Usually in games, darkness is just a filler for the darker parts of the screen, like shadows. If you ask artsy people, they say: “Black is no color. It is a nuance or shade.” But in Stifled, the latest game from Singaporean studio Gattai Games, darkness has the starring role.
But let’s start from the beginning: In Stifled, you play an unnamed man who wakes up in his own house. Everything is full of steamy fog, like in those old retro games, where fog allowed for a better frame rate. In the very first minutes of the game, the main feature of Stifled is introduced: The sound-based gameplay. Very similar to the game „Perception“ released in 2017, the player can “see” the world by making noises which generate sound waves. Every time the player makes a noise, it is recognized by the connected microphone, sound waves are emitted around the player and the environment is shown in shapes. In the dark, when the full screen is black, this is the only way to know where you are. On the other side, if a microphone is used, the game can “hear” your fear. So if you’re frightened and ready to scream – think twice. Otherwise, you’ll never reach the end of the game.
After the foggy tutorial part of the game, pure darkness awaits you. First steps are made, first sound waves emitted and the story unfolds. In the beginning, it seems like the typical horror story connected to newlyweds and newly-dads. You’ll see many motives of childhood, babies and – so I would construe the experienced – murder. It’s not clear how and what really happened. But you can be sure, something mysterious and creepy is waiting in the dark. And further: Don’t trust your first thought like me and think: “Oh, it’s like the Stephen King story with the baby killed by the mentally fragile mother after birth!”. That’s a trap. Or is it not?
In the end – just to spoil that mildly – it goes deeper into the rabbit hole and leads to a hidden or bigger meaning. The final ending (at least the true ending I reached, so it seems there is more than one) opens into different ways of interpretation. On the other hand, this is also a bit confusing after surviving the darkness and all the disturbing, sometimes glitchy scenes the game served you before. So you should be prepared to think about the meaning of the scenes and the puzzle later on. Further, the different pieces of the puzzle are really creative and well organized in the environment of Stifled. Sometimes, different enemy types for each level are forcing you to rethink your way of moving through the darkness. Especially because of the sound-based gameplay concept, the game opens up for more immersive ways to explore the different levels. So the possibility of feeling lost in the darkness catches you a bit more than the usual way of playing. For example, the first chapter leads you through a forest where every sound echoes a bit which helps to evoke the fantasy of a huge forest in your mind.
Graphics and sound are well polished and above average from usual indie games. But from a critical point of view, the game seems to be a walking simulator in the clothing of a survival horror game. Usually you walk the given way along different scenes and small stealth puzzles to get through. There is no way of interaction with the environment or other characters besides throwing stones to make some noise. In addition to that, the short playtime and the open ending of the game could leave you wondering or lost in front of the screen. So for some players, there might be a lack of understanding why this experience is worth around 20$.
To sum it up: Stifled is a great and interesting experience, because it is different from other horror games. But then, the story leaves much room for speculation – maybe too much. If you’re sensitive to this topic and you don’t want to risk being disappointed now, I would recommend to grab it for a discount later. Besides that, it is, as I said, a great little horror walking simulator with a surprisingly innovative gameplay mechanic.
Stifled is available on PlayStation 4 and supports PSVR.
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