Halloween Gaming Finale: Stasis

The final game of The Maximum Utmost’s Halloween Gaming for 2015 is here!  Stasis is a point-and-click adventure game that released just a short while ago on Steam.  An isometric adventure game with “inventory”-type puzzles, Stasis leans heavily on a disturbing and shock-ridden atmosphere to lay claim to its horror roots.  The game was actually a fair bit longer than I expected, and that’s why, unfortunately, this post didn’t make my Halloween deadline for it.

In Stasis, the player wakes up as John Maracheck, a man who has been in cryostasis for an unknown amount of time.  The last thing John remembers is entering stasis with his wife and daughter as they embarked on a vacation to Jupiter.  John now finds himself in orbit of Neptune in a derelict research vessel that has been overrun by the vile products of the human experimentation that had been carried out by the now deceased and slaughtered crew.  Setting out to find the whereabouts of his wife and daughter as well as a means of escape, he’ll have to face the grotesque abominations of science that call the ship home.

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Stasis is heavily inspired by an old isometric PC adventure game called Sanitarium.  I think when most people think of old isometric PC games, they usually associate this type of perspective with RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Diablo, Icewind Dale, etc., but Sanitarium was interesting in that it was actually a point-and-click adventure game in the vein of Monkey Island or Sam and Max.  It was a game that lacked combat, but instead focused on puzzle solving mainly around creative problem solving using items (and combinations of items) found in the environment.  I’ve never played Sanitarium, but after reading about it, it actually sounds pretty cool, so I may give it a shot sometime.  

Stasis shares a lot of common factors with its inspiration.  The gameplay is focused on finding items and figuring out how to use them to overcome obstacles that block progression.  And the stories of each game kick off in a somewhat similar way with protagonists who are “waking up”  in a setting where things have gone terribly awry without any memories of how they got there.

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But the key commonality between Stasis and Sanitarium is their focus on psychological horror (which in some ways is a natural consequence of the puzzle-focused gameplay chosen).  There are no enemies in this game to fight or run and hide from like in most other horror games.  There’s no combat of any sort, and there’s no enemies that will ever really kill the character in this game.  It’s possible to die, but this happens only occasionally when the player screws up a puzzle, rather than it being the result of an action actively done to the protagonist.  Instead, the tension and dread of this game originate from the intensely disturbing and unnerving imagery and scenarios that play out as the player progress through the starship.  There’s some really shocking and depraved stuff that the player will see during this game, and these disturbing discoveries are the main driver of the horror aspects of this game.  I found that the game definitely delivered when it came to macabre and grotesque scenes that I won’t forget for some time.  

But the focus on shocks rather than scares is both what makes the game unique, but also what leaves it being rather uneven and poorly paced at times.  Considering he’s on a ship that was overrun by mutated creatures that slaughtered the crew, it’s odd that John Maracheck never really finds himself in a situation where he directly encounters these monsters.  He certainly witnesses the gruesome aftermath of the massacre of the crew, as well as the perverse experiments that were being performed by the ship’s depraved science team.  But I never really felt like he was in danger.  I understand that this is a game focused on puzzle solving rather than action and combat.  But as I felt that John was never in any real danger, I think it created a disconnect between my reactions to the game’s events and John’s increasingly panicked and emotional state.

To elaborate further, I found the character of John Maracheck to be frustratingly intrusive sometimes, especially toward the end of the game.  When arriving at an unsettling scene, I would begin to start taking in the grotesquery that I was witnessing, only to be interrupted by John loudly panicking with weeping and wailing and insipid cries of “How could they do this!?!?!” and other such trite comments.  Given his situation, I perfectly understand why he is so emotional throughout the game.  My problem is that I find that his reactions disrupt my reactions to the disturbing things that play out in this game.  They’re more distractions to me as I try to fathom and process exactly what it is I’m seeing.  Imagine if Jill or Chris started freaking out everytime they came across a zombie or some new horror in the Spencer Mansion.  I think it might have been a better choice to have John be a silent protagonist or to only give his feedback during the game’s particularly troubling scenes.

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The other issue I have is that the game is rather uneven and poorly paced.  There is a large stretch in the middle of the game where nothing particularly interesting happens.  This occurs in the crew and medical quarters.  I think the player is supposed to be appalled by all the dead and desecrated crew found in this section, but it just fell flat for me.  The game starts picking up in a big way when the player reaches the labs, but, unfortunately, I think the long, unnecessary, and forgettable middle sections made me grow tired of the game just as events were starting to pick up toward the climax.  As a result, I was beginning to feel that the game was overly long during the parts I should have been the most engaged with it.

