Stairs is a game about…well, it’s hard to say what it’s about. It’s certainly creepy, and plenty about it makes you feel unsafe and scared. It’s fun to play, but it’s just hard to know why it happened when you get to the end.
You play the role of Christopher Adams, a poorly-voiced journalist chasing the end of a mysterious disappearance of three people. Supposedly this is “based on a true story,” but I didn’t much see how that Heading first to an abandoned warehouse, then a mine, then a campsite, you’ll explore these various areas while hunting for more information on the missing persons. With only your trusty camera in tow, you’ll search for pieces of a story to put together when you return…assuming you return, of course.
Stairs, as a horror game, is primarily about atmosphere and intensity, and it really does manage to convey both of those traits well. GreyLight Entertainment’s team utilized Unreal Engine 3 for Stairs, but did it to stunning effect; when played at 1080, the visuals are crisp and haunting to match the ghostly soundtrack. And ghostly only starts to describe the forces that wait in the corners as you descend further into the mystery; there are some legitimately scary monsters that will end your quest quickly if you’re not cautious (and a little lucky). The paranormal element of the game sneaks up on you pretty early into the game, but it’s a heavy part of the overall experience…a somewhat unexplained part of the overall experience.
Admittedly, part of my dissatisfaction with Stairs is the convoluted story; though it introduces elements of the arcane, it really doesn’t give any reason why. While you’re roaming around there’s suddenly a puzzle you can only solve by taking a picture of a bright blue, shimmering energy only visible through your camera lens; next thing you know creepy monsters, blackouts and teleportations, and cave-ins are all a part of the experience. And that’s not to say that those things aren’t done well from a horror perspective; they do induce fear and dread. Even after finishing I wondered to myself, “Why did these monsters show up again?” Mind you, there’s a part where a rather overbearing voice tries to hand you the plot on a silver platter, but it just doesn’t seem to explain how any of the paranormal forces got involved in the first place, which is my big question.
Admittedly, I wonder if some of the clues are contained in writings on the walls near the end of the game; though the mystical blue scrawls looked important, they weren’t in English. Greylight Entertainment is a Swedish developer, and there were a few places throughout the game where the English didn’t seem edited properly. Then again, it could also be said that the Swedish text enhanced the mystery for some folks. For me, however, it created a stark contrast between the world I was hearing and the one I was seeing; there was no key to guide me through what I was supposed to be learning from the signs, and it was distracting.
Many players won’t get into Stairs for the deep insight and story digestion, though, and those players will be happy with Stairs. The game is consistently scary, and doesn’t rely heavily on jump-scares to get an easy rise out of the player. The third section of the game, the one taking place at the abandoned summer camp site, really messes with your head as you try to track down the various bizarre scenes around you. The puzzles in the game maintain some uniqueness compared to the others, and the three different settings very much feel like completely different locales, each with a sense of darkness, but they don’t feel derivative. With each photograph taken of a point of interest, Christopher scribbles in his journal about what’s going on and what he’s processing.
Unfortunately, most of it is just made up of statements of the obvious, the likes of “This house in the middle of nowhere looks like one of the points on the map,” and “What did that person do to deserve being hung up like that?” Surprisingly, no matter how many bizarre situations take place around Chris, he doesn’t once ask why or how any of it is happening or think about fleeing. Trust me; you’ll think about fleeing when you see some of the things in Stairs, and when you get to the stairs, you’ll always wish you could go up…but you have have go down.
While I think there’s more that could have been done in terms of localization to make the title a stronger release for us here in the States, Stairs manages to carry its atmosphere and intensity well. I had fun playing the game, and there were times that I covered my eyes or took my headphones off from being scared/intimidated. It’s a short run; it took me roughly 3 hours to clear, but if you’re looking for something to do on a spooky Saturday night, check it out.