Have you ever woken up somewhere unfamiliar and had a bit of a panic? Granted, you probably just had a few too many beers the night before and the couch you’re on or bed your in might not be yours. A bit of adjustment and a quick mental note of the previous nights activities will usually remind you that you’re in a safe place but not so in STAY which releases soon for Xbox One.
Now I won’t spoil the story here as the journey is more important than the details but this is pretty much how you start the game. The character, Quinn, wakes up in bed to the sight of a stranger in his room. He takes a knock to the head and he reawakens in a dark room with nought but a desktop computer. He reaches out via a chat system hoping that someone, anyone, is on the other end. That’s where you, the player comes in. Unfolding like one of those old fighting fantasy novels, you must make decisions to aid his escape from this mysterious place. One wrong move though and it’s back to the start of the chapter.
It’s an interesting concept that’s presented in a pixel art style. There’s a chat screen, a “live” video feed and several meters that track Quinn’s mood. Unlike most videogame characters though, Quinn suffers from anxiety and depression. Not only must we aid his escape from this house of horrors, but we need to manage his fragile mental state. He starts off untrusting the player, you could after all be his captor, and you must work to establish a relationship with him.
His thoughts and fears are typed out and the player is presented with two or three choices which will help or hinder. I liked the way the text was presented, spelling mistakes and all, as it gives the feeling that Quinn is a real person. When you leave him, he definitely sticks around in your mind. All of this also plays out in real time so when you turn the game off the clock is still ticking. When you come back (if you come back) his mental state will have changed, he may have lost some trust in you and it’s up to you to win him over again. It does a pretty good job of making you worry about someone who doesn’t actually exist.
I got quite invested in the character and that seems to be another one of the aims of the narrative. You can either push forward to aid his escape, or you can build a better emotional bond with Quinn and get more information about him as a person. It’s a nice balancing act which demonstrates how difficult it can be to stay focused on the task at hand when dealing with these mental health issues. As someone who has previously dealt with similar issues it really hit home how seemingly impossible it can be to manage yourself in trying times. It’s really starts making you question the situation – should I find out about this person who is struggling with life or should I ignore the red flags and push forward with the escape plan?
In between the chats with Quinn, we get little interludes where he paces the rooms looking for answers both physically and mentally. He’ll come up with his own ideas that you can encourage or discourage him from trying. Depending on your relationship with each other sometimes he’ll listen but sometimes he forges his own path and you need to deal with the consequences. Together you’ll explore the house he seems to be trapped in or is it his own mind that’s his prison?
Outwith the text sections you’ll also be presented with puzzles. The majority of these are pretty straightforward when you look at all of the details but occasionally it will throw you a curve ball that really hinders your progress. I won’t give anything away but one puzzle in particular had me feeling exceptionally stupid and proud that I solved it all at the same time. A literal brick wall, another allegory for life’s hurdles?
The games has seven endings as well as a few fail states but to say anything about them would be too much. Just push forward, figure out your path and deal with what life has given you or make the necessary changes to improve.
And that’s STAY in a nutshell. An emotional rollercoaster from the perspective of someone plagued with self loathing and doubt. A worrier who wonders not only why he is in this place but what he could have done to avoid it. Don’t dwell on the past, look to a better future and seek out the help you need. The world may seem big and scary sometimes but it’s what’s in our own heads that can be most terrifying.