I’m the first to admit that games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter kinda go over my head (“wait, we’re in space now?”) because, whilst I don’t like things over-simplified, I’m easily lost with the more open-to-interpretation stories. Taking a trip down the surreal Stairs left me with a similar feeling when I was finished: “That was pretty… what just happened?” It’s a horror game from indie developers GreyLight Entertainment, newbies on the scene who’ve seemingly poured their heart and soul into this debut for the last four years. Using the Unreal engine to develop some admittedly impressive scenery, it tells three tales “inspired by true events” that for the most part keep the chills up and the monotony down, even if the collective whole never quite gets to where you hope it will.
Stairs opens on a bit of a low point with a short cinematic that consists of a few static pencil drawings, lending the game more of a work-in-progress vibe than it would probably want as a first impression. This cutscene provides a small amount of backstory before giving way to the far more striking woodland where the game begins. You’re playing Christopher Adams, a journalist drawn to the location by the story of a murder in a remote factory. You’re armed only with a camera, a journal and a thin lead on the crime.
If you’ve played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you’ll be on familiar territory from the outset. It’s a very similar game in its scenery, mechanics, and puzzle execution. However, whilst Ethan Carter was a vast open world, Stairs has a tendency to stick with corralling you down corridors or fixed paths, without much opportunity to explore. You’ll realize this from the start as you make your way into the factory where rows of discarded furniture map out an exact route through what should have been a more open environment. It’s a shame, since the setting is stunning – dynamic and vibrant, and presented in full 3D.
Control is handled with the mouse and WASD keys. You can pan around with the mouse and move in all directions within the confines of the current environment. Any interaction is handled by the E key (something I think would have worked better mapped to the left mouse button). There are also keys for running and crouching, both of which you’ll need as your life depends on them at various times. You can open your journal to read short entries based on what Adams comes across over the course of the game.
As you make your way through the factory, onscreen prompts alert you to a page in your journal featuring eight greyed-out Polaroids of scenes you need to find. By right-clicking the mouse, you activate a viewfinder mode in which you can then take a photo of whatever Adams is looking at; if the scene is the same as one of the Polaroids, it will change from grey to full colour in the process. This is how the camera is used for the majority of the game. It does have some additional uses later on, but for the most part it acts as a “gotta catch’em all” mechanic to make sure you see everything you’re supposed to see. In the factory you need to take photos of the police evidence markers to get you used to the process, and for the most part there’s little hassle with it. The viewing angles are broad enough that you’re not desperately trying to get a pixel-perfect representation, and the scenes you need to snap aren’t so obscure that it takes all day to find them.
Once you’re familiar with using the camera, it’s not long before you stumble across the eponymous stairs, which serve as the lynchpin to the game’s premise. By descending these stairs you come across three levels, each with its own distinct story and setting. You must take them in order, so the first door you come across is where you should head first. Inside you’ll find you’re in a darker basement setting than the factory floor you’ve just left. Here you discover that the girl’s murder may not be as simple as it first appeared. Also on this floor are a locked door and a key in a safe. You need to wander the corridors of this basement until you’ve papped the necessary code for the safe and taken your new set of photos, after which you unlock the door and descend to a denouement for this level – a move that further confuses the impossible geography of the building and hints at the more supernatural side of things. Then it’s essentially rinse-and-repeat for the following two floors, though the third has you solving a more organic set of challenges before the final sprint to the finish line.
This anthology approach works well in providing variety, with each floor wearing its own horror inspiration prominently on its sleeve. For example, the first floor is rooted in the J-Horror (think The Ring) style, complete with a spooky main character shambling around, face entirely covered with hair. The second takes a more western approach like The Descent, its setting being a deep mine infested with bizarre, twisted creatures. There’s no justification given to how these floors fit in with the architecture of the original factory, but by the time you emerge on the third floor – which I won’t spoil with any details – you’ll be thoroughly acclimatised not to take anything at face value.
There are ways to die in this game, but I was pleased to find that they are limited only to certain areas, so there’s no continuous need to run and hide. Instead they act as a mild challenge towards the end of the first two levels. For example, if you bump into the ghost in the first floor finale it’s game over. Similarly, if you run into the creatures at the end of the second level, it’s also game over, taking you back to a previous checkpoint to try again. My heart sank a little at first when I realised there were sequences like this in Stairs. I always find them unnecessarily tedious and distracting from the story. Fortunately, here they are short lived and much easier than they initially seem. I only bumped into the first floor ghost once, so it’s not a constant threat and may have been specific to an action or incorrect route I’d taken. Whilst it took a few tries to succeed on the second floor, I was still able to pass it with relative ease.
