- Posted by Carl Lyon
- On September 9, 2015
- 0 Comments
I’ve been talking a lot about nostalgia here at CONtv of late, with games like Evoland 2 and Adventures of Pip hearkening back to simpler times, wrapping themselves in colorful 8-bit wrappers that transport us back to the days of our youth, hunched in front of a glowing cathode-ray tube with our hands reduced to throbbing claws, clutching a controller in a death grip. Nostalgia is a strange thing, picking and choosing the time periods and the themes that it wishes to encapsulate and emulate, and leaving the lesser-known and less-desirable to molder in the past.
It becomes even more apparent when it comes to entire genres of games. While dozens—if not hundreds—of games lovingly ape the platformers and RPGs of the 8- and 16-bit era, nobody waxes nostalgic for the brief love affair that gaming had with the isometric adventure. Games like Crusader: No Remorse, Sanitarium, and Fallout locked the camera at a fixed 45-degree angle, giving the voyeuristic illusion of depth with 2D sprites and crisp backgrounds.
(Side note: Ultima VIII did this as well, but nobody gets nostalgic for Ultima VIII.)
It’s surprising to see a developer—in 2015, no less—try to bring us back to the mid- to late-90’s with a simple, inventory-based isometric adventure. It’s more surprising to see them do a competent job at doing so. It’s even more surprising that this game, Stasis, is one of the finest adventure games ever made.
Crafted by the micro-team of The Brotherhood, Stasis follows John Maracheck, a man who awakens from stasis upon the Groomlake, a massive spaceship orbiting Neptune. He finds himself embroiled in a dark tale involving genetic manipulation, corporate espionage, and death, all while desperately trying to find his missing wife and daughter. Yes, Stasis is pure space horror, and at first glance it seems content to rely on the tropes of the genre: a sprawling industrial spaceship filled with monochromatic monitors and poor wire management, with a threat only seen in the shadows. It’s something that we’ve seen countless times before, but somehow Stasis manages to take all of the clichés of the genre and make something that completely exceeds the sum of its parts.
The main reason for that is the writing. ChrisBischoff not only crafted a tragic, believable everyman in John, but he fleshes out the story with dozens of emails and journal entries that lay out surprisingly deep journeys for the corpses that litter the Groomlake. All of the logs converge around the same time, but the myriad motivations and developments of the players in this scenario is almost dizzying. There are miniature tales of unrequited love, attempted redemption, and brazen sociopathy. What’s even more impressive is how distinct each of these characters is, with unique personalities and world views that color the narrative in their own individual palette. Keep in mind, all of this development is on characters that John will never interact with or see in any context outside of a corpse silently decaying in the halls of the Groomlake. We can do nothing more than read their final testimonials and piece together their final days, days that had passed before John was ever awakened from stasis.
This past-tense context gives Stasis a different sort of feel than most space horror. Instead of relying on jump scares or alien beasts hunting from the nooks and crannies of the ship (although there are a few isolated moments of traditional jump-scariness), Stasis instead opts for a near-suffocating feeling of dread. The atmosphere and the relentless tension become overwhelming at times, bolstered by the game’s phenomenal writing, which permeates every corner of the ship. Text descriptions of the environment John is exploring are simultaneously beautiful and hideous, and the scenes of horror that the player must endure become even more grotesque as a result. I feel giving away too much of the game’s plot would dilute its effectiveness, but the use of body horror borders on nauseating, made all the worse by John’s surprisingly human reactions to the atrocities he witnesses. By the end of the game he’s vomited, wept, and broken down in a fashion uncharacteristic of this sort of game. John isn’t a gun-toting space marine or reluctant survivalist badass, he’s a scared father and husband doing what he can to save his family. In fact, the game is perfectly summarized in an Andre Maurois quote that bookends the narrative: “Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold.”
This brilliant story is conveyed in the traditional dialect of the point-and-click adventure. Players click their mouse around the environment to collect items and solve puzzles. It’s almost comforting in how familiar and unremarkable the format is, and the puzzles are all fairly logic driven. This makes the game feel almost secondary to the narrative, more the method of conveyance than the core of the experience. It’s like a familiar fork delivering a delicious meal to your mouth.
The audiovisual design is also stunning in its ability to build the world around you. While the aesthetic is one of 2D sprites (albeit phenomenally rendered ones), it uses the aforementioned text descriptions in tandem with gloriously grotesque sound design to make the game look and sound better than its spiritual forebears. The most gruesome moments are draped in shadow or displayed in mercifully small size on the screen—the most anxiety-inducing exception being a hideously clear scene of self-surgery—but they’re made all the more vivid by the use of sound and text. It’s rare for these three aspects to become symbiotic, but Stasis inextricably links them together into an organism both beautiful and horrifying.