State of Mind: Daedalic disaster?

Although I love the adventure genre, I’m not a Daedalic Entertainment fan. There’s something about their games I can’t get my head around and the humour falls flat. I haven’t played a title by the developer since Silence last summer, when the promotional material failed to explain that it was a follow up to 2009’s The Whispered World and the storyline was spoiled as a result.

It therefore probably seems strange that I was drawn to State of Mind at the Rezzed event in April 2018. Unfortunately the stand was busy every time I stopped by and I didn’t get the chance to try the demo there, but there was something about its futuristic low-poly world that intrigued me. The fact it was a release by Daedalic did put me off however and so it sat in my wishlist for over a year after being added – until I needed something new to play and received a Steam notification about a discount last month.

Almost 12 hours later and I was pleasantly surprised. I’d finally found a Daedalic title I’d actually enjoyed. I considered this over the following week, trying to figure out why this was the first that had really appealed, and then I realised: it wasn’t like any other the developer’s earlier work. Instead of being a story about a fairytale, cartoonish and full of saccharine, State of Mind had a much grittier feel and a narrative where there were no entirely happy endings. And best of all, there was no humour to be lost in translation.

Bias is a curious thing. No matter how much we try to remain unmoved by our preferences and past experience, it still has a funny way of creeping in there; even the most open-minded person will categorise in a way that influences their decision-making. I consider this post to be a simple discussion about a game I played recently rather than a ‘proper’ review. But if it was a critique, I’d likely be focusing on the way State of Mind kept me engrossed for an entire weekend and how it kept me guessing who the real villain was until the very end.

A lot of other people don’t agree with that opinion though. A quick search on Steam at the time of writing reveals a ‘Mostly Positive’ rating at 71% along with a score of 69 on Metacritic. While looking for discussions about the game’s ending, I found numerous reviews giving it two or three stars out of five and commenting on bugs, confused narrative and limited challenge. For example, Lewis from A Most Agreeable Pastime called it ‘a reasonably interesting story that’s hamstrung by poor pacing and character development, and a glaring lack of things to actually do’.

And you know what? I don’t disagree with him. It wouldn’t be unjustified to call State of Mind a walking simulator (although I hate that term) with a light sprinkling of puzzles on top. Most of the gameplay consists of traversing to one point of interest to another and having conversations where your choices don’t impact the title’s direction in any significant way; and when challenges do appear they’re not all that, well, challenging. There’s therefore little to keep you hanging on for more if the story isn’t gripping you.

As for the narrative itself, it covers a wide range of futuristic subjects from social division to transhumanism. They’re fascinating individually but combining them all within the same video game means that none are given appropriate focus before we’re moved onto the next. The characters have to make huge leaps in logic in order to connect numerous subjects and sometimes it feels as though they’ve draw conclusions out of thin air. As a result, I found myself asking ‘But why though?’ several times throughout my time with the title.

I therefore still have a number of outstanding questions – the reason why I was searching for discussions about the ending, as mentioned above – and their answers would probably make interesting games in their own right. It feels as though Daedalic attempted to do something similar to The Longest Journey series and give us a story about conspiracies, technology and control but sadly missed the mark slightly. Whereas Red Thread Games’ project gives you all the explanation you need, State of Mind leaves you hanging.

So do those negatives make the opinion I gave earlier in this post less valid? I don’t think so, because I genuinely enjoyed it despite the release’s many shortcomings; but it’s certainly worth noting how bias could affect my view in some way. Previous experiences with the developer’s work haven’t been great and so this release, being so different in its nature, caught me off-guard. Was it that I enjoyed being surprised by the change in style and subject matter rather than State of Mind itself?

And more importantly: does that even matter if I was entertained and this post is in no way meant to be a proper review? Whatever the answers to all these questions are, there’s one thing I’m sure of. I’m more excited to see what Daedalic does next than I’ve ever been before.

Later Levels: one big oxymoron

Hands, video game, controller, gamepadIn March, Matt from Normal Happenings tagged Later Levels in one of his Daily Inkling posts. The series provides inspiration for bloggers to use as literary clay for moulding into whatever form they wish. This entry was titled ‘Personal Oxymoron’ and asked: “Based on your personality, what is something you would expect yourself to like, but just can’t seem to get into?”

I can respond to that question succinctly using only three words: Later Levels itself. But the answer is so much more than that and requires a little explanation. In certain respects this blog is a contradiction and therefore perhaps shouldn’t exist – maybe I’m putting the entire universe at risk simply by writing this – but I’m incredibly glad it does and that I’ve found my little space on the internet. What follows are some of the reasons why this site is one big, cuddly oxymoron.

