Games

'Stories Untold' Is an Expression of Anti-Nostalgia

No Code’s game bears visions of the past, but the more you seek comfort in its familiar aesthetics, the more sinister it becomes. We speak to its maker, Jon McKellan.

by Ed Smith
Mar 10 2017, 8:00pm

This article contains spoilers for part two of Stories Untold, "The Lab Conduct".

When you're dissatisfied with day-to-day life, you can develop what's almost like a survival instinct. So long as we strive for change, or at least an easier time, we won't grow complacent, become inert and eventually stop. A yearning for better days is what gets us out of bed.

Such is the lure of nostalgia. The past, particularly childhood, is easy to romanticize because it always seems simpler. Compared to here and now—wherein you're immediately confronted by the day at work, the journey home, the night alone—memory, by its nature, is replete with significance. Today can be monotonous. The past, in our minds, is a series of exceptional moments.

Video games have grown fat off nostalgia. Their ability to carry us, if not to memories from our childhood exactly, then certainly a child-like emotional state where we experience unmitigated awe, excitement and surprise, makes them irresistible. Games themselves remain prominent in our minds. Comprised of bright colors, hallmark noises and button combinations which compel repeat learning, video games, particularly in their formative condition, when they competed against one other for the attention of arcade goers, are designed to be mentally retained.

All Stories Untold screenshots courtesy of No Code/Devolver Digital.

Video games whisk us to uncomplicated places. They asserted themselves as, and still remain, a central player in our early life. And if we wish to recall a bygone age we may turn first to its technology—watching Ted Wheeler adjusting the antennas on his color television, in the introductory scene of Stranger Things, reminds us immediately of the 1980s.

Thirsting for the past, accessing it through memories of games and technology, and romanticizing all three— Stories Untold, by Glasgow studio No Code, tactfully dismantles this automatic response to everyday life.

"We wanted to take that comfort zone, those memories of old computers, and flip it on its head. We wanted to take these machines and place them in horrible situations." — Jon McKellan

On its surface, the game—or four of them, collected—appears to be an homage to all things analogue and obsolete. Its opening section involves playing a text-based game on what's clearly a tribute to a ZX Spectrum; while the second and third levels are based respectively around a 1990s-era PC and a microfilm reader. Stories Untold's music sounds like it was recorded by Tangerine Dream. Its poster was designed by Kyle Lambert, whose artwork has been used to promote The Thing, Jurassic Park and, fittingly, Stranger Things.

But rather than invite celebration of the past, these exterior details are the in-road for Stories Untold's disassembly of nostalgia. What the game first presents as familiar is gradually revealed to be sinister and uncertain.

"Even people who didn't grow up with this technology are aware of it," says Jon McKellan, Stories Untold's writer and director. "That gives it a familiarity which sci-fi doesn't have. We don't relate to a space ship, but we do relate to Spectrums and old Amstrad TVs. However, for the game, we wanted to take that comfort zone, those memories of old computers, and flip it on its head. We wanted to take these machines and place them in horrible situations."

Obtuse, stubborn and frustrating, the interfaces in Stories Untold—beyond the simple and pleasing feelings we often extract from nostalgia—provide nuance. Designed to be authentic rather than player-friendly, they suggest the good old days are likely worse than we recall. Moreover, they illustrate how the veneer of memory often hides things that are much darker. Ignoring the idealized versions of redundant technologies and pursuing fidelity instead, Stories Untold asks us to trawl piecemeal through our memories and unpick what is actually there.

"The first thing you do in the game, the extended intro, which lasts about 40 seconds, is listen to the Spectrum screeching as it loads up," McKellan says. There's a romantic quality attached to that machine. People always say, 'That noise! Remember that noise, when it started up?' But when you actually listen to it, it's horrific. It's not at all comforting. If I think back to when I first played a SNES, my little mind was blown by it. But when I remember everything which surrounded that SNES—school and day-to-day life—and strip away the fantasizing, things were not as good."

"Games have tapped into making you do things you don't want to before. But I think they've been tamed for the sake of user accessibility." — Jon McKellan

"Making systems that were deliberately difficult to use was a challenge," McKellan continues. "After a career spent as a user interface designer (McKellan has previously worked on Alien: Isolation and Super Arc Light), I had to unlearn a lot of stuff I'd normally take very seriously. But the idea in Stories Untold, that you're digging through memories and trying to make sense of things, leant itself perfectly to systems like, for example, a microfilm reader. It's not an easy process to dig through history and get a clear and full picture, and see what you want to see."

The more you pick at the various, recalcitrant machines in Stories Untold, the more you realize your character and his past are both hiding something disquieting. Handling the Spectrum, the old PC and the microfilm reader is hardly a joy in the conventional sense. On the contrary, you feel like, with each successful operation, you are moving closer to danger. Such is the game's poetry. By taking objects and actions we commonly associate with assuring memories, and providing them instead as means for accessing our character's bleak history, which when it's finally uncovered absolutely overwhelms him, Stories Untold attacks the very concept of nostalgia.

Above: Stories Untold launch trailer

Out of self-interest, video games are known to imply both that the past is something to which you should desire a return, and that games are the means to reach it. Stories Untold suggests the opposite. The more you interact with its various consoles, the more you play its in-game Spectrum, the further you feel from comfort; the more you try to get that nostalgic feeling, the more violently you're dragged into the present.

Slow, difficult and unlikely to yield simple answers, this is the process of remembering. To genuinely and wholeheartedly route through one's past may feel like fumbling over fractious technology.

"Throughout the game's second episode," McKellan says, "you've a doctor and a manual telling you everything you need to do. The problem is trying to convert their information into real life. They're feeding you what you need to know but not giving any help executing it. For the first half of that section, you don't know why you're doing what you're doing. When you suddenly see that inside this box you've been scanning and zapping is a live, beating heart you feel guilt, and that ties into the game's bigger narrative picture.

"Games have tapped into making you do things you don't want to before. But I think they've either been ham-fisted because they've felt the need to be super obvious or tamed for the sake of ease of use and user accessibility. A lot of games wouldn't want to make you feel like you were doing wrong. But as long as the pay-off is good, I think people will accept drudgery."

Such is the nature of recalling—genuinely recalling—one's own past. More than relishing romantic memories, it may be painful to delve into what truly once was. But like the character in Stories Untold, who remains trapped in a fantasy of his own making, lest he finally confront what happened, wistfulness has the potential to limit our understanding, both of self and the wider world.

The answers they provide might be discomforting, the process of reaching them fraught with difficulty, but the machines in Stories Untold, authentically modeled on their real-world counterparts, offer unvarnished honesty. In reality, above the fleeting pleasure of nostalgia, that holds value.

Stories Untold is out now.

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