Developed by: Appnormals Team
Published by: PQube
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
In the aughts, Nintendo games like “Wii Sports” contained pop-up signs suggesting players take a break every so often. The notices gave the impression that the company wanted its products to be seen as worthy accoutrements to a balanced lifestyle. They also worked to counter the idea that designers revel in keeping people glued to their games as much as operators of casinos. “Stay,” which was released earlier this year but recently made its PlayStation debut, takes an opposite tack. This brilliant visual novel, which combines text and pixel art, taunts players for neglecting it. An introductory screen cautions that, “your time away from the game will have consequences. Every second you are absent is a second that the character is left alone.” Implicit in that statement is the idea that when it comes to helping someone through an ordeal, events rarely adhere to an ideal timetable.
Quinn is a man in need of help. Lying in bed one night he struggles to get to sleep. From his composure, it’s clear that he is unhappy. He doesn’t drift off until almost a quarter to five in the morning. In the ensuing moment an intruder takes the opportunity to clobber him on the head. Quinn awakens, slumped on the floor of an unknown room, barefoot in his pajamas. The only conspicuous objects in his vicinity are a chair and a desk on which a computer rests. Situating himself before the computer, Quinn logs onto a chat room where he discovers you on the other end. Understandably suspicious, he wastes no time in imploring you to explain what’s happened to him. He is scared, distrustful and demanding, but also funny, cultured, and astute. He is the kind of guy who diligently rectifies typos with an asterisk and a correction, and aptly quotes writers like Milan Kundera and Flannery O’Connor. (My kind of guy.)
“Stay” features a branching story line with different endings. (I got Alternative Ending #6: “End Quinn’s journey with a feeling of Depression.”) Quinn looks to you for guidance through his situation as well as for emotional support. If you steer him toward a suboptimal action, like checking the refrigerator that gives him the heebie jeebies, you may bring about his demise. Only slightly less tricky is the effort it takes to navigate conversational minefields. Your conversational choices may work to increase or undermine Quinn’s rapport with you. Respond to him with a platitude, or fail to press him on an uncomfortable topic, and he may fault you for superficiality. Conversely, if you push him to reveal more about himself than he is ready to, or nudge him toward an action to which he is disinclined, he’ll accuse you of insensitivity. “Stay” is very much about the gulfs in understanding that arise between people and bedevil communication.
Aside from chatting with Quinn via text, players also assume responsibility for helping him solve the enigmas he encounters as he explores his surroundings. “Stay’s” puzzles start off easy but then scale, swaggeringly, in difficulty — the game actually warns you at one point that things are going to get much harder. The puzzles in the first half of the game run the gamut from rearranging books in a bookcase to tease out a pattern across their spines, to playing a bit of Chaturanga, the board game that’s considered a forerunner to chess. During the latter half of the game, on a few occasions, I consulted YouTube for hints. (To all prospective players let me just say: God help you when you get to the mirror maze.)
Quinn’s story is a reminder of how, at any moment, chaos may erupt into our lives. By focusing on his troubles and dramatizing our efforts to help him, “Stay” ties itself to a tradition of existentialist artwork. Considering that the ending I obtained wasn’t anything I’d wish for Quinn, I’d say that the game affirms that sticking with a person throughout his or her personal tribulation is a noble act in and of itself even if, on some level, your actions prove insufficient. Oh, well . . . maybe I’ll watch the other endings on YouTube.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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