Older females don’t play video games

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Impact Winter, KimAn older female who plays video games? Well I never! I’m one of the more ‘mature’ bloggers on the block (let’s use that term loosely) and on top of that I’m a woman, so there are some out there who’d think I’m far too much of a grown-up to play video games or even be interested in them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m more likely to pick up a game than any other form of media, and I couldn’t picture myself blogging about any other subject. In fact I don’t ever see myself not playing video games.

Adventure fans love Daedalic titles

It’s pretty obvious from most of the posts I write that I have a huge fondness for the adventure genre; and the titles by Daedalic Entertainment are some of the most loved. So it should therefore follow that I’m a fan of the developer, right? Wrong. I really don’t enjoy Daedalic’s games; I think I’ve only completed three and have abandoned all others halfway through. There’s just something about the characters they choose for their protagonists which doesn’t appeal to me and most end up grinding my gears.

Certain personality types enjoy My Little Pony

Years ago I undertook a blogging project to find out more about the My Little Pony community and publish a series about the people I’d met. I found out that a certain personality type was attracted to the show; and you can guess which type I turned out to be when I took my own Myers-Briggs test. I watched a few of the cartoons for research, to understand why its fans enjoyed it so much, but I just didn’t get it. The project was however an interesting experience and a lot of very kind people gave me an insight into their world.

Bloggers love being social

EGX, video gamesBlogging is a very social activity. To do it well, you need to open yourself up to interaction, meeting new people and instigating discussions with them. The truth its that I suck at all of those things and find it hard to be social: I’m ok in one-one situations but when the group grows to more than five, I have trouble following the conversation and feel anxious about saying the wrong thing. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop blogging however, because it’s the perfect way to push myself outside of my comfort zone.

Positive people promote positivity

Hands, video game, controller, gamepadI’ve always tried to use Later Levels as a platform to promote positivity, be that in ourselves as individuals or in the gaming community as a whole. But March was quite a difficult month and my mental health has taken knock so sometimes I feel the opposite of positive myself. But optimism breeds optimism and you’ve got to keep pushing forward. If you talk about what’s going on in your head with those you trust, and keep telling yourself and others that a brighter day is on its way, then it will arrive very soon.

There we go, five reasons why this blog is an oxymoron. Thank you once again to Matt for his Daily Inkling tag and giving me the opportunity to write this post! Now over you you: what makes you an oxymoron?

Silence should have stayed quiet

Although I’m an adventure fan, I don’t enjoy releases by Daedalic Entertainment. There’s something about their logic I can’t wrap my head around and the puzzle solutions don’t make sense to me: give me a mouse to obtain a pair of pantaloons and I won’t have a clue.

It’s therefore weird that I added Silence to my Steam wishlist after hearing about it in late 2016. Despite being created by the developer and looking way more ‘cutesy’ than the releases I’d usually go for, there was something about the trailer which attracted me to it. The story about a brother trying to find his sister in the world between life and death intrigued me and the artwork was particularly nice: not as cartoony and with more subtlety than the stuff usually produced.

When the game appeared as part of the recent Humble Daedalic Bundle 2018, I decided to give it a go despite my aversion to the developer. I had a few days off work scheduled so the timing was right; I could pick up Silence at a discounted price, give money to charity at the same time and dedicate a decent amount of time to playing it. It was just a shame that State of Mind wasn’t included in the bundle as it looked great at Rezzed in April and seemed as though it would be more my thing.

The first two hours of the game were pretty good, despite my reservations. Instead of being a literal point-and-click, it featured the use of some other mouse movements which added a nice little twist on the standard adventure gameplay. The story wasn’t as cute as I thought it would be and there were elements of darkness and danger hidden behind the pretty environments; exactly the sort of thing that would drag you in and hold your attention for a lazy day of gaming.

But then doubt started to slowly creep in. During a conversation between two characters, details about their history were revealed – but not in a this-is-the-part-where-we-share-more-of-our-backstory kind of way, but with a we’ve-been-here-before-and-are-repeating-it-for-your-benefit vibe. A quick Google search revealed that Silence was actually a follow-up to 2009’s The Whispered World and there are several reasons why this has completely p****d me off.

Firstly, the game’s description on its Steam page makes no mention of the fact that this is a sequel. As I discussed with Bandicoot Warrior at this month’s blog party, I have a weird gaming habit where I can’t play the latest release until I’ve completed the others; for example, I can’t touch Fallout 4 because I haven’t played the previous instalments yet (and I can’t get the original title to work on my PC). I wouldn’t have bought Silence yet if I’d known this was the case.

