Stay by developer Appnormals is a complicated and at times messy experience. A truly haunting, cerebral, and taut, tensely realized story in the vain of the early 2000’s film Phonebooth it is a endlessly gripping title with a protagonist in Quinn that you will find yourself desperate to save from his Saw like situation.
The issues come not from the game’s fantastic thriller-based narrative and more from its inability to distance itself from unnecessary “video gamey” moments that will pop up to rip you out of the experience. Frustrating puzzles that range from simple and quick to solve to ones that stole away hours of my time in quests to solve them, removing me from the terrifying, philosophical world of Stay and thrusting me into the worst aspects of early 90’s Adventure games.
Stay centers on Quinn, a 30-something who has been kidnapped in the middle of the night and dropped off in the locked away basement of some hidden away place with only a computer with him.
His head ringing, trying to gather his thoughts as the room around him spins away, Quinn heads to the only source of light in the room, the computer, and types in a message. It’s this first message that you as the player recieve that will kickstart a multi-hour long journey.
Like in Emily is Away, Stay is a text-based conversational game with branching paths, multiple endings, and in this case, death stalking constantly after you. Trying to balance listening to Quinn’s concerns, learning more about his story, and how and who may have put him in this situation while also trying to get him ever closer to the exit of the hellish home he finds himself in is a complicated, messy, and largely realized balancing act.
Giving you two meters, one that charts your trust levels with Quinn, and a second that shows how close of an emotional connection is being forged between you two. Stay constantly seeks to probe how close of a connection will be had in your pursuit to get Quinn out of his predicament. Trying to balance growing Quinn’s trust in you, so he will listen to your advice and respond to your questions, while also building an emotional connection so you can be a source of comfort and a shoulder to lean on as the trauma and mental crisis of the night take their toll on Quinn is a delicate and wonderfully realized balancing act. There is a constant gnawing dread that danger and pain lie right around the corner, all of which is compounded by Quinn’s obvious emotional distress at being in such a situation. This is heightened by his own personal demons which over time slowly begin to creep out. After every few chapters something called an “Interlude” will occur where Quinn will simply get up and walk around a given area, trying to process everything, decompress from the challenges he faced, and gain some clarity on himself, you, and the message and philosophies of the house.
Philosophy, life, salvation, and damnation are all pillars of Stay. As a former therapist, Quinn is quite aware of numerous different threads of psychologically, religion, and spirituality. As he is forced to wrestle with these issues as he hurtles towards what can very easily be the end of his life, and what is unquestionably a spiritual and moral reckoning, Quinn ponders and thus asks the player about topics ranging from beauty and grace, freedom, theories of infinity, anger, and in far and away my favorite chapter of the game, wonder and the idea of hope.
This is a game that approaches fantastic highs with some of these topics, I can not throw enough praise to my personal playthrough of chapter 10 where Quinn finds himself discovering a mostly abandoned greenhouse in the splendour and beauty of the moonlight. Coming after numerous other hurdles and a bout with despair and anger, it is a beautifully realized series of scenes. A scene, it should be noted, absent of the usual amount of dialogue and featuring a lingering scene of Quinn simply walking along the roof of the greenhouse and staring out at the magnificent crescent moon in full wonder as a series of statements and rhetorical questions about hope linger in your mind from a few moments earlier.
The game is sometimes too clever for its own good though in some of the other instances of using these heady, philosophical musings and can lose itself when trying to ask grand questions about life, death, and the point of it all. Sometimes, it all works as above, sometimes it’s merely fine, sometimes though, and far more than I would like, the game simply makes you roll your eyes.
