I recently played Stories Untold, a collection of four short games. I’ve not really seen any anthologies in video games before – maybe Edmund McMillen’s The Basement Collection, although even that’s really just a collection of old flash games, rather than a cohesively themed anthology. Anyway, there’s some interesting things to say about it, but also some criticisms based on how anthologies typically work and the relationship between framing narrative and inner world. There’s also a guest appearance from Black Mirror!
Okay so if you haven’t played Stories Untold, here’s the brief. There’s three seemingly unrelated short games that all revolve around your character entering data into a computer. In the first, you’re in a house playing a text-based horror game about a person entering a house, setting up a computer, and playing the same text-based horror game and holy shit it gets recursive. The second is some sort of scientific experiment where you have to do all these experiments on an alien artifact that eventually gets up and takes over your mind and sets up a text adventure on a computer where you help another artifact-creature down the hall escape from its bonds and kill everyone in the facility. In the third, you’re in an icy facility in Greenland and you have to enter a bunch of codes to potentially nuke some aliens who’ve invaded Earth but it’s never quite made explicit, so really who knows. That’s the first three. In the fourth, it’s revealed that the other three stories are the hallucinations of a character who killed his sister and a retired policeman in a car accident. He’s feeling guilty, but doesn’t want to confront what he’s done, and it ends with him fronting up and revealing what’s happened. You also step back through the styles and locations of the other three locations, and it’s shown how they relate to memories of the event or the guilt that you’re feeling. That’s the quick version.
In a sense, then, Stories Untold possibly isn’t an anthology. It starts off seeming like one, but at the end it turns out that it’s just one cohesive story told in a bunch of different chunks. That method is fine in and of itself, but it’s kinda disappointing if you’re expecting an anthology. There’s a similar issue with a particular episode of Black Mirror – this is the Christmas special in 2014, between seasons 2 and 3. The episode is called ‘White Christmas’, and it revolves around two men snowed into a cabin telling each other stories about their lives. On the surface, this seems like a classic anthology structure. It mirrors The Canterbury Tales, or any number of other similar anthology texts – for instance, volume 8 of Sandman, ‘World’s End’, which sees a series of characters trapped in an inn at the end of the world swapping stories about their lives. This is the way it works: there’s a frame narrative, where characters are briefly introduced and contextualised, and then they tell stories, and most of the text is taken up with their stories, with little breaks in between to set up the next storyteller. That’s how The Canterbury Tales works, it’s how ‘World’s End’ works, and it seems like that’s the way ‘White Christmas’ is going to go – but then it turns out all the stories are linked, and the frame narrative becomes more important than the stories themselves. That’s also the key issue we find in Stories Untold: ultimately, the frame narrative becomes more prominent, more important than the short stories themselves. It basically goes against the essence of the anthology structure.
Further, when it’s used properly, the anthology structure implies a series of themes, most of which are lost upon deviation. There’s an idea that you’re getting a diverse sweep of ideas and topics, this real mixed bag of stories that give you all sorts of different perspectives on life. So in Canterbury Tales, you get stories from a knight and a monk, but also from a miller and a cook. There’s a real mix of different classes and professions, allowing for all these different comments on religion and English society. In Stories Untold, by collapsing all of the stories into the perspective of the single main character in the fourth episode, you lose that sense of diversity. Where you previously drew thematic connections from the juxtaposition of disconnected stories, now you realise that they’re all just part of the same, single story. They all belong to the same speaker, the same point of view. Diversity shrivels up into the singular, and the mystery and horror are replaced by something really quite banal.
I do still like Stories Untold – there’s a bunch of interesting things to say about it. But I also kinda think that it’s much less interesting upon playing the fourth episode. It’s also a bit of a bummer that the main character is such a boring little twerp. Previously there were all these interesting questions about characters that, at the time, we thought were disconnected. Who is the person in the house, and what does the recursive narrative mean? Who is the person doing the science experiment, and why do they seem to be a prisoner of these distant instructors telling you what to do? What’s the purpose of the monitoring stations in the Arctic? There’s all these interesting little character questions that stay with you, making you think about the stories and their implications. At the end, you find out they were all just projections and none of the context matters except as the manifestation of the main character’s guilt. And really, the main character is in the least interesting situation out of everyone. He was at a party, he got drunk, he decided to drive, and he crashed and killed people. So not only is he stupid and irresponsible, but he’s too cowardly to own up to his actions. To me, and this is a personal thing, but to me it diminishes the whole text. All of the compelling narrative beats are reformed into the guilt of a dull, shitty person. It’s not quite the ‘and then you woke up’ ending, but it’s certainly on the spectrum.