Secondly, I had to stop a playthrough two-hours in and switch to another title. Fortunately The Whispered World was reduced by 90% in GOG’s #SummerGaming sale so a short download later saw me gaming again – but it’s everything I hate about Daedalic Entertainment adventures. The story is full of characters who aren’t particularly likeable, the protagonist has a voice and attitude so annoying it makes me want to punch him, and the puzzles don’t make sense (who’d use a mouse to reach some pantaloons?).

Thirdly, and worst of all: Silence spoiled the original game for me even more than the main character did. That conversation I wrote about earlier turned out to contain a complete overview of the story – even the plot-twist – and now every moment of foreshadowing in The Whispered World is blatantly obvious. I’m stuck playing a title I’m coming close to hating, with the aid of a walkthrough to get through it as quickly as possible, and without even the payoff of a revelation at the end of it.

I understand that developers want to make their projects as accessible to as wide a group as possible, and that means making them playable by gamers who haven’t already completed the previous games. But surely recaps and backstory-sharing in the latest game can be done with far more subtlety than this approach? And what’s wrong with confirming that your title is a sequel in its Steam page description so potential players are aware of its history?

I know some people would tell me to give up on the original instalment or watch a gameplay video and move straight onto Silence. But as I mentioned above, I can’t bring myself to do it; wanting to see those credits before moving on to the next game in the series is my little quirk. But what I will say is that I dislike Daedalic Entertainment’s games even more now than I did so before – I’m not sure I can forgive them for this oversight and it’s highly unlikely I’ll play another of their titles in the future.

But State of Mind though…

Ok. Ignore that last paragraph.

Interview: Ryan Cooper (STASIS)

Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015.

I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign and decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target.

We published our review of the game last month as part of our Halloween special, giving it a worthy ‘Buy it now!’ award. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

In our review round-up, we said that that STASIS is an incredibly atmospheric title and attributed this in part to the audio. We also highlighted that voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck, considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through! Ryan got in touch with us to thank us for the review so we took the opportunity to ask him more about the project and some of his other work.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into voice-acting?

Ryan: “My day-job is in architecture and I voice-act of an evening and weekends. It’s not full-time but it’s more than a mere hobby. Mods were where I began as I gathered the skills and equipment needed to break into the indie game market. It’s been gradual, and I am reluctant to call myself an established actor yet. Staying abreast of the latest developments in indie games is a part-time job in itself.”

Are you a gamer yourself? If so, do you have any favourite titles or genres?

Ryan: “I always get excited when a Bethesda game comes around. They have this unique ability to grip me for months like a vice and then dump me just as quickly. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite genre of game as such, but anything that balances innovative gameplay with good story-telling will be near the top of my list. Since the advent of platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, it’s remarkable how Indie developers have been able to inject bold new ideas into the games industry. Some of the more memorable titles of recent years have come from the grass roots.”

Have you played STASIS? What did you think of it?

Ryan: “I was an early-bug tester and a beta Kickstarter backer, so I played it a couple of times before release. For a one-man development, STASIS is a minor miracle really, and serves as inspiration to other small teams. It has been spoken about in the same breath as peers like SOMA, which had several team members with years of experience between them. The game has a timeless quality and won’t really age in years to come. Chris should be very proud of what he has achieved.”

What was it like working with The Brotherhood?

Ryan: “It was always an open-door working relationship with the Bischoff brothers. Chris trusted me enough to get on with my performance, which was liberating. I drip-fed him the lines so he could implement them on his schedule, and this became an organic way of building the voice work into the game. If I were compelled to revisit takes, he was more than happy to receive them.”

How does John Maracheck compare to your previous roles?

Ryan: “It’s funny. I looked back at my previous work the other day and John is the only character who actually converses with other characters. Being mostly narrators, the others address the player directly. So, the action / reaction dynamic of John’s dialogue is what sets him aside from my other roles.

“I wanted to impart a rawness, a genuineness to John and be satisfied I’d done all I could to make him sound like a real person in an unreal situation. If I had screwed up in making John relatable, I don’t think I could have forgiven myself. There was only $130K+ behind the game and thousands of expectant backers.”

Some of the scenes within STASIS are particularly harrowing. We have to ask: how did you feel when presented with ‘that’ surgery scene? What was it like to record?

Ryan: “It was the toughest scene for me because it was so hard to imagine. A character sobbing over all manner of upsetting revelations is achievable because the actor can draw on their own upsetting experiences and the tears are real. But performing open spinal surgery on yourself while you are still awake? Has that ever actually happened?

“To prepare, I studied a similar scene in the movie Prometheus, albeit the character’s motivation is different. Shaw is desperate to remove her foreign-body from a position of religious and motherly disgust. Her reaction is natural, and therefore the horror lies more in the revelation of the creature than in her slicing herself open. John’s foreign-body is not causing him any immediate consternation, besides blocking the path to his daughter. The decision is on him – and thus the player, to push the button knowing full well what’s coming.

