The Deep Space Blues
HIGH That last scene.
LOW The cooling system puzzle is a bit much.
WTF Is that a reference to the Masters of the Universe movie?
I have to be very careful here, because Still There‘s story is the best thing about it and I can’t risk spoiling any details — the deftness with which the plot handles its reveals is a great strength. However, this puts me in a bit of a bind. How can I sell a beautiful story of coping with tragedy while avoiding any mention of the moments that I found so affecting and shattering?
Here’s a one-sentence review for those whom I can convince to go into this completely blind — for anyone interested in playing a sad puzzle game about the impossibility of repairing a broken heart, Still There is absolutely worth your time.
Now for the risky part…
As a Moon-esque story of isolation and alienation, Still There tells the story of Karl. He’s a man so haunted by personal loss that after a decade of sleepwalking through life, he takes a job guaranteed to offer the complete absence of human contact he craves — operating a deep-space satellite built to act as a communications relay for travelers and performing basic research functions. After two years of the loneliest job imaginable, the story opens on the first day of what proves to be a surprisingly eventful week.
Taking point-and-click gameplay to an incredibly realistic extreme, Still There is restricted to just a handful of screens that represent the claustrophobic entirety of Karl’s tiny workplace. Just five seconds of scrolling left or right brings players back to the start of their journey, having completed a circuit of the station, from airlock to bunk.
Despite its small size, the detail that’s gone into designing this location is incredible. Items are scattered around haphazardly, every surface is tagged with post-its, and all the technology is an early-70s version of the future — rather than a high-tech assemblage of clean lines and touchscreens, everything is vacuum tubes, CRT monitors, and circuit boards. How retro is the station? Programming is partially done on a midi keyboard.
Every one of Still There‘s puzzles is built around using or repairing this old-timey technology, so it offers both the most and least realistic puzzles I’ve ever encountered.
Karl has a set number of tasks to accomplish each day, and the player will have to break out the in-game manual to learn how to use the machines and complete his duties. It feels completely earned until the player gives it more than a moment’s thought — after all, the character they’re controlling has been doing this job for two years when things begin, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t know how everything works by heart.
However, the player’s knowledge gap is a contrivance Still There gets away with because without the difficulties of operating the station’s systems, the game would be over in a single emotionally-charged hour, rather than the four it took me to complete it. The puzzles give the story time to breathe and let the player stew in the situation, putting them solidly inside Karl’s head as they trudge through his duties. Fortunately, while the puzzles are a bit contrived conceptually, Still There‘s story is top-notch.
Karl’s only company on the station are a sarcastic AI and a terrarium-bound lizard who serves as a living representation of Karl’s trials. Between the snappy dialogue that gets players invested in the relationships, the item descriptions that give them a peek into Karl’s head, and the heartstring-tugging letters from home, Karl’s tiny universe offers a wealth of brilliant writing.
The only criticism I can offer here is that the experience is fairly linear in that there are no alternate pathways through the story, and there’s just one ending. The conversation options the player gets aren’t simply cosmetic, however. While they may not affect how the plot turns out, they serve a much more important purpose — they change the way the characters feel about one another, and give the player the chance to decide whether or not Karl is going to deal with the emotional distress that’s defined his life for more than a decade. Still There is ultimately about coping with loss, and the most important decision the player has to make is whether it’s possible to heal from unimaginable heartbreak.
Still There is slow and it takes patience to get through the introductory sections, but after players have settled into the world and lived in Karl’s skin, it does an amazing job of telling one of the most touching stories I’ve seen in ages.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Ghostshark and published by Iceberg Interactive. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game was reviewed by the ESRB and rated M. It contains Strong Language and Sexual Themes. It’s not for kids at all, but not in a gross way. This is a meditation on loss and hopelessness wrapped up in a sci-fi puzzler. It’s fine for older teens although they might not be interested.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the majority of the game without audio and encountered no issues. Even puzzles involving a MIDI keyboard aren’t sound-based. All dialogue and instructions are presented as text, which can be resized. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: There is no control diagram. On PC, this game is played with a mouse, so the controls are not remappable.