The Developers Of Stories Untold On Alien: Isolation, Stranger Things, And How They Made Their Game In Six Months
The stylish and enjoyable puzzle/adventure horror anthology Stories Untold came out last week. I dug the game a lot, so I tracked down the Scotland-based developers No Code at this year's GDC and had a chat with them about the spooky collection. I talked with studio founders Jon McKellan and Omar Khan about developing the entire anthology in less than six months, working on Alien: Isolation, and if we're likely to see more games from the studio like Stories Untold in the future.
Game Informer: So The House Abandon, one of the stories in the anthology, came out half a year ago as a standalone prototype. Was Stories Untold meant to be an anthology from the outset?
McKellan: No. The House Abandon was a Ludum Dare game we had created like over a weekend. We put it out there and honestly didn’t expect anything to come of it. I mean, two thousand games get made that weekend, right? But it suddenly blew up and went viral, and lots of people were asking more and we had some time to kill, so we thought we’d take a chance. For the next couple of months, we just started making some more and were already talking to Devolver Digital [the game’s publisher –Ed] at time. So we just decided to go for it and put something cool together within the next six months.
Stories Untold has a fair amount of quality content. How did you manage to develop the game in less than a year?
Khan: We put the time and effort into the things we knew that we could do well. When we were building the game and building systems that fit the skills we had. We were pretty selective in how we put the game together. Because it is a slightly linear adventure we didn’t have to derail the player far in any direction so that means it was easier to plan out the puzzle and time it was going to take.
The narrative-driven style is something we’ve actually been looking at quite a bit. Our next big game coming up is going to be falling into a similar type of style because it’s something we specialize in.
McKellan: We didn’t sleep, either. The game, from back to back, took six months. We kind of burnt ourselves out a little but it’s fine because we created something cool. The scope for the project also changed a fair bit. We originally were going to do four text adventures but that changed from puzzle to puzzle as we got deeper into the project. “Let’s have a little point and click in here!” and “Let’s have you looking around a bit.” So it just expanded, but in a way where we’re building corners and little rooms rather than an entire house. In that way, you get to focus on a handful of spaces and that helps a lot.
Can you talk influences a little bit for Stories Untold? Obviously you have a marketing campaign that taps into Stranger Things but what other works influenced the anthology?
McKellan: We were originally tapping into Stephen King books and those anthologies of short stories and The Twilight Zone and just a lot of stuff that came out in the 80s because the mechanics we were using were all centered around retro technology, so it made sense to set it in that era. We didn’t set out to write an 80s game with all these pop culture references or anything like Stranger Things; it was just the right fit for the game.
And I had spent like five years working on Alien: Isolation, so I had just been engrossed in lo-fi sci-fi tech for that long so it was really just a natural thing for me to move onto. I was making survival horror UI stuff so I thought, “why not make games out of it?”
A lot of Stories Untold came from that but yeah, narrative-wise: Silent Hill 2 was also another influence. It’s one of my favorite games because it does a good job of presenting something that’s… a lot more than it seems on the surface. The depth in Silent Hill 2 is something we definitely riffed on with Stories Untold.
The good thing about doing an anthology is that you can draw inspiration from like anywhere and anywhere. I mean, we’ve got a polar outpost and a haunted house and a government lab. We could just take these things we thought were really cool and make games out of them. We didn’t have to invest years of our lives into getting this thing completely right. We just had to get a feel across, riff on it a little bit, and then move on to the next story.
So Jon, what was it like working on Alien: Isolation?
McKellan: Yeah, I was there pretty much from the start. The team had done a little bit of work before I joined, and there was like 10 of us or something before we first started. The whole thing took nearly five years and I came in as a 2D artist and then became the UI guy and gradually got involved in more and more things. I designed like the hacking games and crafting stuff and then I was lead design on all the DLC and was given a chance to lead that team.
But yeah, it’s a weird game because it's totally not mainstream friendly but set in the universe of a massively famous franchise and there was a lot of money put into it. But critically it had done really well and we scooped up some Game of the Year awards. I honestly don’t know how it all sold because I left shortly after the DLC shipped. But yeah, fascinating game. I’ve been in games for about 8 years now and I think that’s like a career-defining thing, my calling card ever since. And I’m okay with that because I’m really proud of what we did.
Will there be another anthology?
McKellan: I think we’d like to. Obviously, we need to see how this pans out. Our next project is a much longer cycle so we’re not going to be running as ragged but yeah, if there’s an appetite for this sort of thing, we’d love to do a season 2, maybe continuing with a whole new set of stories, whole new premise.
I think it’s also just a thing we can go back to and do in a short period of time, make a single 20-30 minute episode every so often…..
Maybe as DLC?
McKellan: Right. We’ve got no plans at the moment to add to the current story but there’s no reason why if we have a cool idea, we can’t just make it and get it out and let people have more of this.
Khan: And the thing is we’ve actually got a format with this game that makes it easy to build upon. So since we have a lot of building blocks in place, it’s actually easier to work with that than to go back.
For more on Stories Untold, check out our review of the game here.