“I pictured Rebecca [John’s daughter] as I was screaming, as that is the only way John could get through it without passing out. This is however a scene I would have recorded differently if I had the time again. It’s a bit tamer and more inward than I would have liked at points; I should have just gone hell for leather until I blew my voice box. The sequence itself though is wonderfully realised in its sheer body horror and becomes one of the game’s most memorable scenes.”

Do you have any techniques for getting into character before a recording?

Ryan: The best technique to get into character is to understand the character. If the client provides a full script, read it, re-read it and reflect on who it is you are playing. If you go into the session happy that your recording space meets your needs, you can concentrate on inhabiting your character. Ensure at the very least the space behind you is well padded to reduce reflections back into the mike (assuming it’s a Cardioid). Even a couple of heavy quilts will help. I made an expensive collapsible coffin for myself out of wood and acoustic foam and the quality difference between that and my earlier recordings is scary. Make sure your computer does not have a jet engine for a fan. Use a laptop if possible.

“My preferred approach at this point is to be practical, step up to the microphone and just accept the first take or ten will probably suck while I build momentum. I guess that’s how novelists get past writer’s block, by spewing out any old rubbish until they have their ‘eureka’ moment.”

Of all of your performances, which has been the most challenging so far?

Ryan: “Jonah in The Old City: Leviathan. Getting into the head space of someone who has spent too much time alone, but has a keen philosophical mind and forms these unique insights into the meaning of life. He comes from a very different place to the average person and therein lay the challenge of making him relatable.

“I put Jonah into terms I could understand, as an actor of sorts. More specifically, someone whose life has become an act, who created Leviathan to avoid the pain of the unknown. Maybe we all create our own personal Leviathan as we get older. Jonah’s life views become his lines, rehearsed to the point of banality, the theatrical pauses more deliberate with the years. Only when he is exposed to the uncertain does the child in him break out. Jonah manages to rekindle a deep ember of childlike curiosity that helps him get off his ass and leave his self-imposed prison.”

Which performance are you most proud of?

Ryan: “Tough call. Probably Maracheck, because I was afforded a wide range of emotions in a somewhat traditional role. There is a familiarity in his character type, but few characters suffer as he does. It was the role that left me the most exhausted and ultimately satisfied. I am also pleased to have been a part of Kholat starring Sean Bean, though I lament not being able to meet him. One does not simply meet him, I suppose.”

What’s your favourite vocal performance from someone else in a video game?

Ryan: “Certainly Troy Baker as Joel in The Last of Us. Grounded, nuanced and utterly believable. You know this guy would stove your face in with a house brick to protect his loved ones. If that performance had been up on the big screen, critics would have raved over it.”

Which existing character would be your dream role?

Ryan: “Batman. My favourite character in all of pop culture growing up and to this day. There is a complexity and contradiction to the character that makes him durable and open to interpretation. He does not represent an incontrovertible ideal. One day he’s a hero, the next a fascist vigilante, the next a rich kid who can’t grow up. He is deeply flawed, perhaps creating more problems than he solves by using fear and violence instead of his wealth and influence. There is a constant tension between two opposites in him.”

What’s your opinion of the voice-acting / motion-capture debate?

Ryan: “Some of the criticism has surprised me. It got to the point where people were questioning the validity of voice-acting altogether. Several Twitter comments read something like, ‘What does voice-acting convey that text boxes can’t?’ While I am not deluded enough to think games are not predominantly about the gameplay, the story and the visual-audio quality are crucial in immersing the player in a different world. You cannot seriously suggest The Last of Us would be an equally affecting experience if it had text boxes instead of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Not every game can tell its story through its environment like Journey.

“Detractors of #PerformanceMatters call the voice-actors whinging, irrelevant prima donnas because the game developers, the most important part of game development, are paid even less. It is a straw man argument. Of course the devs are the most important part of game development, but for whatever reason they have not unionised, or they too would be in a position to rectify their poor pay and working conditions, and we’d all be in full support. The truth is the multi-billion dollar industry that is gaming does not pay its professionals, including voice-actors and developers, remotely well enough for what they bring. Those profits more than likely go into the pockets of people who do not deserve it.

“It is something of a catch-22. A talented young actor who is equally expressive in body and voice would have to be a fool to enter a career in voice-acting because it pays so poorly compared to screen acting, despite games making twice the revenue. This disparity reflects in the standard of acting at the top of the games industry. It just isn’t quite as good as it should be, and rarely am I wowed by a voice-actor’s performance. The Last of Us redefined what I thought was possible for video game acting, but I have not played a game like it before or since.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of becoming a voice-actor?

