Parsing a new World with “Stela”

Generally speaking, I don’t play video games that are strictly platformers. I will take on a Metroidvania-style title, yes, but more often than not I go for vast, open world, RPGs, the kind of game that I can sink 100—or even 200—hours into. The games I generally play are ones that allow me a measure a control, a measure of decision making in terms of how the story progresses.

“Stela,” from SkyBox Labs is not such a game. Described as a “a cinematic platformer about a young woman witnessing the final days of a mysterious ancient world,” this is a game where you go from point A to point B along a predetermined course in a predetermined manner. There are various bad guys behind—and in front of—you and the game has a very specific way in which they are to be defeated.

This is one of those games where the autosaves are frequent because the developer expects you to die a lot. The point of the deaths? To teach you how you are meant to progress between the aforementioned points A and B. Generally speaking, it involves moving a block or hitting a switch at the right moment or picking up a torch. These actions stop zombie-like creatures, bat-like creatures, weird snow-like creatures, and more.

Now, two paragraphs above I quoted what the PR agent sent me about the game, but the truth is this – without being told that this was the story of a woman witnessing the final days of a mysterious world, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much beyond the fact that this was about a woman running through a bunch of weird, but beautiful, levels.

In other words, “Stela” is exceptionally light on plot. That isn’t a bad things necessarily, it’s just a fact. The game is instead focused on running through these beautiful backgrounds and listening to creepy, excellent, music and thinking about the immediate problems it puts in front of you.

The woman at the center of the affair remains small on screen throughout, with the backgrounds in command. The effect of this is the sense that this is one small person in a world in which she exerts little, if any, control. Sure, she can move switches and lift a manhole cover-like thing as a shield, but beyond that, she’s just running. To where? Who knows. Why? Well, there’s evil all around her, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess.

Having finished the game in just a couple of hours, I can’t even be sure that there’s only one ending or that I got the “right” one if there are multiple endings. There are a couple of moments where I seemed to go places that were unnecessary and picked up a little bit of light (literally, there would be a blue light that would enter me) along the way. But, were those diversions not really diversions? Were they required? Would I have found my way blocked if I didn’t grab the light first? I can’t say. I do know that after the credits rolled the world “Continue” appeared as a choice on the menu and hitting that brought me back to the last level. Was that an error by SkyBox or did it indicate that I was supposed to have done something differently in the level? If the latter, I couldn’t find an alternate route on a second play through of that portion.

It is confusing, yes, but it isn’t upsetting. It’s just another contemplative aspect of an already thought-provoking title.

More than anything else, “Stela” feels like a diversion; an enjoyable way to spend a few hours during which one will think through problems in a new and different way. Maybe that’s good in today’s world with the problems we currently face.

Maybe this is just a couple of hours of fun. That’s probably good, too.

photo credit:  SkyBox Labs



Categories: Random Thoughts

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