‘STAY: Are you there?’: I Was, But Not Anymore (Review)

STAY: Are you there?
By: Appnormals / Plug In Digital

I didn’t really know what to expect from Appnormals’ choice-based text adventure, STAY: Are you there?, but it hooked me right away. There’s no time wasted getting to the action. A man named Quinn is kidnapped and locked in a room with a computer that, for some reason, allows him to communicate with you and you alone. It’s a cross between a room escape game and a texting game like Lifeline. You need to give him advice, moral support, and help solving puzzles that will get him from room to room in the house where he’s being held prisoner. There’s even a unique gimmick related to the name of the game, in which Quinn resents you if you spend too much time away. My first session with him was at night, and I felt guilty when I went to sleep and left him alone. I was thoroughly engrossed and even willing to forgive weaknesses in the script. But the deeper I got, some design flaws started to make the game feel more like a chore and I cared less and less about Quinn, spending more and more time away from him between sessions. I wish this would have been the easy recommendation I thought it would be when I first started playing, but continue reading to find out why that’s not the case.

The game moved at a solid pace for about an hour and a half. I was eager to help Quinn and find out who kidnapped him. I even wondered if maybe I was the kidnapper. Either way, I needed to find out what was happening. My interest only grew deeper as we discovered more about his surroundings and I learned more about him and his job as a psychiatrist. Did one of his patients do this? Who would have the motive and the means to pull this off? I had so many questions I needed answered. The game also did a great job of bringing Quinn to life through pixel art and animations. I loved how the live video feed of him crackled with static at times, and how you could see him looking around and thinking between typing. The attention to detail made him more realistic and made me care about him.

With each choice you make, Quinn’s bond with you and his trust in you will either strengthen or weaken. I wasn’t really paying attention to that at first, since I was making decent progress and the game never really stressed its importance. But the basic idea is that if you show enough interest in his life and not just getting him out of this sticky situation, you’ll bond more and learn more. For the most part, its an interesting mechanic that makes your choices even more meaningful. But It’s not always cut and dry like that, and the correct choice isn’t always obvious. Those moments where you think you chose right but Quinn gets upset with you anyway feel like the developers are tricking you. But again, I could overlook that if not for other problems. The point where I started getting annoyed with the game was the first time I got Quinn killed.

I have no issue with those bad endings themselves, especially since it doesn’t mean restarting the game from scratch. Like with choose-your-own-adventure books, I find it amusing to see all the different ways Quinn can meet his demise. Choice-based games like this are far less interesting if there’s only good endings. Those deaths remind you that your choices matter, but also that this is a game and not real life. You’re allowed to have fun and purposely choose badly to see what happens. Except, not completely. See, even though you don’t have to restart the game each time you mess up, you do need to restart the chapter. And in theory that sounds fine. You messed up, so now you need to fix your mistake. The problem is, there’s no way to quickly get back to the point where you messed up so you can fix it and move on. Instead, you have to wait for Quinn to slowly type everything out again and wait for the dialogue options to reappear. You can’t tap the screen to make Quinn type faster or skip ahead to the choices. All you can do is wait. And it’s excruciating having to do this time and time again.

At one point, I had two bad choices that led to the same ending, so I had to restart the chapter not once, but twice, and change an earlier choice. The result was that I began to dread playing. I took longer breaks, stopped caring about the “Time Away” counter and played other games instead. It only got worse once the puzzles started getting a little too obscure. There are puzzles scattered throughout the game’s twenty-four chapters, each self-contained and unrelated to the others. There aren’t many clues, but I was able to solve the first few just by being observant. I particularly liked the bookshelf puzzle, as it was pretty clear what the end goal was — to move the books into the correct order — even if it took me some time to notice all the clues and finally solve it. It was a satisfying puzzle that had the perfect amount of info. But just as I was congratulating myself for a job well done, I hit a wall — both figuratively and literally.