Ryan: “After the last answer, you would think the best advice might be: don’t! However, I am in it because I enjoy it. There is a real thrill when a game where you’ve voiced for is released and heck, maybe even praised by some. The best advice in life is do whatever makes you happy. If that is voice-acting, you will find your way. If you are a part-timer like me who has to dispatch a résumé hundreds of times on the off-chance someone may need an actor, be prepared to handle disappointment. Of the inquiries I make, maybe 10% respond. Of that 10%, 75% say ‘thanks, but no thanks’. You have to be lucky to catch them at the perfect time of their development cycle. Or you could spend money putting yourself onto voice-acting websites like Voice123 and hope your samples speak louder than your competitors’.

“You must have a steady source of income to supplement your endeavours because building your reputation from nothing is slow. You’d think Troy Baker sprang up from nowhere in recent years, but he has been voice-acting since the nineties. I have been acting for two years, and have two character credits and a handful of narrations. At least with a day job, I can pursue attractive roles that will inspire me and might enhance my reputation. Your demo reel can start to sound decent after a while, and that is what gets your foot in the door.”

If a STASIS sequel were to happen, would you return for it?

Ryan: “Absolutely! I loved working on the game and with the Bischoffs. I doubt Chris is done telling stories from that universe, though I am unsure how a direct sequel to the story told in STASIS would work without undermining the themes established during the game. Maybe with this game as proof of his abilities and with more capital behind him, Chris could open things up in scope. A story set during the Eugenics War would be neat.”

A big thank you to Ryan for his time, and to The Brotherhood for making an amazing game! If you haven’t yet tried it we highly recommend that you check it out. Keep an eye out for the upcoming downloadable content (DLC) – if it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead of us.

Review: STASIS

Title overview

  • STASIS by The Brotherhood
  • Published by Daedalic Entertainment
  • Released in August 2015
  • PEGI rating of 18
  • Adventure, horror genre
  • Available on Mac and PC
  • More information can be found on the official website

  • Initial impressions

    Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015. During an interview with Chris back in November 2013 he told us:

    [The game] came about as a side-project in late 2010, as an artistic distraction to keep me occupied during a December break. It naturally expanded as I grew more involved and fell in love with the world! Since then, not much time has passed where I haven’t worked on it on an almost daily basis.

    I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign, and I decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target. The game has gone on to receive positive reviews from critics and players alike, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it’s the baby of such a small team.

    I’d like to refer to a section of our full disclaimer statement here: ‘From time to time, members of the team may choose to back projects on crowdfunding platforms… This is done using their own funds; their decision to back a campaign is a personal one and doesn’t reflect the views of the team as a whole. However, we may choose to review a video game that was obtained through such methods and will always reveal this within an article if it’s the case.’

    Plot

    Players step into the shoes of John Maracheck, a space-tourist who’s abruptly awoken from deep sleep within a stasis pod on the seemingly-deserted Groomlake. Broken machinery, bloodstains on the floor and distant wails are evidence that something terrible has happened here. John quickly finds himself thrown into a terrifying nightmare: where is everybody? What has happened to his wife and daughter? And what dubious research has the shady Cayne Corporation been carrying out aboard the re-purposed mining ship? Our protagonist is in tremendous pain and time is running out, as the Groomlake plunges further into the swirling blue methane clouds around Neptune.

    Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are found scattered across the ship, usually on abandoned desks or – more gruesomely – on the bodies of poor victims. Log entries and emails held on the devices share details on the individuals’ daily activities as well as larger, catastrophic events in the Groomlake’s history. It’s a perfect way of drip-feeding the story to the player and creates a wonderful atmosphere of despair and lost humanity but, despite being very well written, the PDA messages just can’t compare to the huge vessel itself. I found myself torn between wanting to read them to find out more about what was going on and getting back to the game itself so I could explore the sinister Groomlake further.

    Minor spoiler ahead – please move on to the next section if you wish to avoid!

    Overall I enjoyed STASIS’ plotline, with inspiration from sources such as Alien and Event Horizon being very evident. But there are an awful lot of elements contained within it: horribly-mutated clones; a mysterious fungus spreading throughout the vessel; a giant insect queen; log files referring to ‘The Twins’; and several others. Despite searching for as many PDAs as possible I’m still not entirely sure how they all fit together and there are a number of subjects which are left unexplained. However, the developer has revealed that upcoming downloadable content (DLC) will further illuminate the events aboard the Groomlake, so hopefully some of the loose ends will be tied up in the near future.