Another major pacing complaint that I have is that the game is filled with TONS of text logs.  I really really hate to sound like some sort of illiterate here, but I think a lot of these text logs needed to be trimmed out.  Almost all of them are overly long with no concision to be found.  And more than a fair few of them are filled with mundane details about the crew that don’t really enhance the story in any meaningful way.  I understand that the writer of the game probably wanted to establish the crew as real people so that the player would feel terrible for what happened to them.  But I really felt that all the tedious details that were given to the lives of some of the dead crew just disrupted the pacing of the game.  Unfortunately, the game establishes very early on that sometimes these text logs contain important pieces of information that are necessary to progress, so I felt compelled to read everything I came across, regardless of my dwindling patience for it.

That said, there’s some really great and disturbing material in these text logs, particularly when the player reaches the labs. And the writer(s) actually do a good job of slowly revealing the extent of the depravity that was occurring on the ship via these logs.  But I feel like at least 50% of it could be cut out without detriment to the player’s understanding of the story.   

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While I have issues with the back loaded nature of Stasis, I do think the people behind the game succeeded at what they set out to do with the game.  It also makes me very curious to try Sanitarium.  For players looking for a traditional survival horror experience, I don’t this is the game for them.  Afterall, the monsters are very much a detached part of this experience.  But if you like point-and-click adventure games with dense atmosphere, I think you’ll jive with Stasis despite its pacing flaws.  I found the puzzles to be well-designed, not too easy, but not too hard.  The solutions weren’t always immediately apparent, but they always made sense to me, and I was never so stumped and frustrated that I needed to consult a walkthrough.  I just feel that with some trimming or tweaking of the less impactful parts of the game, Stasis could have been much more of an indie gem.

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Posted on November 1, 2015, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I can see the Infinity Engine, the one created by BioWare for Baldur’s Gate, lending itself well to point-and-click adventure games. Planescape: Torment, which was in development at the same time, though released a year after Baldur’s Gate, was made in the same engine, and despite its abundance of RPG elements, it plays like an adventure game in practice. It has a larger emphasis on story and collecting/using important items than on combat.

    Anyway, it seems like Stasis has a few good ideas, but if it’s weighed down with pacing issues as you say, then it would appear that there are some execution issues. If a game stalls out at several points, it breaks immersion, which is especially bad for the horror genre; they need to gradually build an oppressive atmosphere for them to be successful. Up until the end of the game when the developers completely dropped the ball, System Shock 2 did this perfectly.

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    • That’s an interesting point. I had never really considered Planescape: Torment being just an adventure game inside of RPG trappings.

      I will say that the ending is actually quite chilling, and I let out an audible “oooohhhh….” when it became apparent to me how bleak the whole thing was. And not in a “ha ha, I’m still alive” SHODAN kind of way that happens at the end of System Shock 2.

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  2. I have not played this game, but it does sound interesting. The story seems similar to traditional science-fiction and horror stories, with ordinary people finding themselves in frightening circumstances (like Alien and Event Horizon). I found it strange that game uses point and click and text, but the graphics were so detailed (I usually associate those sorts of games with bad graphics of early computer games). I like the use of puzzles and the atmosphere of horror seems really good, but I was wondering if the game is affected by the lack of enemies. The use of text log to describe scientific experiments does remind me of the Metroid Prime games.
    Is the game follow the main character’s mission to return home? Without any enemies it does not seem like the character has any motivation or the plot can develop. What kind of puzzles are used in the game? Is there more than one story?

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    • Event Horizon is a great comparison to this game, actually. There’s some very messed up and just sick stuff that happens in both that movie and Stasis.

      I don’t necessarily think the lack of enemies hurts the game. But the ship is supposedly overrun by mutant creatures that killed all the crew, which just makes it weird to me that the main character never actually comes across these monsters. The monsters are definitely still on the ship, and that’s why the main character needs to find a way off, though. In addition, the main character finds out early on that his wife and daughter are also aboard the ship somewhere, so he must find them. The ending was really chilling actually, and I thought maybe there was multiple endings. But after searching online, it seems there’s only the one.

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      • I remember part of the story of Event Horizon mentions some weird things happening to the previous crew of a ship and it has a very disturbing atmosphere.
        It seems unusual to have such a chilling ending to a game. Unlike films, games seem to involve the player defeating their enemy which usually leads to a positive ending.
        Does it affect the game’s tension if the monsters do not appear? After playing for a while, is it easy to forget that the character is supposed to be in danger?

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