Stay reminds me of those many hours I spent hunched over my computer, chatting with friends on MSN Messenger. It was brilliant. You could customise your background, piss people off by constantly 'nudging' them, and even put your favourite song lyric underneath your name – mine was usually a Genesis song.
While I chose to talk about how Alfie Moon was the best thing to happen to EastEnders in years, Stay protagonist Quinn doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, he's chatting on a computer because that's pretty much all he can do. He’s being held captive in a darkened room, ostensibly with nothing but a PC and an installed instant messenger. This is where you come in. You are his only source of contact with the outside, a wordy beacon of hope shining on a dusty old monitor.
Stay's objective is simple: you have to help Quinn escape by advising him via the available IM responses, while also keeping his spirits up and forming a bond along the way. You can screw up at any point if you’re not careful. Many times my advice reduced the poor chap to a pixelated, bloody pulp, which had me seriously starting to doubt if I was really the sort of bloke he should be talking to.
The trick is that everything plays out in real-time. If you, in reality, have to take a phone call or grab something to eat, then Quinn will be left on his own. If you need to shut down your PlayStation 4 – which I had to do for about 20 hours, ‘cos of, you know, life – then it will say you've left the poor bugger alone for however long you were AFK.
Crucially, everything you say influences Quinn's mood and bond with you. If you give him rubbish advice or don't seem particularly interested in his well-being, he'll get down in the dumps and will have trouble trusting you. Being a nice chap, I was pretty concerned about him, and even quoted Tolkien at one point, which seemed to cheer him up and probably made him realise I was a massive nerd to boot. But that's okay, as Quinn's a bit of a nerd too; in fact, he’s probably one of the most interesting blokes I’ve met in a long time (and that sadly includes real-life).
Quinn's pretty well-rounded: he's inquisitive, thoughtful, slightly weird, philosophical, and just a bit of a moaner. He even makes typos as he talks to you, which lends his overall personality those extra wrinkles that make you feel like you are really chatting to a living, breathing individual.
More importantly, I actually cared about him. Quinn isn't a lifeless, stoic image on a screen; his conversations are punctuated with reactions based on how he's feeling, whether it be an optimistic glance or a slump of his shoulders. He’ll get up and walk around, occasionally stopping to look at himself in a dirty mirror, place his head in his chest in a moment of desperation, or pound furiously on a nearby door. You can leave at any time, but I didn't want to; I stuck with Quinn during these apparently innocuous sequences, as it just felt… right. Therein lies one of Stay’s biggest accomplishments: you’ll feel compelled to do the right thing by Quinn, and make sure you keep his spirits up. As a narrative-driven game, that’s pretty much the hardest battle already won.
Fortunately, the majority of the dialogue is well-written, ranging from contemplative, irreverent, whimsical, and occasionally down right depressing. It can also lead to some amusing banter: we chewed the fat over the meaning of life, spoke about God, and I found out I'm way too nosy for my own good at times. Having said that, Quinn does have a nasty habit of waffling on a bit too much at times, which sometimes dilutes the importance of his situation. Stay's brilliantly minimalistic, dark-retro aesthetic is an ideal complement to the whole scenario too. When a game is able to convey emotions as strong as Stay without looking the dog's bollocks, it's definitely something to doff your cap to.
I managed to achieve the 'highest' bond with Quinn several times, which isn’t too hard. A little more ambiguity in your responses would have been nice, as sometimes the line between the right and wrong reply is sometimes a little too conspicuous. Mess up, and it's back to the start of the chapter, which means soaking in the same dialogue again. A fair punishment I suppose, but still no less irksome. While I appreciate Quinn is obviously up shit creek without a paddle, Stay doesn’t really accommodate for the fact you might not be able to get to the console for a while. Upon firing up Stay a few times, the sleep-deprived protagonist threw a massive wobbly before I could even so much as say ‘hi,’ and cut ties with me, thus forcing me to restart the chapter. It’s amusing at first (and kinda cool that your actions affect him that way), but ultimately frustrating after a while.
Quinn will eventually stumble across objects of interest, which is the game’s way of plonking an array of obtuse puzzles at your door. They're not awful by any means – some are actually rewardingly cerebral – but they do disrupt the flow of the core narrative, especially when things start picking up. The most egregious thing about them is that a lot of the time you have no clue what to actually do. I spent a good amount of time faffing around with them, trying to figure out what the controls were for some; a good puzzle should be difficult to accomplish, but with a clear goal in sight – not difficult because you haven’t a bloody clue what to do. During the last 10 chapters or so, these sequences just felt like a distraction and needless padding.
If you have a penchant for narrative-led adventures where you don't so much as play the game but tell a story, then this should be right up your street. It’s just a pity that its biggest strengths are marred by obtrusive puzzles and sometimes wonky dialogue. Still, this begs the question: should you stay or should you go? I’d definitely plump for the former.
Developer: Appnormals Team
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed on), PlayStation Vita, PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
Release date: September 12, 2018 (PS4, Switch, PS Vita), May 30 (Xbox One), May 16 (PC)
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