It’s been a minute now since Netflix’s Stranger Things blew up, with critics and viewers alike praising its retro-fabulous aesthetics and its homages to horror greats like John Carpenter and Stephen King. In a lot of ways, No Code Studio’s Stories Untold can be seen as a spiritual successor, mining the suburbs for eeriness and tragedy. Its title sequence is certainly similar: bold red letters against a heartbeat of ominous synthesizers. But where Stranger Things had the ghoulish, other-dimensional Upside Down, the demons that haunt Stories Untold are purely human.
Stories Untold is a series of four vignettes, short experimental adventures that gradually reveal the guilty truth of one James Aition. It’s a story we’ve heard before: a protagonist, having committed some crime, retreats into their own mental purgatory before finally confronting their actions. No Code Studios, though, brings their own elegant twist to this, remixing genres and mechanics in each of the four chapters.
‘The House Abandon’ jump-starts the collection with a callback to old text adventures (à la Zork) with an added meta twist. When the game begins, you’re sat at a table decorated with family photos and an old-fashioned gooseneck lamp. In front of you is an enormous CRT monitor, and on the monitor, you begin playing the eponymous game.
“Soon, it becomes clear that none of what we’re seeing is real.”
This is something that Stories Untold experiments with constantly. Perspective is blurry: sometimes you’re you, the player; other times, you’re James. As you explore your childhood vacation home in ‘The House Abandon’, the computer mostly responds as you might expect, saying, “I’m sorry I don’t understand,” or, “You open the bedroom door.” Other times, it tells you, “You hear him answer the phone,” and, once: “You shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here.”
Soon, it becomes clear that none of what we’re seeing is real and we are in fact witnessing an exchange between James and part of his psyche as he struggles with what he’s done. This permeates each of the games in the collection. The second episode, ‘The Lab Conduct’, has us running medical experiments on some alien species; this later filters back to us as a recollection from James’s experience after a drunk driving accident that resulted in the death of his sister Jennifer and the other driver, a retired cop.
This is further clarified in the third episode, ‘The Station Process’, where James escapes to the isolation and blizzard-like conditions of a remote weather monitoring station. But even in the snowdrifts at the end of the world, he can’t escape his horror. Another character, presumably a fellow station operator, begins pleading with James, saying, “I can’t feel my legs. I’m so tired. Please, James, what are you doing?” She implores him to wake up from his post-accident coma and face the truth, the details of which are finally brought into brutal focus in the final chapter: his sister’s death, his family’s estrangement, and his attempt to frame the other driver.
“Even in the snowdrifts at the end of the world, he can’t escape his horror.”
In each of the games, there’s a variety of gameplay, from decoding signals to solving puzzles to walking around and searching for generators. However, each one contains a segment of text adventure, bringing us back to a sense of being in control yet not.
A big part of Stories Untold is that this has all already happened. Even when you type “no” in response to Jennifer’s request for you to drive her home after you’ve drank quite a bit of whiskey, it doesn’t alter the events. This makes the choice of including text parser gameplay all the more interesting.
Back in the heyday of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, when Bantam Books was churning them out by the hundreds, the big draw was that you could take control of the narrative. Many of them were action adventure, placing you firmly in the role of the hero. It was the ultimate escapism, the excitement of the unknown without consequence (at least for those of us who cheated and backtracked) and the vicarious thrill of being the victorious main character. You could choose your path — turn to page 86 or page 54 — and you could choose what your character did and who they ultimately were.
“James did have a choice. But not any more.”
Despite invoking the same kind of choose-your-own-adventure-y spirit, Stories Untold is much grimmer. The entire situation unfolds because of James’s choice to drink and drive and, on top of that, his choice to try to escape justice by sneaking his bottle of whiskey into the other driver’s car. But every choice thereafter is ineffectual. There’s an inevitability to any “choice” you might try to make. At one point in ‘The House Abandon’, you attempt to go to the ill-fated utility room where your father gifted you with the whiskey, and the computer says, “The door is locked. I can’t get in there, not yet.”
It’s a warning to not get ahead of ourselves. Events unfolded in a particular way, and James must remember them in a particular way. The game makes us type in the commands one after another — find the keys, get in the car, put the keys in the ignition, turn the keys — with vicious specificity, hammering home the fact that James did have a choice. But not any more.
Stories Untold is successful for many reasons: its slick design, great voice acting, innovative use of gameplay. But its greatest success is the way it uses text. Much like Stranger Things with the kids’ D&D sheets and lore, Stories Untold uses the Choose Your Own Adventure format to frame the story in a way that both plays into and subverts our expectations.