    Gameplay

    In the whole STASIS plays as a traditional point-and-click adventure, featuring both inventory and puzzles. The former is located in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen and isn’t particularly large so it feels less like you’re carrying around a bunch of random objects until you find a use for them. On the downside, you’re unable to examine items once they’re in your inventory; and you won’t receive constructive feedback about why particular solutions fail as John will say something like ‘I can try to make it fit but it will only end up breaking’ – even when it doesn’t make sense for the object in question.

    On the positive side though, pixel-hunting is limited: (most) inanimate items within the environment are highlighted by vivid descriptions at the bottom of the screen, while those you can interact with or pick up are indicated by a hand icon to show that action can be taken. However, this isn’t always the case and a couple of objects caught me out. At one point within the game, I was completely stuck on a puzzle and felt as if something was missing; but after clicking on the environment by accident, I came across a new item which enabled me to push forward.

    Speaking of the environment, some of the PDAs found around the Groomlake are vital when it comes to working out solutions for the puzzles. The now-deceased crew may have left important information about how security systems work in their personal data logs, or clues might have been left on notes or diagrams stuck to the devices themselves. A number of other players have complained that most of STASIS’ challenges are obtuse but I think a lot of this comes down to how observant you are. Pay attention to what you’re reading, and you’ll usually be able to figure out how to proceed – and putting the hints together yourself provides a great sense of achievement.

    The number of interactive items in the environment and objects within the inventory decreases towards the end of the game thus making it somewhat simpler, so there’s some slightly uneven pacing in terms of challenge. The final puzzle is straightforward as there’s really only one solution and the show-down you were hoping to have with your nemesis never really materialises. But one thing that doesn’t let up is the dark, foreboding atmosphere: it’s enough to make you overlook these minor negatives and want to see John’s perilous journey through to its emotional climax.

    As for my favourite puzzle: play STASIS for yourself and I’ll bet you arrive at the same answer. I don’t want to give too much away so I apologise if what follows is a little vague. You’ll need to find the solution within a set amount of time or John faces dire consequences, and the answer lies somewhere within the environment. The problem is that the situation you’re presented with is so shocking that your eyes are drawn to it and it’s hard to look anywhere else! It’s gory but not overly gratuitous –well-handled in terms of both timing and how it fits in with the title’s storyline – but it’s some pretty-messed-up-stuff that will stick with you.

    Unlike the majority of adventure games, the title contains a number of inventive ways in which you can die and this is in part due to the way the puzzles are structured. For example, you may have figured out that you need to combine a lighter with a gas-leak in order to blow your way through a wall; but do this in an incorrect order and you’ll get caught-up in a fiery explosion. If you find yourself in a death scene, STASIS will reload and put you back at the point just before the event. The only problem is that sometimes this is before a lengthy cut-scene or dialogue that can’t be skipped and after you’ve seen it once, you don’t particularly want to have to sit through it again before getting back to the action.

    In a paragraph above I used the words ‘foreboding’ and ‘perilous’, and the title does a marvellous job at setting an ominous tone. It never seems to amount to much however: death scenes are triggered by the player themselves; breathing in the spores from the mysterious fungus doesn’t seem to do you any harm; and walking past mutated research subjects poses no threat. The feeling of tension therefore gradually dissipates over time but this is when the title pulls you back in. Just when you think you’re safe, a security hologram will come rushing at you or a dead body will fall from the ceiling – resulting in a nice little jump scare every once in a while. Such situations are used to good effect and the game doesn’t rely on them for its tone.

    Visuals and audio

    When I first played the demo, STASIS reminded me very much of Sanitarium in terms of its visuals. I mentioned this to Chris during our interview and he told us:

    Simply, I like the isometric point-of-view. Fallout, Diablo, Commandos – these are games that shaped me as a young artist. To be able to create and then explore my own world from that point of view… it’s a dream come true.

    He went on to explain that an isometric layout has a way of making you feel small, and it does a great job of ramping up the atmosphere here; the world around you feels so much larger than your character, and who knows what’s lurking in the darkness.

    The vivid item descriptions mentioned in the section above do a great job at bringing the world to life and some of it is so horrific, it’s probably a blessing it can’t be seen close up from the player’s birds’-eye-view. It leaves plenty to the imagination and that’s kind of worse! The flickering lights from broken machinery; shadows hiding god-knows-what in their darkness; blood-splatters across the floor and up the walls; all the small details add up to create a menacing environment which leaves the hair standing on the back of your neck.

    The Groomlake is a particularly gloomy environment, fitting when you consider that the run-down vessel has been abandoned in space, but this does have the unfortunate effect of making John quite hard to spot when a new scene loads. In addition, the protagonist’s path-finding seems to be a little off in certain places; instead of taking the quickest route to the point clicked he’ll head the long way around. These small issues didn’t do anything to dampen my enjoyment of the game but they do have a tendency to break the player’s immersion slightly.