The games biggest problem though is in its inability to remove itself from the video game tropes it feels it needs to rely on. Namely the puzzles of this game, which aside from not being necessary, actively detract and indeed very much remove you out of the experience of Stay. This is classic 1990’s PC adventure games at their confusing worst. Stay’s puzzles are nearly exclusively opaque, unclear, with little to no direction, or understanding of what is being presented to you and with even less idea of how to solve said puzzles. Worse still is the fact that the puzzles of Stay whip all across the spectrum of difficulty with no seeming progression at all. A puzzle involving a bookcase in chapter six was rough, but was ultimately one that could be solved in good conscience. It’s followed by a significantly easier one a few chapters later, before finally a puzzle in chapter 11 involving a wall proved to be the most bafflingly difficult and unclear of anything in the game. It seems designed with the intent to frustrate, annoy, and confuse the player and it tanked my experience in a way that it never fully recovered from. Other frustrating puzzles continued to pop up from there and the game never fully recovered the momentum or pacing it had prior. I spent literal hours on all of the various puzzles, all of which combined to ruin the momentum the game had expertly built and squandered the pacing and tension of Quinn’s story.
The puzzles are frequently frustrating by themselves, but a thing that compounds the problem is actually something that I also really enjoy. The game keeps a running clock of how long you have been playing, but far more importantly keeps a running clock of how long you have been away from Quinn and the game. The instant you leave the game it takes a toll on Quinn. His isolation, feelings of loneliness, and inner turmoil increase, his trust and emotional connection can take hits the longer you are away. The idea of having to stay with Quinn, as the title infers, throughout the entirety of his journey is a powerful and evocative one. I couldn’t, and just as importantly, didn’t want to turn away because I was riveted and keenly felt a strong urge to make sure Quinn was safe, to see him out of this mess as the only person able to speak and communicate to him. I was his only outlet, his only source of comfort, encouragement, and a beacon urging him on, lifting him up as his demons threatened to engulf him, any moments away were unthinkable to me.
That is until the puzzles started to suddenly become punishing and brain-melting. This left me staring and bashing my head against a given puzzle for large swathes of time. Unable to gather my thoughts or simply take a break for fear of coming back to a broken relationship with Quinn. When I finally had to take a break during my time with Chapter 11’s puzzle, part of me thought this was a deliberate design choice by the developers to make me empathize with Quinn’s situation and place me firmly in his shoes. Yet, if that’s the intent then they widely missed the mark. Aside from the fact that Quinn literally has moments baked into the game where he steps away and takes a break, the interludes I mentioned before, it also doesn’t connect me closer to Quinns struggles but instead breaks the immersion of the world as I lose all thought about Quinn and his story as I seek to just find some sort of path through the given puzzle so I can get back to what I want to be doing, playing this narrative focused story.
It’s the way Stay doesn’t seem to value my time that rubbed me the wrong way. It would be one thing if this was a short two or three hour experience, but the numerous chapters of the game, with all of the conversations, puzzles, and interactions that occur soon swallow up more and more of your time. The puzzles alone as their difficulty and complexity rocket up demand ever larger chunks of your time. This is easily a game that will take you many hours to finish. A break becomes almost required and yet the game seems intent to punish you for it.
Stay is an ambitious game. One that tackles very serious issues of mental health, depression, suicide, and life and death. It attempts to deal with matters of the soul, and engages with great philosophers and religious ideas. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes you are forced to roll your eyes, but I was surprised by the number of times I found myself fascinated and indeed engrossed by its story. By the moments of wonder and insight it offered up. The first ten chapters or so is in many ways a triumph of the games ambitions, there are many moments that will stick with me for long after. Yet, as the game progresses it is ultimately plagued by its inability to resist the most “video gamey” elements of itself.
Stay is thus a game ringed with promise. A novel and indeed clever twist on ideas as diverse and different as Phonebooth, Saw, Emily is Away, and more. Philosophical and meditative it is bogged down by what feels like a forced attempt to make itself more of a “real video game”. Frustrating puzzles with no clear guidance and with no real purpose suck much of the momentum and energy from the game whenever they appear. That’s the biggest crime of Stay, there is so much originality, spark, and creativity to its ideas of storytelling, handling of serious themes, and forcing players into uncomfortable choices and discussions, yet these are weakened by its inability to do something new or enjoyable with regards to puzzle design, instead relying on outdated and archaic gameplay styles. What we are left with is thus a promising and enjoyable game that could have and should have been an unforgettable experience.
Stay was reviewed on a PC with a review copy provided by the publisher.