STAY is that rare adventure that tells you mostly what you need to know about it in one short syllable. The game’s title refers not only to the dire situation its protagonist finds himself in, but also acts as a sort of directive to the player. To see this game through to the end, players are encouraged to continuously stick with it for as long as possible, or at least with as few and as short breaks as possible in between sessions. Those who decide to take a chance on this unusual gameplay structure will be treated to a unique combination of subgenre styles, all culminating in a hauntingly personal tale from the Spanish indie Appnormals Team.
The game begins as a man named Quinn is kidnapped in the middle of the night by a masked intruder, then later wakes to find himself alone and locked in a dilapidated room, completely empty save for a desk with a computer on it. To Quinn’s surprise, the computer actually works, allowing him to connect to an online chat program, where he meets the game’s second protagonist: you. STAY stresses the extreme isolation of Quinn’s desperate situation – abducted and locked away by a faceless assailant for unknown reasons – by detaching the player from any direct control over him, limiting your involvement to a screen in a text-based computer program.
For the majority of STAY’s approximate eight-hour runtime, you are restricted to interacting with Quinn via the game’s online chat window, reading his text messages and occasionally selecting a reply from a few on-screen prompts. The way you choose to respond, depending on the situation, may have a minor effect on your relationship with Quinn, but can also have a major influence in life-or-death decisions that could lead to a game over. Unfortunately, the actual chatting can be a bit random at times, and between some translation hiccups and the odd tangents in conversation, there are some mundane moments mixed into the otherwise mysterious and thrilling situations presented. The chat interface also displays an animated video image of Quinn, as well as information about his current emotional state and his levels of trust and bonding with you, his real-world lifeline. As Quinn explores his surroundings and comes across items of interest, information about them are also stored in a separate tab on your screen.
It's almost impossible to talk about the story to any degree without giving away major spoilers. Beyond the initial nocturnal abduction, the game unfolds like a cross between a lost phone visual novel and an escape-the-room game, with horror movie elements peppered in. Information is primarily communicated using the chat interface, with Quinn sending messages and the player replying from time to time. Then there are the exploration segments, at first limited to the room Quinn awakes in, but eventually going beyond that into a cavalcade of rooms that range from the mundane to the truly unexpected and back again. Players have no actual control over Quinn as he walks, runs, crawls, and sometimes slides his way through the building, though when this happens the chat interface is replaced with a more traditional 2D cross-section view.
Saying anything more about the plot would ruin the surprise, and the designers have taken great pains to make the game as open to player interpretation as possible. Quinn can be less than forthcoming about his past, and in most cases you only know what Quinn knows, or rather what he chooses to share with you. There is a rhyme and reason to Quinn’s kidnapping and the strange trip down the rabbit hole that follows, but you will have to put the puzzle pieces together yourself. Even at the very end, when the game finally shows its hand at least a little, some questions remain open to interpretation, leading to some thought-provoking post-game stewing sessions. There is good cause to return to the game after finishing it, however. With 7 endings, 19 rooms, and 44 possible inventory items to find, not to mention different conversation options revealing new information, there’s no way to experience everything in just one playthrough.
The only time you are given direct control over something is during the puzzle sections. Although STAY features a host of items to discover, the puzzles are not of the inventory-management variety. Obstacles like a mirror maze are fairly straightforward, but calling them “traditional” would do them a disservice as a number of others veer much more toward clever, out-of-the-box thinking that puzzle fans will truly appreciate. Difficulty ranges from quick and simple to quite complicated, and I was very taken by the need to actually have to pull out pencil and paper to help me past several tight spots, including one memorable puzzle involving a map and foreign symbols that left me no choice but to suspend the game while I went online and did some actual research to learn things I didn’t know. Solving the toughest challenges provided me with a real sense of satisfaction, particularly as the puzzles themselves don’t come with hints or directions for what you’re meant to accomplish; you’re just shown a puzzle and screen and told to “do”. That said, there isn’t an overabundance of puzzles; the game is split into twenty-four chapters, but roughly only every third or fourth chapter features a puzzle to solve.
One of the most interesting things about STAY is that it ostensibly takes place in real time. From the word go, an on-screen timer tracks how long you’ve spent with Quinn, keeping him company and counseling him as he explores his prison. That’s all fine and good, but here’s where it gets interesting. When you “log off” your computer terminal (i.e. shut the game off), a second, separate timer begins counting the seconds, minutes, and hours you’re away, only pausing once you return. The illusion is that, while you’re out enjoying your life, Quinn is still trapped in his frightful situation, hanging onto his sanity by a thread. As the game title suggests, you’re meant to STAY with Quinn through his ordeal as his mental and physical health decline when he’s alone. If you sign off for too long, Quinn may succumb to his depression and loneliness, leaving only a corpse to greet you when next you log on. Like it or not, he becomes your responsibility when you sign on to play, and the amount of time you leave him alone also has a direct effect on which ending you’ll eventually unlock.
STAY’s pixel art presentation feels like a natural fit, and never comes across as cheap or low-quality. The effort put into making the animations expressive and environments detailed is evident; if anything, the occasional moments of impending horror work better for being presented in such a stylistic way, involving your imagination rather than displaying full HD images of every disturbing detail. The game’s chat interface screen does feature a larger, more expressive close-up of Quinn at all times, and hand-painted stills when entering new areas round out the visual aesthetic.
Musically, STAY offers a very solid, perfectly understated soundtrack to accompany Quinn on his unpleasant journey. The songs don’t stand out, but they aren’t meant to, instead underscoring moments of tension or drama with suitably morose and introspective compositions. In one case, however, I found myself humming a song hours after finishing the game, and only after several minutes of thinking about it did I realize I’d subconsciously picked up a part of the brooding, melancholy score.
STAY isn’t a game that featured one specific “Yes!” moment that crystallized for me how I felt about it. In fact, some of its individual elements, like the dialog between Quinn and the player and the aimless feel of the early parts of the story, didn’t feel like they were winning me over. But as a few hours passed – and I found myself nervous to stop playing for fear of leaving Quinn behind and what I might come back to – that I began to notice it was growing on me. Some real nail-biter puzzles that called for old-school research and solving tactics and an open-to-interpretation climax that provoked thought and even discussion sealed the deal for me. STAY is different and takes chances, making no apologies for doing so. But it’s honest, raw, and intimate in a way not many games are, and likely an experience that will stick with you long after you’re done.
STAY is a game that requires dedication, both to its digital protagonist and its puzzle solving, and features the kind of narrative that’s best digested via discussion with others who’ve played it. Eccentricities aside, it provides the kind of fodder that transcends the superficial and is recommended for anybody willing to face a slice of real-world drama.