As for the other puzzles, there’s a smattering on each floor that act as minor obstacles to obtaining a clue for the central puzzle. For example, the first floor has you deciphering clues to find the right book to open, and the second floor has you aligning valves to open a locked door. On all floors you’ll need to overcome a few hazards, which can take the form of running or crouching to avoid falling through pit traps or traversing mazes with no map, for example. The third floor in particular involves mostly environmental challenges, like having to chase a light through the woods and dying if you can’t keep up.
The difficulty is low for all puzzles, and whilst some of the environmental obstacles may need a couple of attempts, none will keep you stumped for long. The camera also plays a role in puzzle-solving, but this is usually signposted by the photo clues in your journal. For instance, on the first floor you’ll need to take a picture of a blank wall that, once photographed, mysteriously becomes a door. It’s a nice mechanic but feels a little underused; I think a game where this is the primary mode for solving puzzles would make for an intriguing concept. The nice thing is that all the puzzles are different. There are a couple that are similar – the action sequences, most notably – but you can be safe in the knowledge that you only have to overcome each of them once.
It’s fairly evident, however, that it’s not the puzzles the developers want you to focus on. They don’t want you to play the game, they want you to experience it. This is where Stairs is at its best; it’s designed to keep you on edge, and again the anthology style works well for this. There are some genuine jump-out-of-your-seat moments, particularly on the first floor, and the palpable tension towards the end of the second floor is enhanced by not knowing what’s around the corner – if it was just the same as the first floor, you wouldn’t be so worried, more inconvenienced. By keeping the ideas varied and scare tactics diverse, the developers have been able to effectively build an ongoing sense of dread and trepidation.
Accompanying all this is a fantastic soundtrack that dynamically adapts to the path you take, increasing in intensity when it wants you to feel more and more uneasy. A lot of indie adventures fall into the trap of looping the same piece of music ad nauseam. In Stairs, the majority of the game uses only simple atmospheric effects until you start down a path where the lights go out or a spooky voice can be heard, whereupon the scene quickly builds to a crescendo with heavy drumming to pump up your heartbeat. It’s very nicely done. Sadly, there’s little in the way of dialogue, something that would have helped with the story. Instead, Christopher’s thoughts are written as journal entries, meaning you have to keep checking them for details.
It’s the narrative, in fact, that stumbles the most, as whilst the game is an effective ever-changing assault on the senses, the story is a little more convoluted. The same anthology approach that works so well in shaking up the scares makes the story suffer from the absence of any sort of cohesion. The three individual stories are apparently based on real-life cases, but eyebrows will soon be raised over just how loose the inspiration is when the supernatural stuff kicks in. They also lack resolution; despite your best efforts to figure out what happened, you’re simply left guessing as to the fates of the victims.
The first floor explores the case of Valerie, who, depending on your interpretation, was either murdered as part of a serial killing or tortured and killed by her own father with nothing concrete to tie things up. This ambiguity is the same for the other stories too; only hints are dropped about what’s going on, which can lead to a frustrating finale for each act. Complicating matters further is that the story, like the protagonist’s own thoughts, is told through written notes scattered throughout the environment, making it easy to miss parts if you don’t stumble across all of them.
Your own role in the story also suffers from a lack of clarity. Your investigation soon takes a side-line to simply navigating your way out of these nightmares, but with no clear objective it’s somewhat hard to understand why Adams keeps going. Similarly, the implication is that Adams is in some way involved with the three stories, but by the time the credits rolled I had little clue as to what this connection might have been. Now, I’ll freely confess that something may have passed me by or been too subtle for me to notice, but what I do know is that with no cinematic ending, cutscene or even closing monologue, I won’t be the only one. It’s too bad, as the game does seem like it’s building to some big reveal. But the reveal never comes, as walking through the last door simply cuts straight to the credits.
On the whole, Stairs is a flawed but enjoyable experience throughout its three or so hours of gameplay. It takes a myriad of inspirations from other horror games and films, but it handles them with care so as not to feel entirely clichéd. Its anthology approach adds variety and avoids overusing horror elements that could prove tiresome, but it also prevents the narrative maturity of a cohesive single storyline. The distinct levels exhibit some real flair for good scares, never more so than in their excellent use of a dynamic soundscape. But whilst the worlds created here are beautiful, they lack the broad exploration to truly rival games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Ultimately, then, your appreciation of this game will depend on whether you perceive these Stairs as going down or going up, when really they do a little of both.