Developer No Code’s indie horror hit Stories Untold finally arrives on Nintendo’s portable console but does this port retain what made the original PC title so beloved among horror fans?
There’s a reason many consider the words of horror authors to be the epitome of the genre. Any film, or game for that matter, can manifest our worst fears into grotesque, lifelike imagery that oozes or moans its way onto the screen to unsettle us. But the written word, without aid from visual trickery or sound design, still holds the potential to unsettle us the most. Nothing, it turns out, is ever as scary as what you can imagine.
Stories Untold, making its debut on the Nintendo Switch nearly three years after its initial PC release, is a game that understands the power of the imagination. A glowing homage to the text-based games of an era gone by, Stories Untold offers up four distinct vignettes that primarily use nothing more than text and basic input commands to thoroughly unnerve and frighten.
Given the quality of the writing and slick visuals, it’s difficult to believe that Stories Untold was only the second game to be released by independent developer No Code. Working out Glasgow, Scotland, the relatively small team have already made a name for themselves by collecting a BAFTA and going on to release the critically acclaimed Observation (you can check out my review of the game here).
While Observation had the benefit of Hollywood grade cinematics, Stories Untold hums with a subtle retro vibe. It is a gorgeously presented collection of stories, each one with its own unique setting full of old school tech and traditionally spooky low lighting. Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert lends his skills to the bold, almost gothic logo that caps off a synth-heavy opening credit, a nice bit of synergy with No Code’s own retro design guru, Alien Isolation’s Jon McKellan.
McKellan truly emerges as the MVP of Stories Untold, penning an expansive, engrossing script as well as much of the game’s aesthetics. We kick things off with “The House Abandon”, the most traditional horror tale of the four that sets the stage for everything that follows. It is a simple exploration of an old family home that descends into darkness in unexpectedly personal ways.
The middle chapters, “The Lab Conduct” and “The Station Process” both up the ante with some new mechanics and puzzles that add a nice layer of interactivity to a traditionally rigid genre. Most of these more interactive moments are serviceable if a touch long in the tooth, drawing attention away from the masterfully crafted tension of the story being told. It is an interesting attempt to do something fresh and modern audiences not accustomed to the glacial pace of the genre will find solace here, though I couldn’t help but want to get back to the narrative.
Stories Untold wraps up with the fourth chapter “The Last Session” pushes the game into some wild new territory and is best experienced without spoilers, even for mechanics. Suffice to say it’s this chapter that amps up the game’s narrative ambitions and delivers a satisfyingly unsettling conclusion to the bundle. Each story will run you about 40 minutes if you’re thorough, making for a tight experience that never outstays its welcome.
Stories Untold also boasts an excellent ambient score and immersive sound design, thanks to composer Omar Khan’s work. I made the mistake of playing this in bed, late at night with some good quality headphones and promptly had to delay finishing the stories till the sun came up. Jump scares are often, rightfully, derided within the horror community but Stories Untold manages to use them just precisely enough that I was never frustrated, just utterly spooked.
While the writing and ambience of Stories Untold still impress on the Switch, the interface and general usability suffer somewhat. An unfortunate byproduct of the commitment to vintage computer aesthetics is the distortion effect applied to most of the in-game text which becomes awkward to read on the small portable screen. This issue is mitigated to a degree thanks to the ability to “lean in” to get a closer look at a monitor or puzzle but the port’s fiddly controls can cause even more frustration.
Stories Untold requires minimal input from the player but for reasons beyond me the primary functions are mapped almost entirely to the left controls. One trigger is used to zoom in on the text for a more comfortable reading experience which locks the left joystick into a look around mode, preventing the use of the input keyboard which is raised by using the other left trigger. Given how many other buttons are free on the controller it is baffling that the bulk of the input is so tightly grouped together.
These aren’t experience breaking frustrations and they largely fade into the background of an otherwise stellar experience but when a solution as simple as button remapping could have been offered, it is difficult to not feel a little touch of regretable annoyance.
Control gripes aside, Stories Untold on the Switch feels as fresh, and vital, as it did when it first released on PC. While the horror genre may have made leaps and bounds beyond text-based gaming there remains something essential about this kind of experience. It’s a tactile experience, using nothing more than the clicking of keys and turning of dials to deliver a truly unnerving experience.
Stories Untold proves that these kinds of scary stories still desperately need to be told.
Stories Untold was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using code provided by the publisher.