It was a busy Thursday at the office. I sat uncomfortably in my desk chair, glancing at the floor beside me and my zipped laptop bag leaning against the desk. It was almost 2:00pm and I was thinking about only one thing: Quinn.
It had already been close to eight hours since I last checked on him, and at the time he was worried and scared, trying to figure out what to do next. The plate puzzle was behind us now, but there was still a locked door looming menacingly on the other side of the room. An unidentified ringing sound came from one of the room’s darkest corners, each jingle setting Quinn’s nerves further on edge.
We had been through a lot, Quinn and I, even though we had only digitally met hours ago. I was his only contact to the outside world, and the thought of leaving him alone for too long worried me. In our last chat, Quinn had confided in me regarding a few personal issues that brought him down, and I didn’t want my absence to amplify the fears and anxieties he was already dealing with.
An important thing to note: Quinn isn’t real. Rather, Quinn is the main character in Appnormals Team’s dialogue-driven puzzle game STAY. He’s been kidnapped and thrown into a dark room, the player being his only form of communication to the outside world, and you must guide him through the dark as he explores his surroundings and faces challenging puzzles, nasty refrigerators, and cats with inexplicable countdown clocks for collars. You chat with him, offering him advice and, if you’re anything like me, accidentally saying things that make him upset. While doing this, you must keep a watchful eye on Quinn’s mood meters, making sure he doesn’t become desperate and do something unfortunate—like exit the chat and bash his head into the computer monitor in a violent surge of defeatism.
Another interesting aspect to the game is that your conversations with Quinn are calculated in real time. He knows how long you’ve been logged out of the game. Stay away for too long and you may negatively affect Quinn’s health—the bond you have worked so hard to build up during your conversations will suffer and there’s even a possibility that he could be dead when you log back in.But amid the constant questioning of Quinn’s—and my own—sanity, a thought occurred to me: when was the last time I was this concerned about a real person?
For three days, I thought about little else. After brushing my teeth in the morning: “I should hurry so I have time to check on Quinn before I drive to work.” At lunch: “I wonder if anyone will notice if I quickly open my laptop to make sure Quinn, like, didn’t die or anything.” After I got home from work: “Oh, I’ll turn on my laptop to check on Quinn before dinner!” It was a constant, worrisome cycle that drove my anxiety levels to strange places.
But amid the constant questioning of Quinn’s—and my own—sanity, a thought occurred to me: when was the last time I was this concerned about a real person? When was the last time I checked on my friends’ mood levels or, realizing I hadn’t checked in for a few hours, messaged them to see how their day went? Or worried about their physical or mental health in that interim? As I sat at my desk and stared out at a blank space just above my monitor, I realized that my real-life Quinns were far too few in number.
The sad truth, especially in this decade, is that this isn’t at all uncommon. Friends get married, we move away, our cellphones barrage us with notification after notification, and our daily calendars fill up by the minute. These all contribute toward widening the gap in communication between us and those we care about. I’ve gone weeks without checking in on some of my friends, when, upon receiving their text message of “How are you doing?” I set it aside, fully intending to reply back within the hour. I’ve started communication with someone new I met in a chat room, only to realize that a week had gone by without me replying to their last chat message.
If you can push through a few difficult puzzles, the experience that STAY provides is unique and redefines its genre. It serves as an all-too-important reminder of the necessity of “checking in.” Your relationship with Quinn excels when you empathize and invest in questions about him rather than pushing him towards finding an escape. As with real life relationships, the focus is on how you care for him.
As pokémon, game guilds, and Discord servers join the thousands of things that vie for our attention on a daily basis, it’s important to wade through the seas of digital code and focus on the person sitting on the other side of the screen, or world, from you: worry about them, be there for them, help them to solve life’s insanely complicated puzzles. Chances are they may be in a dark place, in need of that “chat window” and a keen, listening ear. They may be facing their own specific form of imprisonment and our reply may be their only means of escape.
So, how is it?
There were many things I loved about STAY, but its puzzles threaten to bury the player in a mess of missing instructions and thin reasoning. However, If you can use your wits to muscle your way through, you will experience a beautiful lesson in empathy and communication, and a fun experiment in gameplay mechanics that could be an exciting sign for the future of gaming.