The generally agreed upon distinction between horror and terror is that terror comes first. Terror is that uncomfortable feeling of anticipation when you know something bad is about to happen. Horror is the shock and disgust that comes from encountering the bad thing.
Stasis certainly looks like a point-and-click horror game, especially with its judicious use of gore and other horrifying imagery, but these images aren’t just there to shock us. They’re also there to terrorize us, to build that dreaded anticipation of something bad being just around the corner. The greatest trick that Stasis pulls on the player is making us think we’re in danger. We’re constantly waiting for the proverbial “monsters” to appear, the ones that have destroyed this science lab, that seem to stalk us through the corridors, but it keeps putting off this encounter to show us their handiwork instead. As a result, all those scenes of horror become representative of something even worse, something terrifying.
You are John Maracheck, a school teacher who goes into stasis with his family as part of a vacation, only to wake up alone on a completely different ship. That ship is the Groomlake (what a wonderfully unsettling ship name), a deep-space research vessel doing some seriously fucked up deep-space science experiments, and everything that could have possibly gone wrong has gone wrong. See, the Groomlake is not like one of those Umbrella facilities from Resident Evil where mad scientists were just cooking up viruses. No, the Groomlake seems to have its hands in every kind of twisted science there is, taking full advantage of its position in deep space, far away from the prying eyes of any sort of authority. It’s a mad scientist’s wet dream.
Naturally, inevitably, something has gone wrong and the ship is a fresh tomb, littered with bodies and blood and other viscera. John is determined to find his family, and his quest takes him through multiple decks, each with their own science specializations.
There’s an episodic quality to Stasis, both mechanically and narratively. Each section of the ship has been engulfed by its own kind of horror, like a vat of clones mutated with growth hormones or a hydroponics lab suctioning royal jelly from a truck-sized insect queen. This changing “monster” makes each section feel unique, like its own mini horror story, and once you leave a section you can’t go back. Stasis takes you on a tour through hell, like Dante’s Inferno but without the religion.
Each section is not just defined by its look, but its crew as well. Company-issued PDA’s are strewn all over the place and offer us a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the many working scientists aboard the Groomlike, most of whom weren’t actually mad! These personal stories are consistently compelling. Some saw things slowly coming apart and tried to warn others, some didn’t notice at all, and some just focused on work. Each PDA is written in a distinct voice, and through them, the game manages to create a cast of fleshed out ghosts.
It’s important to remember that Stasis is a point-and-click adventure game because that genre both informs and benefits from the episodic structure. Each section of the ship works as a standalone story thanks to the PDAs, but also as a standalone puzzle. This means a glorious lack of backtracking, and whenever you get stuck, you know for certain that the solution is nearby. Most interactive objects are highlighted by a green glow that looks like lens flare, making it both a useful marking and one that fits with the aesthetic of the environment. Puzzles are always logical, and the only time that they become irritating is when objects aren’t highlighted by the lens flare glow.
And this brings us to the greatest success of Stasis.
The point-and-click interface has never been appropriate for action gameplay, so Stasis avoids moments of action. Even as it evokes memories of Dead Space and even as it hints at creatures stalking us, the gameplay remains focused on puzzles, on finding our way through this section of the ship and on to the next one. Stasis knows how to combine its horror and puzzles so as to not interfere with each other, yet still support each other.
In truth, we’re only in danger of our own incompetence. You can die, but it’ll be because you failed a puzzle. You opened a door with poison gas seeping out from underneath and suffocated or you lit a methane tank on fire when standing next to it or you stood face to face with that giant insect queen out of morbid curiosity and were promptly eaten whole. This means that we’re never rushed to solve a puzzle or killed while pondering an answer. Yet there’s still a palpable sense of danger throughout the game thanks to the horror imagery and the terror of what’s coming next. This is purely psychological danger, not physical danger. The puzzles require us to examine the environment closely, to study these tableaus of gore, forcing us to confront them it in a way that works with the point-and-click gameplay. The potential downside to this is that Stasis isn’t necessarily a scary game, but it is a highly disturbing one. As a result, we learn that psychological disgust lingers longer than physical fear.
The isometric camera and the game’s art add to this effect. The camera is always pulled back just far enough to make the gore abstract. The art is still quite detailed, but Stasis keeps its focus on the aftermath of violence and not on the violent acts themselves, so while we see plenty of blood, the game never wallows in it. This treatment prevents the game from feeling exploitative with its gore. It’s not shoving the blood in our face or shoving our face in the blood; such things are presented plainly at a distance and are often shrouded in darkness. The environment speaks volumes by itself. Stasis doesn’t want us to laugh at the gore. It wants us to be repulsed by the gore, and it succeeds in this by literally pushing the camera away.
Stasis is available on Steam for $25.00.