    The audio is another of STASIS’ high-points, with a brilliant score by Mark Morgan that combines magnificently with sound-effects. In our interview with Chris, he said:

    I got a message from [Mark] on Twitter, saying how much he enjoyed what he had seen. It was an incredible surprise and an honour… When he offered to score the game, I almost fell off my chair! The games he has worked on have been such an intricate part of my artistic life and in many cases their fingerprints can be felt on STASIS.

    The title is never entirely quiet and the sounds contained within pull the player into its world. From creaks from nearby machinery, to the squelch of something grotesque underfoot, to distant wails of terror echoing throughout the ship; it all adds to the atmosphere and makes for a wonderfully-immersive environment. And when you hear the children talking through the walls, asking why they’ve been forsaken… you’re bound to feel a shiver down your spine.

    Considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through, voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck (take a look at our interview with him here). Especially heart-breaking are the strangled cries as he comes across one horrific sight after another, each more terrible than the next. There’s a slight disconnect however between the character’s behaviour and what’s happening onscreen. At one particular point during the game, a revelation is discovered through a PDA entry that’s absolutely horrendous; but because this plot-point isn’t told through the main storyline, John’s behaviour doesn’t accurately mirror that horror.

    Replay and innovation

    In a Steam Discussion thread on STASIS, the developer revealed that ‘every PDA entry and event was planned for the last five years’. Chris also stated that ‘if you play [the game] again with the ending mind you will pick up many more subtle hints’, so there’s some incentive there to have a second playthrough to discover all the log files and piece together the entire story. Players also receive a Steam achievement for each death scene they uncover so there’s no harm in walking into that vat filled with grey goop or giving the insect queen a little stroke.

    With regard to how innovative this release is, it’s a little hard to give a definitive answer. We’ve seen isometric video games before; inspiration from movies such as Alien and Event Horizon is obvious; and the science-fiction and horror genres are often combined. But what STASIS does well is atmosphere. Rather than resorting to the usual gore and jump-scares, the former is rarely shown directly onscreen and the latter are used infrequently so when they do arrive, players get a real shock. The developers have decided to leave a lot to the imagination and that makes it all the more frightening.

    Final thoughts

    STASIS has garnered a lot of attention since being released at the end of August. It was chosen as a finalist for MomoCon 2015 and has received plenty of positive critiques, with branches of both IGN and Eurogamer giving it an eight out of ten. Alec Meer from Rock Paper Shotgun said that ‘[the title] punches so far above its weight that I almost can’t believe it exists’; and at the time of writing, the game holds a ‘very positive’ rating on Steam from almost 300 reviews.

    If you like your adventure games sprinkled with a bit of horror and plenty of dark atmosphere, then yes. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

    I’m very much looking forward to the DLC and to seeing what the developers come up with next. If it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead.

    Review round-up

  • We played the game on PC
  • I backed the game on Kickstarter in November 2013
  • Detailed visuals and an awesome soundtrack
  • An incredibly atmospheric title
  • A little uneven in terms of challenge
  • Easy ending
  • Grade: buy it now

  • Interview: STASIS

    STASIS is a 2D isometric, point-and-click adventure game for PC and Mac, set in the distant future on a desolate spacecraft. John Maracheck must interact and solve puzzles to save his family but – as if that wasn’t difficult enough – he’ll uncover horrific experimentation, illicit research and find himself drawn into an ever-deepening mystery.

    Several chapters have been fully completed while the remaining areas have been technically-planned; you can experience the title for yourself by getting the alpha demo from the official website.

    The Brotherhood consists of Chris (‘The Developer Guy’), Nic (‘The Business Guy’) and John (‘The PR Guy’) and they have big plans for further isometric adventures. But first STASIS needs to be successful, so the more support their Kickstarter project can get the better! We’re proud to call ourselves backers, and would like to say a big thank you to Chris Bischoff for taking the time to answer our questions about his amazing project.

    How did The Brotherhood team meet and what made you decide to start making STASIS?

    Chris:STASIS started long before The Brotherhood existed. Although, in a way, The Brotherhood has always been around in one form or another. Nic [Nicholas Bischoff] and I are brothers and have been building games and working together for a very long time. STASIS came about as a side project in late 2010, as an artistic distraction to keep me occupied during a December break. It naturally expanded as I grew more involved and fell in love with the world! Since then, not much time has passed where I haven’t worked on it on an almost daily basis.”

    You mention some classic adventure games such as The Dig, Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword on your Kickstarter page. Are you a fan of the genre and how have these titles influenced your work?

