Horror is a funny beast. It comes in many shapes, sizes and flavours. From visceral imagery to loud and in-your-face jump scares. We all feel fear, and if our nightmares can teach us anything, it’s that the things we conjure up in our own minds can often be the most terrifying.
When a game comes along that can tap into that truth, and use our imaginations against us, it can be a truly terrifying experience. Enter ‘Stairs’, a little indie horror game that wants to test how many fresh pairs of underwear you can get through in a day. The basic premise in Stairs is you are journalist Christopher Adams, on the hunt for three missing people in a story which, appropriately enough, descends ever deeper into madness.
Stairs is made up of three main zones, each of these zones tells a different story, and each is based on real events with an air of fiction thrown in. Each area is unique and interesting, with their own visual themes and locals and their own little (horrific) stories. They also each have their own set of photographs for you to find and snap (the frames are in your journal, you have to find the depicted location and photograph it), and other people's notes/journal entries to find which each gives you little bits of extra exposition about what exactly happened to the people involved in this tale.
The voice acting ranged from OK to pretty great. Without giving away too much one of the first characters you meet in the game (a female) was excellently voice acted, though not all were up to her standards.
As far as the three main themes go, there isn't really a weak link, though it does feel like the game tries to use the main character as an awkward linchpin to link these three stories together, which fell a little flat on me.
Despite this, Stairs does a really good job of driving you forward and keeping the suspense up. Nearly every moment of play had me feeling on edge. Enough so that boredom rarely set in, and I found myself unable to stop playing, in order to uncover more of the mysteries in these strange places.
The atmosphere in the game is pretty much perfect, there are very few jump scares used in the game, the environments themselves, as well as the audio and the themes you were investigating/uncovering were enough to keep a pretty constant state of tension and unease.
The audio is very minimal, and it is rather effective because of that. During the early stages of the game I found my way into an abandoned factory. As I was nervously making my way through some dark corridors, the obligatory horror style music kicked in – you know the type, scratchy violins, discordant notes. I was prepared for it, accustomed to it, it didn't really bother me all that much.Emerging from the corridors at the top of a flight of stairs and making my way across a metal cat walk, the music stopped. I kept moving. The music didn't come back. It makes you feel uneasy. Unsettle. Your mind races to what they may have in store for you in those twisted lines of code.
And that’s the beauty of it, because the visual aesthetic has been absolutely nailed. It's so well thought out, the times Stairs left me alone with my own imagination were when I was most vulnerable.. The pacing of the game wasn't just controlled by the environments and the collectables, it was also dictated by the audio cues. Stairs seemed incredibly self-aware and used its musical cues sparingly and effectively, coming together to form one wonderfully unsettling whole.
The whole experience was aided by the visuals, which surprised me early on. Not because I came in with lowered expectations, but because the brunt of the game takes place in environments you totally wouldn't expect. It's a bit of a system shock, the way Stairs warps from being one thing to something else altogether, making it all the more shocking.
In essence this is the strongest suit of the visuals in the game, because each environment encountered tells its own story. It feels believable, palpable, and rooted in realism.
On the flip side to this, it became apparent early on there was no physics engine in place, which accomplished two things, for better or for worse: Knowing that everything had been placed precisely where it was, with purpose, is unsettling. It becomes a case of paranoically wondering whether that purpose was innocent, to simply keep guiding the player onward, or something more sinister.
However, it does break the immersion. We live in a time now when most games incur some form of physics and interaction, even the side scrollers. So while the visual aesthetic was working overtime to root me in these wonderfully believable places, the complete lack of interaction/responsiveness from the objects within just seemed all the more noticeable, which is a bit of a shame.
Also, getting stuck on objects was a problem on more than one occasion, which forced checkpoint restarts. There are also certain parts in Stairs where it’s not exactly clear where you should be going or what you should be doing. At one point I was reduced to methodically opening every door I could, so I knew that I had definitely been there before, in order to try and find where to go next.
Other than this the only real shortcoming for Stairs was that it is incredibly short. It took me just three hours to finish the game, finding nearly everything there was to find. It's difficult to imagine it taking anyone longer than this to finish, which wouldn't be so bad if you weren't expected to shell out £10 for the game.
This is made even more disappointing by the fact the it was a genuinely enjoyable game, especially for horror fans. If it had been a little longer it might have had a bit more time to flesh out those ideas it was using to try and tie the three stories together, making the overall plot a little more coherent.
Lastly, a quick not about performance. I ran Stairs on a GTX 980 with an FX-8350 and 8GB memory and it seemed to blitz it. RAM usage was quite heavy but in terms of GPU and CPU, it ran fantastically without any drops. Those with high-end monitors might be disappointed to know Stairs is capped at 60fps even with Vsycn disabled, but it's not the sort of game to capitalise on blistering performance.