I generally interact with horror games through the medium of youtube. Sometimes I make ill-advised forays into actually loading a live game on my computer, but that generally ends with me retreating back to someone else playing – I like horror settings but don’t like being startled, and I really don’t like trying to detach myself from it enough to not be startled.
Stasis followed the opposite track. I started to watch someone play and became so engaged with the game that watching someone else play was intolerably frustrating. This is a point and click game with gorgeously bleak atmosphere and even more gorgeously bleak prose popping up whenever you mouse over things. The opening is absolutely perfect, so much that, as soon as I’d seen a few minutes of the game, I knew I’d recommend people play it just for that alone even if the rest didn’t live up to it.
…which, it turns out, is good, because the rest did not. I’d still strongly recommend checking it out, and if you’re good at just kind of coasting on lovely horrific atmosphere without getting caught up in putting things together the whole game might be fun, but if you hit a point it feels like it’s gotten bad, just quit, it’s not going to get better and you don’t really want the answers. You can also check out the demo instead – it doesn’t have quite the polish of the finished game, but it’s of the best section of the game. Definitely do one of those two things before continuing, because most of my complaints are the most spoilery parts of the game.
The game opens with us slowly moving over a spaceship. We finally enter to see, among other things, a skeleton floating in a stasis tube. Next, you’re ejected from your own. Automated warnings scream at you to seek immediate medical attention – you’re suffering from, among other things, muscle degeneration, and your heart may give out under the strain of beating. But there’s no one here. Corpses fill the other tubes, with their monitoring systems either entirely off or desperately asking for medical technicians who never came.
And it’s immediately obvious why. The place you’re in is falling apart. Examining a chair, not even the thick layer of dust can cover the deeper cracks in the ancient leather. You stagger out, calling for help, and find more emptiness. Drag yourself all the way to the medical area, and you’re greeted by rusting equipment and an automated warning everything is offline, sorry, come back later. You can find a radio, but it’s random, hard to make out voices that seem to be looping, some just advertisement, something that might be about a comet…
X, but IN SPACE is often a jokey addition, as it tends to undermine whatever’s going on. One thing we all know about space, however, is how inhospitable it is, how fragile our continued existence there is. If he had woken up in a medical facility on Earth, a lack of immediate supplies would still be bad, but simply leaving would be an option. Even if outside was a vast forest, it’s possible to survive there and simply walking far enough will find other people. Even if outside is featureless ice, there’s oxygen. There’s other forms of life you might be able to get and eat. If the bunker you’re in is falling to pieces, the ice itself can be used to help you hunker down and keep warm enough to stay alive. Even if you’re adrift in the middle of the ocean, there’s the possibility of fish, of rain, of finding land again. There’s no single point of failure. There are many, many ways you might die, but you always have a chance of some kind.
In space, there is none of that. If there is no way off the ship, you sit in the growing dark watching machine after machine fail until enough goes down that you’re not there to watch any longer. You can’t repair it because you don’t have anything more. You can’t leave because there is nothing outside.
Simply being in space is incredibly deadly. Being in space in what appears to be a long-abandoned, derelict ship with all the precious, delicate machines you depend on to live somewhere you were never meant to failing around you? It really doesn’t get worse than that.
The game gamely attempts to, though! If you check out the computers, they have logs that inform you why you’re on an unfamiliar ship…and it’s because you (and presumably your family with you) have been hijacked by organ harvesters. So not only is there no one to help you, but you can’t even hope to find someone, because anyone who actually knows what to do is a person who’s okay flaying children. (They’re not even economical about it, as the logs record someone dying from getting a part of their skull removed, which suggests they’re find grabbing an entire person every time they need a single part, the death toll is orders of magnitude worse than it needed to be, and they’re fine with this.)
