What do we mean when we talk about ‘immersive’ Horror?
Maybe the question is bigger than that: what do we mean for a work of art to be immersive? If capital-A Art has a point at all, just as a whole enterprise, it’s to evoke a response from an audience. We talk about art in terms of how well it “speaks” to us, or what we can “take away” from it – whether that’s a specific message or a gut reaction. We want our art to carry meaning, whether or not we have any idea what that meaning is. We want to connect with the work and resonate with it in some subjective way, and an immersive work of art is one that pulls us inside of it and alters our perception. It gives us an opportunity to experience something fully, either as ourselves or as a reflection of the artist.
That’s the idea, anyways.
People get entire degrees in this stuff. I’m not here to answer any of these questions, I couldn’t if I tried. There’s a reason we immediately jump into metaphors when we reflect on our experiences with art – they’re difficult to put into words! But they’re worth thinking about, especially in regards to Horror.
If immersive art plunges us into a new experience or perspective, immersive horror is kind of a terrifying prospect. And nothing immerses an audience quite a video game.
Stories Untold is a 2017 title by ‘ex-AAA’ developer No Code from Glasgow and published by Devolver Digital, an art-house darling of the indie gaming world. No Code itself is a small team: executive producer and composer Omar Khan, programmers Geoff Angus and Graeme McKellan (also as co-designer), and Graeme’s brother Jon – formerly of Alien: Isolation – who served as director, co-designer, writer and artist. Stories Untold is also an adaptation and expansion of their game-jam title The House Abandon. For a treat, they also brought on Kyle Lambert of Stranger Things fame to do the poster, that’s his work up top.
That’s just four people at No Code, one for each of Stories Untold’s chapters. At around three hours Stories Untold isn’t long, but there’s something that it does better than almost any game I’ve ever played: it’s a master-class in Immersive Horror.
The way it pulls it off is absolutely fascinating. If it ‘hits’ for you, the feeling is unforgettable.
If you grew up in the 80’s or around aging computer equipment, the opening chapter of Stories Untold (the only one I’m going to discuss!) is going to feel very familiar. It takes the form of a picture-perfect 80’s-era computer desk, complete with coffee mug, little table lamp and a pixelated console display. The keyboard clicks as you type and the lamp hums lazily in the background. All of this is rendered in lovingly detailed 3D, it’s a pitch-perfect time capsule of 80’s design. You’re seated in first-person in what looks to be a bedroom: there are family portraits in the background. There’s a white phone on the wall and a classic red-numbered clock that tells you it’s nighttime. You can look as long as you like, but you’re rooted in your seat. You don’t know who you are, but you’re here at the computer to play.
The monitor screeches to life and slowly loads the title screen of a game: it’s The House Abandon, a text-based adventure title in the classic, [enter command now] style. You’re going to play using your old, clacky keyboard and your best intuition. This is Stories Untold.
The trick is that your perspective as a player never leaves the desk. You can lean around and examine your environment all you like, you can hesitate or refuse to do anything at all, but you cannot get up or leave. Your controls are confined to your real-life keyboard, which represents the one on-screen and controls the console’s input. For House Abandon’s purposes, this is all there is. There is you, the in-game adventure game you must play, and the setting with which you cannot interact.
You are a person sitting at a desk in your home, playing a game in which you are a person sitting at a desk in a seemingly-empty house, playing a game in which someone else is exploring a seemingly-empty house and solving simple puzzles.
At least, that’s how it seems at first.
Stories Untold doesn’t take long to get terrifying. If you’re detecting a deep sense of menace in those innocent screenshots of the desk, you’re not wrong. Stories Untold perfectly replicates the feeling of sitting at your computer late at night, thumbing through a scary story and leaping through the roof at every sound from outside your room – except this time, the room is a part of the game too. The double-framing of the gameplay and narrative means there’s nothing you can trust, and you’ll never have any idea what’s coming with every new stroke of the keyboard. You might just be at home in your apartment – but what’s going on in this bedroom?
Did you imagine that sound, was it a part of The House Abandon, Stories Untold or neither? Just how much of this is meant to be real, even within the context of the game? Which of these frames (the character, the console, Stories Untold itself) do we ‘trust’, as an audience?
There are no easy answers for these questions. Stories Untold unsettles on every level at once, and it does it in a way I’ve never seen before. Later chapters shake up the formula and add more interactive elements and pulpy thrills as Stories Untold slowly becomes a tale of grief, guilt and cosmic dread, but it’s never more terrifying than that intimate opening chapter in the bedroom.
But maybe that’s just my own experience with haunted computer games talking.
Every part of Stories Untold feels haunted. It’s an incredible Hallowe’en play for the way it weaponizes the player’s nostalgia and inherent sense of trust in a game’s environment – long after things go completely off the rails plot-wise. As a work of immersive horror, it dares the audience to invest emotionally in multiple frames of narrative at once, even as the game is constantly reaching back and forth across those layers to scramble their expectations (and nerves!). By settling the player into the identity of a second player, Stories Untold tricks you into dropping your guard long enough to deliver some seriously potent story beats. While it isn’t the scariest game I’ve ever played, it bends the format of interactive storytelling into bold and bizarre new shapes. It’s immersive as hell, and you’ll never see any of it coming.
Stories Untold isn’t sadistic, but it is extremely affecting. It isn’t afraid to go for the jugular before it goes for the heart, but believe me. It gets there.
Reader and player beware, you’re in for a scare.
This has been entry 13/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!
If you’re going to do Stories Untold, please take its epilepsy warning seriously and potentially seek out content warnings (I can help if needed)! Stay safe and have fun in there!