Sci-fi, surrealism, and emotional turmoil come together to create Still There, a story about a grief-stricken astronaut floating in space and solving intricate puzzles.
Still There is part complex puzzle game, part moving story about a man hiding from his past. The two parts often clash, which makes the game’s tone shift dramatically from one second to the next. But both hit hard and come together to form a touching experience about grief and the way it twists every aspect of our lives.
It’s also a lesson in how you should never ever play chess against an annoying, immature AI.
The Life of a Space Lighthouse Keeper
Karl is a lighthouse keeper in space. He wakes up every… morning? Are there mornings in space? I’m not sure. Anyway, he wakes up, does his chores, eats a bowl of powdered corn, and goes back to sleep.
Karl’s lonely existence is interrupted by an emergency transmission from a ship stranded on the far reaches of known space. The woman on the other end is the only connection you have to the world outside your tiny spacecraft, and you are her only hope of survival.
The premise might sound a bit like that of Campo Santo’s Firewatch, and there’s indeed some resemblance, but Still There takes it in a slightly different direction. Instead of being alone in the vast outdoors, with civilization just out of reach – here you’re stuck in a tiny tin can floating through space, without no one around for lightyears. Hearing another voice on the other end of your radio feels so surreal; you’re not even sure if it’s real half the time.
The game developers at SharkGhost call their game a “humane sci-fi mystery,” which an incredibly accurate description. The mix of sci-fi elements with truly human experiences creates a compelling story, with heartbreaking moments contrasted with dark humor.
You should never forget that as a lighthouse keeper, you also have a job do to amidst all the drama and self-growth. And it’s hard work.
Pushing Your Buttons
To get your mind off your space melancholy, Still There offers a complex series of puzzles. It’s not that they are particularly clever or require deep thinking – there’s just a lot you need to remember and pay attention to.
When you’re first introduced to the lighthouse’s console, it can be extremely intimidating. There are dozens of buttons, dials, levers, and lights, and you can interact with all of them right away. Even the instruction manual you get is often cryptic and technical, and studying it almost feels like homework.
I’m not a very technical person, so I found a couple of the puzzles a little frustrating. You can’t look in the manual while you try to complete your tasks, so unless you have a very good head for schematics, prepare to do a lot of back and forth.
But each problem you face is very different from the rest, so if one is giving you trouble, the next one might make more sense. Once you get into the right headspace, you start to understand the challenge the game is going for. The manual actually does offer some help, but never spoon-feeds it to you, which is appreciated.
If all else fails, you can always talk to Gorky. Gorky is the lighthouse’s AI, and your only companion. Here’s there to make sure you do your job and help guide you down the right path. After it’s done trolling you, that is.
You can always head over to its terminal and ask it for clues or instructions on how to operate certain parts of the lighthouse. I found it extremely helpful, and I always had an idea of what I’m supposed to do thanks to its hints.
Gorky may be useful, but it’s also very purposefully annoying, though never in a bad way. Most of the game’s humor comes from your interactions with the AI, and it injects some much-needed levity into such an emotional story. Gorky is also a very sore winner, and I was never able to beat it at chess and I low-key hate it for that.
But I don’t hate the game’s hand-drawn art style. In fact, I think it’s lovely. The art gives off a surrealistic vibe that’s somehow still feels grounded in reality. The haunting soundtrack enhances that feeling, with its slow piano tracks and ethereal beats. It’s the perfect music for some self-reflection, in space or down here on earth.
Still There often feels like two completely different games rolled into one. And yet they work really well together. The story offers a mystery to uncover, and some genuinely emotional moments, be it during dialogues over the radio, or in Karl’s haunted dreams. The gameplay consists almost entirely of figuring out how to operate the low-tech spacecraft you’re on. That includes how to recycle your own urine so you can have enough water to make breakfast.
If you enjoy technical simulators that require an almost maddening level of attention to details – half of Still There is for you. If you love touching stories about the human condition – you’ll enjoy the other half. For the rare breed of gamer that enjoys both – this should be your go-to indie game of 2019.
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Release Date: Nov. 20, 2019
Our Still There review copy was supplied by the publisher.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.