Suddenly I was staring at a brick wall with a peacock perched atop. I could press bricks and some of them would light up while others would explode. I had some sense of what was happening, but I had no idea what the end goal was or how to know if I was on the right track. Was I being penalized for the explosions? Did I need to avoid those and if I don’t I can’t pass the puzzle? What about the peacock? Why did it move around and drop feathers when I tapped it? Is the number of feathers a clue? Do I need to get the peacock to move to a certain spot on the wall or leave the wall permanently? All these things were going through my head as I scrambled to understand what the game wanted of me. There are some clues, but they’re a bit too obscure considering you don’t really know what the goal is and what is or isn’t a clue. Even knowing something is a clue doesn’t necessarily tell you that something else isn’t. Since the game has already been out on other platforms for a while, I did a quick search to see if other people had issues with it. And they did. But the developers had no intention of changing anything, so I instead found enough info to allow me to solve the puzzle on my own. In hindsight it makes sense, but I still don’t know I’d ever have figured it all out without any help whatsoever.

This wasn’t the only puzzle that felt a little too obscure, either. And until you solve a puzzle, you can’t continue. This isn’t like a point-and-click adventure where you can walk around and try to do something else first or find another clue. Your progress comes to a complete stop until you solve that puzzle. But you’re still on a timer. So if you get frustrated and take too long a break, Quinn might notice and you’ll have to start the chapter over to get back to the puzzle. It was this clash between the game wanting me to get stuck but then penalizing me for it that was the final nail in the coffin. As much as I wanted to see where the story was going and help Quinn out, it felt like the game was doing everything it could to push me away. The interest I had in the game and the concern I had for Quinn got sapped out of me with each chapter restart. I even hit the maximum time away and the clock stopped counting.

If this was the game’s first iteration and the developers were open to feedback, I might hold out hope that these things would change. But the game has been out on other platforms for some time and other people have complained about the inability to skip ahead when restarting a chapter. So at this point, I have to assume that’s not happening and anyone who plays this game either needs to have the patience of a saint or use a guide to make sure they don’t make any mistakes.

I have other complaints about the game, but none of them would be enough to ruin the experience on their own. For instance, I at first found the snarky fourth wall-breaking comments between chapters amusing. But they got weirder and weirder, sometimes even mean. And they were at odds with the tone of the rest of the game. Am I supposed to feel like I’m talking to a real person who needs my help or is this all just one big joke? If the developers don’t take it seriously, why should I? There are different ideas clashing with each other, preventing true immersion and a proper connection with Quinn.

The dialogue is also unnatural at times, filled with too many pop culture references (which Quinn admits to) and just generally could benefit from some editing. I could probably overlook the fact that he’s correcting his typos while his life is in danger, and choosing lofty ways to talk. I could just chalk it up to that being his personality. But at some point it just becomes too much. The script could have used some tightening, especially since you’re not able to make Quinn type as fast as you can read.

I could even ignore the absurdity of the idea that Quinn is sitting still and waiting for me while I sleep for eight hours. Or the fact that the clock counting down thirteen hours disappeared shortly after it was discovered. Or the fact that I was often given the option of two bad choices, or choices where the developer was clearly trying to trick me. Quinn also sometimes ignored my advice and made my choices seem meaningless. The ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, either. I started to suspect what it would be before it was revealed, but was still hoping for more of a resolution. I also never really understood my connection to Quinn, why his computer linked specifically to me. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t get the good ending, but i don’t really want to replay the whole game to see what I might have missed.

None of these complaints would have been huge issues on their own, just things that keep the game from being truly great. I could have overlooked most of them if not for the chapter restart problem. After all, it’s a unique concept with fresh ideas and the pixel artwork is great, especially the full-screen stills. The soundtrack is definitely a highlight for me, and if not for it I might have gotten even more annoyed with the game’s shortcomings than I was. And while I personally couldn’t give the game all my attention without any breaks, I don’t begrudge it for giving me an alternate ending for that. I thought it was actually an interesting concept to keep track of how long players are away. And it would have also been fine that Quinn notices and gets annoyed, forcing a chapter restart. What I’m not fine with is that I then have to slowly catch up to where I was.

This is a flawed game with heart, so I can forgive missteps in the storytelling or even the puzzle design. What I can’t really forgive is the developers intentionally wasting my time. That makes it hard for me to give STAY an easy recommendation. There’s a lot to like here and it’s definitely worth checking out for its experimental nature. But between its obscure puzzles and punishing nature, I would have to suggest players either keep a guide handy, such as mine, or come with an abundance of patience. If you don’t like games wasting your time, then you’ll have to make the tough decision between gritting your teeth after each chapter restart or cheating a bit to avoid it. If you’re willing to give STAY: Are you there? a chance despite its flaws, download the game here and and help Quinn find his way out.

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