god, I did want to continue playing, because I was desperate to see what else Stories Untold had in store for me.

Stories Untold

After successfully completing The Lab Conduct’s experiment, just like The House Abandon had done, Stories Untold swiftly changes pace and tone. The game once again becomes a text adventure, asking us to type commands into a console – but this time to eke out information from a test subject. Perhaps Stories Untold‘s four chapters do have more in common after all.

The third game in Stories Untold is The Station Process, which takes place in a remote weather monitoring facility. A blizzard roars on outside, but we’re (initially) cosy inside, in front of a computer set-up. Just like in The Lab Conduct, we’re once again expected to follow instruction without question. The Station Process asks more of us this time: you’ll be inputting data strands and deciphering codes, jumping between two screens in order to recite and recall the information you need.

More than anything else that Stories Untold throws at you, the tasks required of you in The Station Process feel like busywork. Perhaps I’m the type of person who enjoys crunching data and cracking codes, so completing the tasks at hand never felt too arduous, but I can imagine it becoming a slog for some players. Still, you’ll muddle through, because by this point you’re fully invested in Stories Untold and – even though you still don’t quite know what – you know it has some secrets lurking up its sleeve.

Stories Untold

Like the two chapters before it, The Station Process changes pace part-way through. Once your data entry is complete, the game becomes a first-person adventure, and you’re sent outside into the blizzard to fix a signal tower. You’ll be on edge by this point; Stories Untold has drip-fed you the idea of fear, and you’re likely expecting something to jump out at you at any moment. Whether it ever does or not is not the point; Stories Untold has already succeeded in being a horror game simply by making you think it’s a horror game.

The final part of Stories Untold, The Last Session, is the chapter that gives us the answers we’ve been waiting for. It cleverly ties up everything we’ve experienced in the previous three chapters, revisiting their mechanics and asking us to complete those same tasks again – but this time it gives us the explanation we’ve been longing for.

Stories Untold‘s real narrative comes as a surprise; not because it doesn’t make sense, but perhaps exactly because it makes perfect sense. While individually its tales may have felt like snippets of sci-fi horror, as a whole, when they’re brought together with the context provided by The Last Session, they’re grounded in a stark reality that would have been hard to guess at. And still, those themes of horror and sci-fi live on – but now they’re grounded in a familiar reality, they’re perhaps scarier than ever.

Stories Untold

Using deception as a narrative device isn’t exactly something new, but it’s something that’s rarely done as well as Stories Untold. While it’s not a long game – it took me around three hours to complete all four chapters – for those three hours, I was gripped. The way the game constantly changes, utilising different storytelling techniques to weave a narrative that ends up much more simple than it ever seems, is ultimately what kept me playing. I knew something wasn’t quite right, and while Stories Untold throws subtle hints at you that maybe not everything is as it seems, it’s not until The Last Session that everything comes together.

Few games keep you guessing quite as much as Stories Untold does, but it’s for that reason – aside from the game’s excellent audiovisual design – that you’ll keep on playing. In some games, narrative is merely a means to an end; a tool to drive forward one scene to another. But in Stories Untold, it is everything.

Editor in chief // Kim's been into video games since playing Dizzy on her brother's Commodore 64 as a nipper. She'll give just about anything a go, but she's got a particular soft spot for indie adventures. If she's not gaming, she'll be building Lego, reading a thriller, watching something spooky or... asleep. She does love to sleep.