Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
Stasis is a strange bit of science fiction horror. It mixes elements of old school PC adventure games with the hyper violence and style of modern horror. The result is something familiar on many levels, yet entirely distinctive. The game (currently only on PC and Mac) comes from South Africa and is surprisingly harsh even by current standards for horror games.
Stasis tells the story of a hapless bastard named John who wakes up from cryogenic sleep to find himself aboard a gigantic derelict spaceship. John, along with his wife and daughter, had set off to find medical treatment for his daughter’s genetic illness. But instead of waking up at a medical facility, John ends up alone aboard a science research vessel drifting in deep space where things have clearly gone very wrong. Blood covers the floors and walls, dead bodies are everywhere, mutated monstrosities roam the halls, and John is in dire need of medical care.
Thus begins the downward spiral that is Stasis.
The game shares a lot of thematic similarities with other sci-fi horror, especially Dead Space, but the nature of the gameplay is radically different. John is a school teacher, not a soldier, and there’s no actual combat in the game. Instead, Stasis tasks the player with solving puzzles, manipulating items, and directing John by moving the on screen mouse pointer around and clicking the mouse button.
This “point and click” style of play has been around a long time, and even been used for horror games over the years, but seldom as effectively as this. The player always has an aerial perspective of John and his surroundings; always just slightly removed from the carnage, you survey each room, looking for objects to collect, mechanisms to interact with, and personal logs to read.
Puzzles range from finding and replacing power cells to activate equipment, lights, and doors, to gruesomely extracting body parts from dead crew members to get past biometric security measures. Stasis relies on written “log entries” from the vessel’s crew members to detail who some of these horribly mutilated corpses were, their motivations, and even how they interacted with one another—who they were screwing, and what their religious faith led them to do. The best logs narrate the same situation from multiple perspectives, and they’re surprisingly well written. Most are tragic in their sincerity and many are outright disturbing.
Disturbing covers a lot of Stasis’s content—even for an old horror hound like me. The lead scientists in this story of debauched, amoral science are truly foul psychos. The experiments they conducted on kidnapped men, women, and children are grotesque and shocking, and the game isn’t shy about portraying the brutality of its nightmares.
I’m used to this kind of thing, but Stasis breaks almost all the standard horror rules about who can acceptably be an onscreen victim. Toward the end, in particular, it perfects its sense of utterly despondent terror. For a game where the actual gameplay so frequently involves just attempting to combine objects you’ve collected with parts of the environment, the actual sense of dread and tension Stasis creates is astounding.
More than that, however, is where so many games focus on giving the player at least an illusion of choice, Stasis is the opposite. John’s bleak story is set in stone and I was simply there to bear witness. Stasis is, at heart, a tragic tale of losing your humanity through your own actions. Of the small cast of characters, some eagerly jump in to destroy their own souls, while others, like John, do it consciously, but unwillingly.
All these characters have their own selfish goals. John is desperate to save his family, and willing to do anything to reach that goal—right down to performing a grueling (and interactive) bit of self-surgery on his own spinal cord.
So, when he removes the battery powering the life support system of a group of barely alive test subjects for his own needs, John does it with the player’s full cooperation. Stasis takes time to show us the anguish of these decisions and the toll it takes on John—something video games seldom do. There’s no alternate choice, no multiple endings, no clean path through Stasis. There’s one road and it’s a dark, filthy trip into the depths of despair.
Stasis feels very much like an interactive horror movie. The story isn’t overly original—we’ve seen plenty of evil corporations doing despicable things in the name of profit before—but the execution is exceptional. Even when the game was driving me nuts with the latest of its many obscure puzzles, I still wanted to muscle through to see the story to its ultimate, horrific end. Stasis isn’t just a well-made indie game from a tiny team in a foreign land; it’s one of the most effective and engaging horror games in years.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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