Game developers almost always have a goal in mind. Are they setting out to create the next big online multiplayer experience? Are they trying to give players an overpowering sense of freedom by allowing them to build anything? Perhaps, are they even trying to scare player through the use of classical horror elements and/or eerie ambient settings? In Stay, from independent developer Appnormals Team, the goal here is obvious: the player is intended to form a personal connection with a non-player character.
This title has a look that would make it feel at home with a point and click adventure for MS-DOS and a soundtrack that is unobtrusive yet still quite good. Yet, Stay also has a unique, modern technology-inspired gameplay style. While technically the story of Quinn, a disgraced psychiatrist who wakes up in a dimly lit room with no recollection of how he got there, the game itself is actually told from the perspective of you. Which is to say, the game is being told from a second person point of view. Instead of directly influencing Quinn’s actions, the bulk of the game consists of you chatting with him using a chat room on a computer in his room, and later on a smartphone-like device.
Stay, in that regard, resembles an old school text adventure except with an absolutely gorgeous sprite-based visual aesthetic and limited text options. The only time you actually type something in is when Quinn asks for your name. All other conversations with him are conducted through a list of two to four choices that are presented at various points. Perhaps this lack of gameplay would work against the game itself if Quinn himself were not such an interesting character.
Quinn feels quite human. He has hopes, dreams, dreams lost, personal issues, self doubt, and even copious references to pop culture that seem finely picked so as to give a sense of his age and personality without ever coming off as merely a crutch. Quinn even makes the occasional typo, and then proceeds to correct that using an asterisk in a following message in much the same way that people do when actually using apps such as Discord or Facebook Messenger.
For a game that consists of mostly two characters, you yourself and Quinn, it’s incredible how drawn in I was by Stay. It’s not a long game by any means – it can fairly easily be beaten in under three hours – but Quinn is just as in the dark about his world as you are and thus, instead of messing with him, I felt compelled to help him to the best of my abilities. Stay accomplished something that few games can make me do: it made me become attached to a character. Though this would make any potential deaths (of which there are several potential instances of) particularly crushing, it also makes completing the game just that much more satisfying, especially with the twist at the end. It’s a shame, then, that the adventure itself is plagued with some rather annoying issues.
At several points during this twenty-five chapter long adventure, the game will briefly switch to Quinn’s perspective to have you take on various puzzles. Some of these are rather simple and fun, such as the lightbulb fixing puzzle that is encountered early on. Some are brain teasers that will put your cognitive skills to the test, such as the chess puzzle midway through. And some, such as the mirror maze, are so incredibly annoying and consist of such amounts of random chance rather than actual use of skill that they made me want to set down my Nintendo Switch and never touch the game again.
This mirror maze, late in the game, was definitely the worst of them as you have to wander through this randomly generated funhouse-style maze that the game is not even kind enough to keep a map of. Thus, you either tackle the maze old school style, using a pen and paper to mark your moves, or press random buttons for an hour until you somehow either make it through or give up due to pure frustration. The actual gameplay in this section is still minimal, as you just have to chose what direction Quinn goes, but this is such an irritating part of the game that comes so late in the experience that it nearly ruined the entire adventure for me on my first run. At several points I just had to put down my Switch and take a break, because this “puzzle” was just that maddening.
Another issue I have here is replay value. Stay did not give me much reason to come back to it after initially completing it. Of course, if Quinn ends up dying during the adventure I felt compelled to restart the chapter and try to save him, but once I succeeded in beating the game I felt no compulsion to go back and get one of the other additional endings. I know some people will likely welcome this, as multiple endings are something completionists love and I usually do, but something was different about Stay.
Stay, despite its faults, is an experience unlike most games I have ever played. What initially appears as yet another retro-inspired indie title soon becomes an emotional journey that quite literally features you as a major character as you help Quinn escape his captor and deal with his inner demons. However, while the presentation, atmosphere, and especially the writing are top notch, it truly is that: an experience. Despite its appealing $12 USD price point, it’s not something I can recommend for those who just want something with tons of replay value. Yet, I still think most gamers can find something to enjoy here. Stay is a unique experience well worth your time.