Stasis is fond of a particular quotation – you’ll know it when you see it – but I have another that fits the experience. “We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.” So said Joseph Conrad in his work on human atrocity, Heart of Darkness, and Stasis rests in that flicker, where the shadows play at the corner of your eye.
Stasis acknowledges its roots with several nods, both subtle and not, to classics in the sci-fi horror genre such as Event Horizon, Alien and the works of Harlan Ellison, but stands alone as its own singular work. John Maracheck awakens from stasis on the Groomlake, a seemingly deserted space vessel in a decaying orbit around Neptune, and so you begin the grueling task of finding both his wife and young daughter while uncovering what’s happened to the ship’s other residents.
Stasis is not a game that gives up its secrets freely. As a point-and-click adventure, you’d expect some awful item combination puzzles and several leaps of logic, but I’m happy to say that almost every puzzle in Stasis is quite within reason. The game expects you to be observant of your surroundings, and as long as you pay attention you’ll find your progress largely unhindered, leaving you to focus on the world of Stasis and its minute details.
Stasis‘ horrific ambience cannot be understated. With its gorgeous pre-rendered isometric environments, playing out from a bird’s eye view, the Groomlake and the world beyond its bulkheads take on their own life, and as you uncover its increasingly gruesome innards alongside John you’ll navigate everything from medical bays to hydroponic pods, all with their own distinct character and menace.
“…that Stasis immerses you completely in its horrific world is what I found most appealing about it.”
You see, the Cayne Corporation, owners of the Groomlake, have been pushing the boundaries of ethical human research. Stasis explores some pretty horrendous and mature themes, and if you’re squeamish about gore, mutilation, body horror or suicide, it’s best to avoid. Set in a world in which eugenics played out to an extreme in at least one of its historical wars, Stasis doesn’t really hold back.
It’s not hard to draw parallels between some of the in-game events and real-world nightmares and clandestine government programmes, such as Unit 731 and the incident at Pont-Saint-Esprit. One of the characters bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Wouter Basson, whose name should be infamous to any South African.
Whether any of this is intentional, or if I’m reading too much into it is irrelevant; that Stasis immerses you completely in its horrific world is what I found most appealing about it. It’s filled with little touches, like John crossing himself when finding a body despite never otherwise mentioning his religious leanings. Ambient whispers and sing-song voices occasionally punctuate the mechanical thrumming of the ship, making you question John’s sanity. In terms of atmosphere, Stasis sets its bar high and vaults it admirably.
Perhaps as a result, its main narrative is dwarfed in contrast to the overall atmosphere. Starting off with a subdued air of malice and sinister riddles in the dark, its scalpel-like intensity eventually cuts itself a few too many times, slowly bleeding out into a diluted mix of morality plays and evil caricature by the end.
While fully-voiced and generally well-acted, the main characters feel removed from the horrors of the ship and the tales of degeneration that play out in the text diaries and emails contained within the many, many PDAs of the Groomlake‘s other unfortunate inhabitants. Stasis leans heavily on this line of narrative delivery, which sometimes comes off as uneven in tone while its flatness removes the sting of several reveals; a bit of variety in the form of video footage or audio logs would have gone far in maintaining the tension throughout.
And in its crooning ode to the horror and adventure games of yesteryear, it lifts a couple of jarring notes straight from the same period. Pathfinding is a bit of a hit and miss and miss and miss affair, with John often taking the most torturous route to get from one point to another.
The inventory system is clever but not quite practical, and the game does not suffer fools lightly, with death being a real threat. To be clear, I love the fact that you can die, but the inevitable trek through several locations to repeat puzzles and dialogue which can’t be skipped? Not so much.
Event Horizon was a dud commercially and rankled critics, but today it’s considered a cult classic, in large part due to its eerie atmosphere and incredible set design. Stasis is a master class in both, one that’s taught by a South African team a fraction of the size of those that created the games it can now rightly consider its peers.