    Chris: “I’ve always loved adventure games. When I first started playing them, it was for the humour then the puzzles and the stories. The Space Quest series is one of my favourites, with many school days spent trying to figure out the homing beacon puzzle instead of doing homework!

    “My passion has been for stories and trying to get the best way to tell them. In a large way, that is what drives my love of art. I found that adventure games, with their heavy focus on story and world building, are the perfect form of expression for me as an artist.

    “I love The Dig for its beautiful art and its focus on a much more mature game world. The Gabriel Knight series and Broken Sword are great examples of games that have a firm basis in reality, but with a fantastic story-telling twist. STASIS borrows from this in that the world itself is grounded in a reality (well, as grounded as science-fiction can be), but places our character in an extraordinary situation in that world.”

    STASIS tells the story of John Maracheck, who finds himself on a desolate spacecraft trying to save his family. Are you able to share any further details about the plot and this character?

    Chris: “I’ve been careful not to divulge too much information about the story. I can say that there are more than a few surprises in store for the player!”

    You mention that the title follows the gameplay mechanics of classics such as Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, very different from STASIS sci-fi, horror storyline. Was it a conscious decision to go for something darker, and how well do you feel horror games lend themselves to the point-and-click genre?

    Chris: “I love adventure games because it is such a versatile format. If you look at some of the more recent adventure game, like The Walking Dead, you can see just how easy it is to take the genre and mould it into something new and exciting.

    “The world of STASIS stems from my passion for science-fiction and horror. It was certainly a conscious decision to make STASIS a reflection of that. If you’re going to be so intimately involved in a piece of artwork for such a long time, it must be something that you love.”

    The ‘Suicide’ stretch goal is intriguing: this will see key items planted around the spacecraft that John can pick up and use on himself! Other than death, will this have any impact on the gameplay?

    Chris: “There is death in STASIS, but it’s supported by a robust auto-saving function which ensures that the death doesn’t become an annoyance to the player. My hope is that it will drive home the severity of the situation that John finds himself in.

    “The suicides will be an extension of the pre-existing death system, and while it won’t have an impact directly on the story, I’m hoping that it will have an impact of the players’ psyche!”

    We were instantly reminded of Sanitarium when watching the Kickstarter video; the isometric view really lends itself to conveying a dark, abandoned atmosphere. What made you decide to do with this visual style?

    Chris: “Simply, I like the isometric point of view. Fallout, Diablo, Commandos – these are games that shaped me as a young artist. To be able to create and then explore my own world from that point of view… it’s just a dream come true.

    “The isometric view also has a way of making you feel small, I think. As if you are just a part of this larger world – a world that will carry on in existence with or without you. In a horror game, that can be a scary thought.”

    You recently announced that the game will be scored by Mark Morgan, who has worked on some great titles such as Zork and Fallout. How did this collaboration come about?

    Chris: “Before we went live with the Kickstarter, we knew that hiring a composer was a major aspect to get the game up to the level that we wanted it. Once the Alpha demo was released, I got a message from Mark Morgan on Twitter saying how much he enjoyed what he had seen. It was an incredible surprise and an honour.

    “When he offered to score the game, I almost fell off my chair! The games he has worked on have been such an intricate part of my artistic life and in many cases their fingerprints can be felt in STASIS. To think that the game will have a Mark Morgan score… it’s just surreal.”

    The Kickstarter campaign has been very successful so far, with 72% of the $100,000 target being received from 2,380 backers (at the time of writing). What challenges have you faced going down this route and were you prepared for them when starting out?

    Chris: “I think you can only be prepared to a certain extent and then you may realize that none of your plans are working. We wanted to allow ourselves to remain flexible during the campaign, and that is something that has certainly made the experience a lot more fun.

    “Initially, the biggest challenge was waiting. It took an extra few days for our campaign to make it through the approval process due to a heavy load on their side. I’m sure that anyone who has done a Kickstarter campaign can tell you that a few days can feel like weeks!

    “We used this time to our advantage and polished the Alpha demo of the game into a fully playable state that could be released with the campaign.”

    Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of making an indie game?

    Chris: “Love what you are doing, because you are going to be working at it tirelessly. I think there has to be a form of obsession for your project. Also, do something out of your comfort zone on the project because it will keep everything fresh and exciting.”

    Can you tell us which component of STASIS you’re currently working on? How are you feeling about its release?

    Chris: Currently I’m working through all of the feedback received from the demo and implementing many of the suggestions that have been offered.”

    Once again, a big thank you to Chris for answering our questions! Help The Brotherhood out by heading over to their Kickstarter project to show your support by 07 December 2013, and by giving them a thumbs-up on Steam Greenlight. Further details and the demo download can be found on the official website.