But the thing is, the best part of the opening is wondering what’s going on, and it’s a little odd that three rooms in, we already know the basics. And, since everything points to the place being shut down, there’s not even much urgency about the guy’s family – we already knew it was possible his kid was dead in another stasis tube, given our opening sample size is 3/4 tubes malfunctioning, and knowing there used to be but aren’t organ harvesters just changed that to his kid could’ve died long ago in or out of a tube, but either way, if they’re alive the concern is just finding them before the rest of the ship fails.
And then we find a corpse that’s only very recently died, and a voice on the radio able to inform us that actually this malfunctioning deathtrap was still working normally a mere three months ago. What sort of stasis tubes have three out of four fail within three months of no one checking on them? We do find references to things being old and shoddy before this, which I guess is supposed to explain it, but not only am I not convinced this place could be that fucked up in this short of a time, but also it’s just not an interesting answer. And radio-voice warns us that whatever killed the guy is probably still there so get moving, so there’s apparently mystery monsters on the ship, which again, scary, but not as scary as malfunctioning death trap.
That’s really the theme. Each new revelation is startling but kind of mundane overall. Worse, each revelation is generally a little less interesting than the previous one (there are clones! in mega vats of clones! but the clones are more like zombies and eat people out of “instinct” but somehow never nip each other! and also some of them are crazy mutated and hyper-intelligent with tails and six legs somehow! ALSO IN COMPLETELY SEPARATE NEWS HERE ARE SOME NAKED DRUGGED WOMEN WE’RE USING TO BREED “HYBRID” MONSTERS WHO LOOK LIKE GREY ALIENS USING JUNK DNA ACTIVATION, BUT ONLY WOMEN WHO’VE ALREADY BEEN PREGNANT AND ALSO WE HAVE TO HYBRIDIZE THE WOMEN FIRST TOO FOR SOME REASON! ALSO ALSO GAS CHAMBERS!!! ALSO ALSO ALSO THE FUNGUS ALL OVER THE SHIP IS ACTUALLY THE SURVIVING REMNANTS OF THE REJECTED HUMAN HYBRIDS WHO WERE KILLED AND IT TURNS PEOPLE INTO PLANT ROOTS BECAUSE JUST FUCK BIOLOGY THAT’S WHY). And the more we learn about the science behind it the more absurd it all gets – everyone has ID tags in their spines, so the creatures completely skin people leaving the spines on the body as far as we can tell then wear it to get past checkpoints, so the surviving crew decide to switch security to attack people with the ID tags, and somehow no one realize that if they’re smart enough to wear skinsuits to get past checkpoints they can figure out they should take them off pretty fast. All this does is make it so the creatures are untrackable again and require everyone else to get their spines hacked open in a process that kills at least one person. And furthermore they dispose of bodies by throwing them into a giant pit of acid, as if a) this is a reasonable use of space and b)acid makes the slightest sense for dissolving organic matter.
(I’ll grant the atmosphere remains great throughout – clone vats and rotting overgrowth, half-transformed woman swollen like a bloated corpse, and my favorite, you end up hearing voices just on the edge of comprehensible as you wander around areas, and one time there’s this nursery-rhyme thing out of nowhere that the character definitely hears because he tries calling out to whatever it is, and there’s a point where there’s a sort of ghost moving ahead of you…but I never figured out why any of that was. There’s either none at all or there’s some technical excuse for it buried in a log I missed, and either way that makes it obvious there’s not going to be much of a reason behind it.)
Also, although there’s logs everywhere, the story proceeds assuming you haven’t found a single one, or even looked around at your surroundings which means that despite the very first logs you find back when you’re still seconds from heart failure, the guy explains precisely who he is to the not even very friendly voice on the radio – she even initially thinks he’s part of the crew and he sets her straight, then is horrified to find out about the whole organ harvesting thing. We’ll later discover a log referencing horrible things happening to his wife to which he doesn’t react. And despite the fact our radio voice is deeply suspicious in how her goal somehow shifted from “hours away from getting off this monster-ridden crumbling ship” to “help you find your, let’s face it, almost certainly already dead family”, or how she doesn’t explain what happened or who the other angry voice on the radio is or anything, or, you know, the fact she was working for the company that did the organ harvesting, you just plod along. And, of course, he doesn’t ask for explanations even though there’s no reason he can’t.
