Your inventory is unusual too. Just after awaking from cryosleep, a medical AI informs you that your "plug suit quantum storage device is ready for physical record storage". Seemingly, through the magic of quantum mechanics, your suit is able to squirrel away objects without taking up space – pretty handy! (It does have its limits, though, as there are only six slots. Then again, that is always enough.) It's a small thing, but it's nice to see a developer thinking about how you could actually haul around all manner of random junk while wearing only a pocketless, skintight suit without demanding the player just turn a blind eye to it. The device also gets erased at a couple of points, helping to explain why you've conveniently lost your inventory.
Given the emphasis on story and atmosphere, STASIS's puzzles fit in comfortably without standing out. They're mostly inventory-based, with a few machines to operate along the way, and are generally logical and well-integrated into their surroundings. You won't find any mind-benders here: they're almost all focussed on finding a way past the next door or the next obstacle using the tools at hand, and are more about pacing and emphasising John's struggle to get out than quirky lateral thinking. When I got stuck, it was almost always because I'd missed some crucial object or hotspot: there's no pixel hunting as such, but the environments are so detailed that it can be difficult to pick out the objects you can interact with from all the clutter. Some kind of hotspot highlighter would really have been useful at times. Once you've found what you need, though, it's usually pretty clear what to do.
One thing to be aware of, however, is that a few of the puzzles rely on timing or standing in the right place to trigger an event. That's not to say you need great reflexes, just that you sometimes need to wait for the right moment. A particularly frustrating example of this came late in the game when I got badly stuck, only to discover that I had to stand in a seemingly arbitrary spot to trigger an unconnected event that let me continue. When it happened again a few minutes later, though, I was ready for it!
There are also a couple of sequences where you're on the clock and have to figure out the answer before a timer runs out. These are there to inject tension, and the solutions are straightforward once you figure them out, but it did take me a few tries to get past them, with the net result that they were more frustrating than tense. Fortunately, when you die you're reinstated to just before the misstep, though not before a grinding crunch and a screen splattered with blood have rammed the point home. Not surprisingly, there are quite a few ways to die, not to mention several ways to commit suicide if you've had enough, so you'll see that blood spatter fairly regularly.
The Groomlake is enormous, as befits a ship designed to house multiple research projects and hundreds of staff. Once you make it out of "Product Storage" (a holding area for people they find drifting in space and set aside for experimentation like human lab rats), you'll find yourself in the medical bay and then the admin department – both quite civilized, if empty – but as time goes on you'll find yourself going through research labs, crew quarters, hydroponics, a nightclub and a couple of tram stations and other areas too hideous to mention. As you progress, the initial eerie emptiness gives way to increasingly disturbing and then horrific scenes as the nightmare of what’s happened is revealed. All this plays out over 10-12 hours of playtime, ramping up the tension with a well-judged mix of sudden scares and relatively peaceful interludes that lets you get your breath back and process what's going on.
You'll need that processing time, too, because there's an incredibly intricate backstory at play here, worthy of a sci-fi novel. The game lays out a complete future history, explaining the origins of the Cayne Corporation, how and why the Groomlake came to be commissioned, and then the slow descent into madness as one ill-judged project after another went wrong. In fact, there were so many interlocking pieces that I couldn't take it all in on my first playthrough; I'd need to go draw out a timeline and some diagrams to get a grip on it all. None of it breaks any new ground (the idea of unethical research producing deadly consequences in an act of poetic justice is hardly new) but it's carefully and thoughtfully told and unfolds with a slow inevitability that hits home.
If you're wondering how so many details came to be packed in, the answer is PDAs. Lots and lots of PDAs. Seemingly every member of the crew was a budding diarist, and died with a PDA full of entries clutched in their cold, dead hand. The developer has indicated that there are around 55,000 words in the game (equivalent to a shortish novel) and that sounds about right. The bulk of the storytelling is done through these diary entries and emails, and I was torn between being fascinated by them and chafing at the hold-up while I read them all. That said, I'm a bit of a completist and the diaries don't contain any information crucial to making progress – that's reserved for a relatively small number of emails and computer terminals – so if you get bored you can skim or skip them. If you do, though, you'll miss a network of smaller stories, from the janitor's graphic novels to unrequited love and one crewmember's struggle with being gay. The advantage of all these different viewpoints is that you get the stories from all sides, and hear from the ordinary decent folks, worried about what's going on, as well as the psychopaths and megalomaniacs at the root of it all.
One of the most interesting things about the story for me was the insight that just because the results were evil, that doesn't mean everyone involved was. The Cayne Corporation (and their chief scientist, Dr Malan) could have been portrayed as just moustache-twirling baddies. Indeed, when you meet him he comes across as exactly that. However, reading through the diaries of his staff you find an altogether more complex story, full of those who were duped, people wrestling with their consciences, and those who've slowly lost sight of right and wrong in an increasingly toxic atmosphere (metaphorically and literally) – people who've convinced themselves they're making the hard choices to do the research others don't have the stomach for. All in all it's a surprisingly deep and rounded experience for something that could have been a simple tale of cackling evil scientists; it's just a pity that it's mostly told through the awkward medium of diary entries that tend to break the flow of the rest of the game.
If you have even a passing interest in sci-fi horror, STASIS is easy to recommend. It looks and sounds great, and provides more than enough scares and ambient creepiness to satisfy even the most hardened fan. The story may not be the most original but – provided you can live with its obsessive diarists – it's well told and builds to a bittersweet climax. Best played after dark with the lights low and volume up, this is a game that will live in your dreams for a long time.