Stories Untold and the joy of text

I loved text adventures when I was young. It started with the Ghost Hunter choose-your-own-adventure by Edward Packard then progressed to games such as Zork. I used to scour our local library for the Usborne type-in books and I pored through the pages of code for story snippets.

There are a number of text adventures available on Steam nowadays but sadly, they’re not the same. I remember the excitement I used to feel as a kid when rolling the dice for a new page-number or typing in the next command and not knowing whether the result would be good or bad; and that just isn’t there any longer. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking or perhaps I’m becoming jaded in my old age, but it seems as though current text adventures are missing the thing that used to make them so special.

At least, that’s what I thought until I completed Stories Untold by No Code earlier this month. Let’s say that my opinion may have recently changed.

It was added to my wishlist in April where it sat for a few months before being purchased in the summer sale. But as is common with plenty of titles picked up in this way, it languished in my backlog until a couple of weeks ago when I had a conversation with Bradley over at Cheap Boss Attack. He referred to Stories Untold as one of his favourite games of the year and gave it a recommendation; so during a break between arguments with the other-half over whether Destiny 2 or The Elder Scrolls Online would be going on the PlayStation 4 that evening, I hit the ‘install’ button and roped Pete into playing with me.

Advertised as ‘four stories, one nightmare’, this experimental title manages to bend the genre into something new and unique. It cleverly combines text-adventures, point-and-clicks and psychological horrors into a rather remarkable experience which is likely to stay with me for some time to come. If you’re a fan of series such as The Twilight Zone and Stranger Things, of 80s nostalgia and retro games, or text adventures in general, you need to play it – I couldn’t agree more with Bradley’s recommendation.

The ending, when it arrives, is like an oncoming train. You can’t deviate from the path that fate has set out for you: as much as you want to tear yourself away from the inevitable conclusion, it’s simply impossible and you must see it through. The fear slowly rises as you make your way through the four episodes and see connections, until the hairs on the back on your neck stand up each time you’re asked to enter a new command.

I think that’s exactly what’s missing from other text-adventures. The items I mentioned at the start of this post used to invoke such fear in me as a kid but it was addictive: as much as I was scared by the spooks in Ghost Hunter or the Grue in Zork, I wanted to see them through to the end. The fact that there were no visuals meant it was up to the player to use the text to see the story in their own minds and that somehow made those worlds all the more frightening.

There was always the feeling that if you looked up from the screen, you’d start to see elements of the title in the real world; and that’s what Stories Untold successfully manages to recreate. It’s extremely hard to resist the urge to look over your shoulder as you play through The House Abandon episode or not to expect your phone to ring when the handset does in-game. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling it for future players except that No Code have crafted some very clever moments.

So say no more I will, and I’ll just encourage you to give it a go for yourself if you have the opportunity. I really hope the developer considers making a second season because I can’t wait to see where they take us next.