We’re all a little guilty of peering into the stats screen of a game to see our overall playtime. Sometimes it’s out of pride, providing a glimpse into the sheer dedication you’ve put into your favourite new obsession, or perhaps you’re simply morbidly curious to discover how much of your life you’ve spent doing emotes in Fortnite or dominating Splatfests in Splatoon 2.
However, what about how much time you’ve not been playing. What kind of numbers would those stats have to say? And what if you could have as much of an impact on the game’s outcome in your absence as you could actually playing it? That’s the intriguing concept that drives STAY, an indie adventure that dares to tackle some very real subjects and taboos while placing an almost '24'-esque sense of tension throughout.
The game follows the life of Quinn, a man who goes to bed one night and then wakes up in a darkened cellar with nothing more than a computer, a desk, a chair and a poster on the wall. The poster is written in Latin and tells the thoroughly confused man he’s free to use the computer. He logs into a chat room, and on the other end… is you. You’re now Quinn’s only real connection to the outside world, and to reality itself.
Who has kidnapped him and why? What does that mysterious symbol on the poster beside him mean? What are those sounds he keeps hearing? You’re as much in the dark as he is, and it’s only through an ongoing chat room conversation that one mystery is solved - only for three more to then take its place. Since 80% of the game is spent in this chat room format, you’re going to have to prepare yourself for a text-heavy experience. With 25 chapters amounting to around four-to-five hours worth of play, STAY does - none too ironically - outstay its own welcome a little, but thankfully most of the dialogue chats with Quinn are littered with unusual developments and further questions that keep you engaged for the most part.
You’ll only have a limited number of responses to give him - and can only send them when prompted to on-screen - but these exchanges drastically shape Quinn’s state of mind. STAY tracks his current psychological state and his rapport with you via a Trust and an Emotional Bond set of metres. A heart symbol will flash on-screen when a response you’ve made elicits a greater sense of trust, while a symbol showing two linked circles represents his connection. Both can rise and fall depending on how you speak to your unfortunate new friend.
Quinn’s mood will also ebb and flow as the story progresses, and this is represented by four sloshing orbs - Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Choleric - full of different coloured liquids. These are based on the Ancient Greek theory of the Four Temperaments, which stated the mind was made of four balanced moods (much like the similar ‘four humours’ that were said to balance the body). These orbs will fill and empty in real-time as Quinn becomes more agitated or calm.
And let's not forget it's called STAY for a reason. The game uses Switch’s internal clock to track how long you spend with Quinn and how long you spend away. Failing to return to him after long periods of time could lead his mental state to collapse, with you logging back in only to discover a site you’ll wish you hadn’t. This is a game that bravely deals with topics such as death, anxiety, isolation and depression and it doesn’t take long for you to learn just how broken and lost Quinn truly is. And leaving him alone for too long, locked in the fiction of the game’s lonely setting, can have devastating consequences.
Thankfully, the game lets you restart from the beginning of the last chapter should things turn bleak, so you’re not forced to restart your experience if such an event occurs. This Tamagotchi-style conceit does make for a compelling experience - although we would advise you play this in one sitting as any game that potentially punishes you for putting it down can make for an uncomfortable experience if you’re looking for a simple pick-up-and-play affair. You also need to be online to play, since it records your decisions (and your stay time/absence time) periodically. If you try and play away from a Wi-Fi connection, you’ll be bombarded with a reconnection message so often it renders the game unplayable.
STAY’s problems mostly arise from the glacial pace that its story unfolds. It’s genuinely engaging to watch this character hold onto a strand of hope or descend into a melancholic freefall, but for a game that ultimately demands you commit to it in the first instance, that narrative-driven setup lacks much variety outside of Quinn’s fluctuating psyche. Things are punctuated by the occasional cutscene (where Quinn leaves the computer to explore or follow-up on a lead you’ve discussed) or a rare puzzle. Annoyingly, these puzzles vary from short and clever to long and obtuse but fail to offer the kind of gameplay variance STAY very much needs.
There is, however, plenty of content to keep you coming back for more. There are seven endings to unlock, over 40 rooms to unlock and discover (each with their own items, puzzles and potential routes further into the labyrinth) and narrative paths that diverge depending on which dialogue choices you’ve made up until that point. Quinn’s mental state can differ wildly, opening up brand new streams of text, so each revisit has the potential to offer a noticeably different experience each time.
STAY is a very unusual experience. Its unique approach to tracking time and using it as an influential factor on a character’s well-being makes it the kind of game you really need to try, but it’s one that comes with enough caveats that might make it less appealing to certain Switch owners. However, with some well-written dialogue, a mysterious house that keeps getting stranger and all manner of narrative paths, items, rooms and endings to unlock, there’s plenty here to warrant repeated plays. Just don’t nod off while you’re playing, or wander out of the house. Poor old Quinn...