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Wot I Think: STASIS

"The best adventure game I've played in years"

Stasis [official site] is a traditional point and click adventure game with a sci-fi horror theme. Successfully Kickstarted by tiny South African studio The Brotherhood in 2013, it was released yesterday. Join me for some space-screaming.

Perhaps the main reason adventure games and I broke up is that I found them too arbitrary to take seriously. The puzzles were so often at odds with the setting or theme, necessitating a suspension of disbelief (either that there really only are three usable objects in this room, or that the protagonist is simply too stupid to try anything else) that I was increasingly unwilling to provide in order to commune with some designer's lateral thinking, or some writer's gags. Even Grim Fandango, the last adventure game I loved, was guilty of this: that wonderful sense of journey regularly disrupted by an inherent illogic. I don't enjoy puzzling for puzzling's sake - but when it's a puzzle which propels a game's events onwards, that's a different matter entirely. STASIS is all about momentum rather than stop-start headscratching. The majority of its puzzles act as natural stepping stones along its journey into body-horror darkness, not obstacles. It flows.

And that's not the only reason it's a triumph. STASIS punches so far above its weight that I almost can't believe it exists. It's also absolutely, unashamedly horrific.

Here's the setup: sometime towards the end of this century, you awaken aboard a spaceship you don't recognise. You appear to be the only survivor, but cling to the hope that your family are still out there somewhere. Which seems unlikely, given something terrible has clearly occurred during your time in cryogenic stasis: there is ruin, there is blood, there are nightmarish noises and flickering lights all around. Find out what happened/survive/find your family.

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If that sounds like it owes a debt to pretty much any horror-tinged science fiction touchstone you can think of, well, yeah. System Shock, BioShock, Alien, Event Horizon, Sunshine, The Thing, Dead Space, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers - it's all in the mix, and I don't think anyone involved in the game would claim otherwise, but in the main its well-judged tone and its fealty to its own, often shocking gruesomeness keep STASIS feeling only like STASIS, not a collection of tropes. It has a universe and a backstory far bigger than the events of the game, hinting at a legacy of dark science and societal follies which eventually led to the tragedies and ordeals you face.

Even a section which may well have been inspired by, of all things, Prometheus' ridiculous self-inflicted robo-surgery scene is so carefully-structured in terms of both logic and grotesque execution that the last thing it feels like is a second-hand idea. It's like that throughout - pushing borrowed concepts into new places, not simply referencing them, so that they almost always seem like STASIS' own. It's all about the ship. Everything, every freakish, horrible thing on it, serves a purpose, has a reason to be there, has a grim pay-off.

I should emphasise here that STASIS does not pay mere lip-service to body horror. I can't say too much without spoilers, but Christ, it really goes for it. Some of it is mercifully obfuscated by the bird's eye view and constant gloom, relying on written description to get across how horrendous the purported sight in front of you is, but other scenes pull no punches. STASIS' isometric, 2D art sometimes looks a little retro, but other times like baroque, ludicrously elaborate movie concept art, and it employs its minimal animation to spectacularly gruesome effect.

Its storyline too is a sustained descent into stomach-churning darkness, and even though it might dangle a carrot of hope in front of you at all times, some of its twists and turns are shocking. In a few cases it goes all the way into shock factor, in a way which feels salacious rather than in meaningful service to its setting, but in the main it's hard not to get a twisted kick out of all the visual and written detail it provides for its world-gone-wrong. Definitely, definitely don't play STASIS in easily-distressed company.

I marvel at how complete STASIS is. It has a world, it has a vision, it has real dedication to thematic monstrousness and, for the most part, all of its puzzles are in service to its excursion into hell. Particularly in the first part of the game, what it most reminded of was the original Half-Life. You're an ordinary guy living on his wits as nightmare creatures invade and the environment collapses around him. Sure, Half-Life involved thousands of bullets, but it also had that faintly puzzlesome, Rick Dangerous element to it - co-opting weird machines, using environmental destruction to open up new paths, dodging death at every turn.

Unusually for a modern adventure game, you can in fact die in STASIS, though only at around 20 specific junctures (most of which are just for 'fun', or at least achievements). While this reinforces the nightmare fantasy of it all, it is perhaps a reminder why adventure games at large decided to ditch fatality: it's just a bit annoying, tilting the game too far into trial and error. This is particularly, frustratingly the case in an almost quicktime event-like sequence around the halfway point, which requires you to repeat several minutes of unskippable exposition, animation and button-pushing every time you cock it up.

