Magnets in slow motion of 80’s cathode ray tubes with woodgrain panels. The click-click of keyboard keys when entering a text command. The whine of a microfiche reader zooming in on black and white film.
Untold Stories is a throwback to old parser-based textual adventures modernized to take advantage of the atmospheric tension that 3D art can provide. You’re not playing a text adventure yourself here. Instead, you are an invisible character interacting with a series of computers via text commands in a series of seemingly unrelated situations. With this meta-configuration, Untold Stories becomes, not only a throwback to the textual games of the past, but a meditation on how technology mediates the stories we tell and how we tell them. Fittingly, NoCode’s 2017 PC game has been smartly modernized so that its themes are effectively expressed using the capabilities of its new home, the Switch.
A more direct port – one that sought to recreate the parser-based interactions of the original on a controller – probably would have made a good game feel like it was grabbing your eShop password for three hours. Thankfully, the version we got basically looks like the PC original and tells the same stories, but with some surprising tweaks to its mechanics that make a typing game run awesomely on a controller.
To do this, NoCode has completely removed the entry. Instead of, Untold Stories on Switch submarines in a Monkey Island style menu. You choose an action, such as “Go”, and then associate it with an available object, such as “upstairs.” This is a seemingly minor change, but at times it fundamentally alters the gaming experience. On the one hand, it makes Untold Stories easier – rather than racking your brains for a possible next step, you can just pair actions with items over and over again until you find the right one. But that doesn’t reduce the challenge of times when the game eschews text-based gameplay, which is just as difficult as ever.
Through its four disparate but connected chapters (which I deliberately don’t tell you much about), Untold Stories frequently tasks you with inserting commands into 80s style computers. At first, it just seems like an excuse to dress up its text-based gameplay with a Strange things coat of paint. But, the fascination of the game runs deeper than that. NoCode wants you to learn how to use their virtual machines; to find out how they facilitate and limit interaction with the world.
Sometimes that means reading an in-game manual that teaches you how to use an x-ray machine or acoustic resonance technology. Sometimes that means playing with multiple zooms to make out a little word on a microfiche film. Sometimes that means banging your head against a wall for an hour because you just can’t tell if the last beep in a series of Morse beeps is a full beep or a half beep. It’s a horror story where its sometimes elegant, sometimes clumsy technology is both mean and monstrous.
With Untold Stories and 2019 Observation, NoCode has carved out a unique niche for itself. These are games that seek to capture the fun of successfully solving a problem when putting together a gaming PC. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. There were times during my game of Untold Stories when I was deeply frustrated with my inability to find my mistake and the game’s refusal to help me. But, I guess, for people who are having fun looking for the best graphics card or SSD for their setup, these games are catnip; inexpensive simulations of the real deal, with a cranky story for good measure. But, impressively, they still manage to communicate that thrill to someone who doesn’t care; to kind of make me, someone with a new and powerful gaming laptop, think – even just for a second – “Dude, that could be really cool building my own rig.”
Stories Untold review code provided by publisher.
Stories Untold is out now on PC and Nintendo Switch.