Being an astronaut would be amazing, travelling to space, seeing the unseen, and visiting distant planets – it all sounds so exciting and exhilarating. However, what if you were in space, only instead of travelling at the speed of sound you were the sole occupant of a stationary ‘Space Lighthouse’, performing routine operations each day with only an AI to keep you company in this small claustrophobic living area? In Still There you get to experience the latter, only thanks to a chain of events, things will become much more exciting than you’d ever imagined.
Developed by the team at GhostShark and published by Iceberg Interactive, Still There is a narrative-heavy puzzle game like no other which I’ve played this year, it’s a game that you really need to think about if you wish to proceed. The isolation of our protagonist combined with his troubled past creates an intense drama that will fill you with various emotions and cause your eyes to leak.
You are Karl Hamba and you’re currently stationed on The Bento, a Space Lighthouse which has been positioned in the middle of nowhere in order to communicate with passing ships to ensure they are okay and not lost. Each day you wake up you must stick to a strict routine, perform your duties which are given to you via your AI companion, have something to eat (via your recycled urine), feed your pet lizard, take a serum, then go to bed. Rinse and repeat.
However, whilst performing your duties, you come across a strange signal from a stranded ship outside of your range. After boosting your communications by adjusting a few of your devices, you make contact with this lost soul. You begin to bond with this person, who is as trapped as you, so you make it your mission to try and find her help from anyone you can gain contact with. From here, the narrative becomes much more intense and critical as your station isn’t the most stable and they apparently don’t have much time, so you have to think outside of the box if you wish to help this stranded ‘friend’.
The game itself took me around six hours to complete, although it felt much longer due to the complexity of the puzzles and the brilliant narrative throughout the experience. There were moments where the game caused my eyes to malfunction towards the end of the story, something I wasn’t expecting when I first started playing the game. Just before I move on, Still There is one of the few games which I believe would make an awesome TV show or feature-length Movie, the atmosphere, music, narrative, and emotion would work perfectly, it’s even already presented in ‘days’ which could be split into episodes…
Still There is a puzzle game at heart underneath the quirky AI interactions and emotional conversations. As I mentioned above, each ‘day’ consists of you performing a few set routines, with the tasks given to you by the AI being the main ones. However, before I get to them, there are a lot of things you’ll be doing other than abiding by the will of the computer, such as choosing which food to eat and looking after your lizard – which I called Bimbo (from a list of names it gave me). Speaking of Bimbo, I didn’t actually realise you could adjust the temperature of his vivarium, give him water, and feed him until the second to last day, meaning he died on me – whoops. However, I gave him a space funeral and earned a trophy, so it’s all good!
Your food is your next challenge, you have a bunch of ‘add water’ packets which you can use with your pee in order to cook and eat – well, recycled pee as I don’t think urine-flavoured vegetables would be very nice! However, you can also buy new food with the money the AI gives you for completing your tasks, items which arrive with the supply pod every now and again. Karl also really loves his coffee, so making the perfect cup when he’s thirsty should help him concentrate.
As the game progresses, things start to go wrong, structures break, and strange objects manifest within the inner-workings of the ship, so it’s up to you to spin around and explore the small station and fix anything which happens. This means picking up and using objects on the environment, getting in your spacesuit and patching holes, and configuring the control panel by using the instruction manual – which brings us to…
Gorky is the AI aboard The Bento, a sarcastic git who engages in far too much banter with our protagonist, pissing him off with almost everything he says whilst constantly digging at him and bringing him down. In a way, he reminded me of Rimmer from Red Dwarf, in that Holly brought back the one person who Lister hated purely to keep him sane – it’s a very similar situation here. Each day he presents you with three tasks which involve adjusting the control panel in order to email co-ordinates, boost a signal, play a tune, or enable certain devices. This is where the puzzles really begin…
Still There doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to the puzzles, Gorky will sometimes give you a hint, pushing you in the right direction, but there are no markers, no flashing objects, no tutorials, nothing. All you have is an instruction manual for the control panel. Within this book, you’ll find multiple pages explaining what the jumpers on the panel do, what the levers and switches mean, and some schematics on how the oxygen and heat mechanisms work. With this knowledge, you need to perform your tasks by constantly referring back to this essential literature.
I personally found some of the puzzles within Still There quite tricky, taking a few attempts simply to understand what was actually being asked of me. But, once I got my head around the technical document, I was able to push through and make it to the end. I love the fact that the game gives you all the information you need in order to complete the tasks, but it doesn’t simply guide you, it makes you think like Karl and learn the processes as he does.
One piece of advice, as I only realised this within the last few hours of my playthrough, you can push either ZL or ZR and the game magnifies a portion of the screen and slows down your cursor, making it much easier to do precise clicks on the small buttons and switches. My only complaint was going to be that it’s really fiddly and hard to see certain things when in portable mode, but that ‘issue’ is no more since I found this option as it makes the game a hundred times easier to operate.
I really liked the art style used within Still There, it’s realistic yet clearly stylised. Thanks to the magnification ability, everything is really easy to see on both the TV and in Portable Mode and I love the fact that you can pretty much flick any switch and turn any knob you like – although that isn’t always the best thing to do if you’ve not read the instruction manual.
There’s no actual talking dialogue within the game, it’s all written out so you can read it at your own pace, but that didn’t bother me or affect my opinion of the overall experience. The writing is very funny with its dark humour and very sarcastic Gorky. Without giving away any of the story, the narrative gets quite emotional the further into the game you get, both concerning our main character and the stranded person we speak to over the radio – the impact this game had was much more than I ever expected it to have.
The music within Still Alive is mesmerising, immersive, and very isolated and lonely. It perfectly sets the mood and enhances the overall experience you’ll have with the game. I’ve recently signed up to Spotify and I was excited to see that the album can actually be found on there, here: https://open.spotify.com/album/27wmW1wIPdK1yKlUtpTqVP
With regards to the controls – I was late in doing this review as my Joycon had drift issues and it was making the precise movements impossible, but I’ve just realised you can also play the game with motion controls if you detach the Joycon from the Switch unit. There are no actual touch-screen controls in portable, which is a shame, but I imagine due to how small the switches and buttons can be, it may have been for the best.
Also, there’s a bunch of in-game trophies. I managed to get them all on my first playthrough but there are a few missables, so you could have multiple runs to see what you could do differently.
Still There is a brilliant and challenging puzzle game set within an isolated and immersive environment. Each time you complete a task you feel successful as you worked it all out for yourself rather than being handed it on a plate. The sarcastic, frantic, abusive, and emotional conversations you have with various ‘people’ throughout the next few days are all very memorable and the game really makes you think about how you wish to react based on your situation and past events. When in space, either lost or alone, everyone needs two things, hope and a friend.
I can’t say that I’ve played a game quite like Still Alive in a while. Sure, I’ve played other narrative-based games and puzzle games, but thanks to the emphasis on you reading the manual and working it all out for yourself, it felt like YOU are Karl, you’re learning as he does and you’re both as lost as each other at times. That’s a level of immersion I wish a lot of other games would present, rather than telling you exactly what to do every step of the way. There is a massive positive though, in space, nobody can hear you cry…
- - Very immersive and interactive
- - No hand-holding, you must read the technical manual and learn how to solve the puzzles
- - Very well-written and emotional narrative
- - I love the sarcastic nature of Gorky, the station's AI
- - The soundtrack captures the feeling of being isolated perfectly
- - No touch screen controls (although I imagine this is due to the very small switches and buttons)
- - Although I love that there is very limited help from Gorky in completing his tasks, a little more help would be nice for those struggling