This comes hot on the heels of the one puzzle I thought was disruptive rather than, Half-Life style, propelling you forwards on your journey - the sort which requires taking notes and cycling on-screen buttons through dozens of possible combinations. All the information you need is hidden around nearby rooms, but the internal logic of it falls apart, and between that and the quicktime-ish event I was braced for STASIS to collapse into that which I truly fear.

Mercifully, it pulled back, switching instead to ever-more dramatic scenery and puzzles which once again inclined towards the instinctive - that Gordon Freemanish, 'I bet this will... yes!' quality. STASIS won't often stretch your lateral thinking muscles far, but what it does do is make you feel like you're using your wits to carve a path through a deadly place. The puzzles are, in the main, about thoughtful use of the environment around you, and not about suddenly finding a use for one of the half-dozen ridiculous items you've been carrying around in your pocket for the last hour.

Its final third perhaps takes this too far, providing so few Xs to use with so few Ys that the puzzling seems like perfunctory interaction peppered across ornate but static background art someone was determined to find a use for. The portentous, lonely exploration aspect also fades, as plot takes over, and disappointingly cartoonish boo-hiss baddies take centre stage. But even if there's a nagging sense that STASIS didn't quite figure out how to provide a truly satisfying denouement, it at least remains entirely true to itself until the titles roll.

Allowing itself a straight sprint to the finish line also feels very much earned. The quality of its first three-quarters, from its sumptuously repulsive creature art to its gigantic-yet-claustrophobic industrial environments, and the way its survival-focused puzzles fly you forwards on dark wings of logic, would be impressive if they came from a Double Fine-sized studio, let alone a game whose credits take less time to read than a bus ticket.

Even the sound design is superb - all the clanging noises and distant screaming you'd expect from a spaceship horror game, but staying on the right side of stereotype, and augmenting it with the eerie chatter of BioShocky broken advertising, ungodly squelching noises and barely-there music which fades in and out like a fever dream, rather than sucker-punches us into melodrama. It is, truly, a mystery how STASIS' handful of developers pulled all this off.

The only fly in the ointment is the character work. STASIS' lead triptych are essentially plot motivations in flesh-suits rather than believable personalities, while the many, backstory-fuelling diaries littered around the doomed ship tend to reduce the unseen, now-dead crew to 'phwoar, sex, eh?', moustache-twirling villainy or oh-remember-me instant tragedy.

A few entries hit harder, and one of the protagonist's primary objectives has gut-churning urgency to it, but really no-one manages to be even a fraction as convincing or compelling as the ship they all live(d) on. The guy voicing the protagonist puts in a pretty decent performance, including some particularly impressive full-throated roars of horror and hatred, but there's a slightly disjointed element to the character's behaviour, plus some weird disconnects when he shows no reaction to absolutely horrendous revelations, simply because they weren't told as part of the main plot.

I could dismiss that stuff as simply nitpicking at an extremely accomplished adventure game, but the thing is that STASIS is clearly trying to be a character-led tale as well a horror story, and so its unevenness in that regard is palpably distracting. If you can put that aside and treat it purely as a trek through an improbably detailed (and often improbably horrible) environment, motivated by that sick desire to discover what awful things lie deeper into this dread ship's iron bowels, STASIS is a triumph. It does have a few contrived or infuriating puzzles, but these are so dramatically outweighed by smartly fluid ones which genuinely heighten STASIS' drama so as not to matter.

Despite some characterisation wobbles and a somewhat perfunctory final mile, STASIS is the best adventure game I've played in years. It's also one of the most impressive horror games I've played lately. The tiny team behind it have done remarkable things, far in excess of what many, much larger studios seem capable of. Those studios should be afraid - be very afraid.

Faintly tedious technical addendum: despite extensive fiddling and communication with the devs, I could not get the game to load on Windows 10 with an NVIDIA GTX 970. I played on a laptop with Win 10 & Intel graphics in the end. Also unfortuantely there are no graphics settings to speak of, including resolution, though you can achieve some scaling by ini file editing.

STASIS is out now.

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