The lack of reactions wouldn’t be such a problem if the story wasn’t constantly trying to give you something new that changes everything – a story where we’re both pretty much in the dark would’ve worked fine, but instead the player’s getting all this information that’s never reflected in the game.
I also had the sense the developer was struggling to fill out all the puzzles for padding. They start off relatively logical and allow reuse of items – you have a drill, so you can drill holes or unscrew things. Then later in order to turn on a surgical machine, you need to refill its tanks with various chemicals that it’ll be injecting your brain during the procedure, which you can do by such methods as bludgeoning a random rotten organ into large chunks with visible bone or scooping liquid off the filth-covered floor. (And not just any random rotten organ! You can’t use the body hacked open next to you, you have to go two rooms back and pull it out of the stuff pasted onto the wall. Another later puzzle demands you walk around amid corpses until another body falls and then use that one’s intestines.) There’s also a pair of sudden death puzzles, neither of which make much sense and both of which are glitchy as hell due to the fact they’re set during cutscenes which can cause the game to lock up for a bit due to something about framerates. I realize I don’t play on the best computers, but I could run the rest of the game completely fine and even the cutscene sections were generally stable outside of those points.
The plot ends up incoherent, with the only consistent thing being that life sucks. One person offhandedly mentions that his family’s private island isn’t that fun since there’s no animals left to hunt – something that doesn’t even make sense because it’s a plot point that there’s a cat onboard just so you can try to pet it and watch it get murdered by a random creature, unless I guess we’re to believe people happily murdering other people draw the line at hunting cats. Another log complains about getting entered into a government suicide lottery by his wife (for which you get ten thousand dollars up-front, and somehow this is still a net savings on welfare according to him), and I get the sense no one actually thought about what sort of economy would cause that because he has no trouble getting a job on the ship to escape when he’s picked as a winner. If he’s able to get a job that easily, why was he in the welfare-lotto? Plus we’re told over and over that even if people find out about all the horrible stuff the corporation did no one will care, which is why they hid it on a ship in deep space so no one would know, why they lied to almost all their workers, why we find the body of someone who was trying to save some of the people… And all this does is make me care less and less about the setting – if everywhere is horrible there’s really no contrast to the ship.
Also – yeah, there’s a cat just so they can kill it, foreshadowing the later events of trying to open another stasis tube only to always fail and kill the person inside, killing the half-plant woman, then there being naked pregnant women you’re forced to kill to progress, then you accidentally kill one of the grey not-aliens by laser (yet you can’t mercy-kill any of the other ones who are actually suffering horribly) then you have to break the glass to save your daughter only it’s impossible, and then finally it turns out the woman on the radio is the secret villain and your wife was long dead. Last bits really not a shocking as they were probably meant to be, because it’s obvious the point is bleak misery.
But, on a positive note, as badly integrated as main story/file information were, and as annoying and tasteless as everything about the grey not-alien plot was, and despite the fact this is a story about fridging a wife and daughter, and as obnoxious it was that I had to stay on the rails of obviously tricking me radio-voice…I really liked the main character. He gets upset at the sight of dead bodies in the other tubes. He vomits all over the floor when he sees a still-twitching corpse. He crouches and calls out to the cat. Although plot demands he kill people, he at least doesn’t want to, horrified when his attempt to open the stasis tube doesn’t work, trying to help the hideously transformed woman, and breaking down completely when he turns off the power and the pregnant women thrash and die. I’m even willing to forgive the fact we’re told killing those women is a mercy yet I can’t do it voluntarily or kill the suffering hybrids – it’s not like we even have a proper weapon to make it a clean death, and I’d probably flinch faced with trying to beat someone to death with the butt of a gun.