What would you get if you dropped space's unluckiest engineer, Isaac Clarke, into an old-school, isometric Fallout? As it happens we've run just such an experiment using a top-secret machine and think we know the answer: a chillingly good point-and-click space horror called Stasis.
"Fallout is definitely a huge influence on me artistically. Another large artistic presence has been Dead Space. Sci-fi horror films too, like Event Horizon, Alien, The Things... it's almost a sin not to call on these great inspirations when creating Stasis."
Our secret machine is a man named Chris Bischoff, who built the entirety of the game's alpha demo single-handedly. Main character John's wounded, limping gait; the cold, clinical lighting of the abandoned spaceship, the Groomlake; the sinister hints at what's become of its now former crew of brilliant scientists; where traditionally this symphony of classic horror elements would be the work of a whole team, in Stasis it's all down to Bischoff.
That Stasis is an almost entirely solo effort might set a few expectations when it comes to quality and scope. Discard them. It's no exaggeration to say that Stasis, even in its alpha stage, is a staggeringly accomplished game for one person to have whipped up on their own. From the moment stranded space traveler John wakes up on the ship to find himself surrounded by the wrinkled corpses of other stasis passengers, you’re as hooked as you could be playing a game that cost ten times more, a hundred times, more.
The problem for John, see, is that the ship he's woken up on isn't his. He has no memory of how he came to be aboard the hulking Groomlake - only that he was traveling in suspended animation with his family, who are now missing, and has somehow ended up alone. Why he was abducted and what's become of his family is up to John to discover - with the added time pressure that the ship is in a slowly decaying orbit around the planet Neptune.
What follows is maybe an hour of John groping through the ship, solving puzzles in a very Dead Space way as he works to uncover the terrible mysteries of his spacebound prison. As with Isaac's Ishimura, the Groomlake is in bad shape, structurally, and John's path is frequently blocked by security lockdowns that need lifting or glitchy electronics in need of rewiring. There's none of the so-called 'adventure game logic' in Stasis, either - it's a testament to Bischoff's design that, so long as you consider your environment carefully and think like an engineer, you won't find yourself running endlessly in circles using every scavenged item on every possible surface in the hope of a solution magically presenting itself.
But where Isaac has a good chunk of Dead Space's schlocky story unashamedly spelled out for him in heavily expositive cutscenes, Stasis knows to tell you just enough about your situation to maintain the balance between curiosity and trepidation. Holding your cursor over objects in the world brings up your classic adventure game flavor text - a small box in the corner describing in more detail what can't be shown on the simpler object models - and these tiny bits of detail do as much to build the world as Bischoff's painted backgrounds.
You'll find chilling examples right from the start - there's no hand-holding, toes-first introduction to John's space-faring nightmare. An old hospital bed, piled up alongside other discarded pieces of medical equipment, is described as having its restraints and supports snapped - like something incredibly strong had ripped free of its bonds.
A maintenance request on an infirmary computer has a doctor complaining that the drill he uses on people's skulls is malfunctioning, as casually as if it were an engine light on his dashboard that needed fixing. It's grizzly, hard sci-fi that drops just the right amount of hints at a bigger world, a bigger conspiracy that you're only scratching the surface of - and works perfectly in turning every environment into a grim easter egg hunt, with John examining every last terminal and plant pot on the hunt for clues to the ship's gruesome backstory.
"I'm a Star Wars and Star Trek fan and I enjoy exploring those universes because they are well thought out and full of history," says Bischoff. "In Stasis, the Groomlake existed before I had the story about John and his search for his family. The entire hundred year history was written, along with how the Groomlake came to exist. I've tried to keep this history in place in the Stasis world. John fits into the world, but the world does not revolve around him."
Keeping John from feeling like the center of this universe is a laudable achievement for a world which, at least in the Alpha, contains no other people. Whatever happened to the Groomlake to make it so dilapidated seems to have happened long before John came to in his stasis chamber. As such, John's only human contact comes through log files from the former crew hidden around the ship - another nod to both Dead Space's audiologs and Fallout's forgotten terminal entries.
"There are other characters that John meets along his journey, and personal stories littered around the ship," says Bischoff. "For the most part, this once busy and bustling floating city, has been left to ruin and it's human inhabitants... well, that's what you’re going to have to find out."
Sometimes a log will contain puzzles hints, as with one mechanic's gruesomely colorful report on the cause of the security lockdown (like all good security lockdowns, it has to with acid vats). But for the most part, they exist to add flavor to the world. And while your standard video game mega corporation with an interest in human experimentation can easily be full of flat, evil-for-the-sake-of-it caricature villains (we're looking at you, Church of Unitology), the crew of the Groomlake are pleasingly disquieted by their employer's science projects.
Without wishing to spoil one of the Alpha's most memorable moments, one body you'll find as John explores the bowels of the ship contains a full set of diary entries, starting with a researcher's happy first day at a new post before slowly devolving into horror as she pieces together the work her department is doing. Again, it's a testament to the game's writing that you can read through five diary entries and remain completely gripped, constantly formulating and reevaluating your own theories about just what went on and to what terrible ends.
Beyond the missives of the crew, the Groomlake itself also promises a huge environment to explore. "The nature of the Groomlake being a research facility calls for variation in the environments," Bischoff says. "The ship itself includes cavernous halls, as well as claustrophobic spaces. In the Stasis universe there is diversity where a few corporations have access to the latest technology, while others scrape by with hand-me-downs and outdated equipment. Parts of the Groomlake are under construction while other areas have remained untouched for decades.
"My personal must-see is an area called The Vats, but you'll have to wait a while before you experience it. I wish I could go into details without spoiling the fun... I can ask though: What happens when you shut down a lab, but forget to turn off the experiments?"
And with the money from its Kickstarter (Stasis took in $132,523, smashing its original $100,000 goal), Bischoff is promising a lot more for John to explore as he quests to find his missing family. An early stretch goal, for example, was the wonderfully macabre ability to use objects in the world on John's character - with deadly effects. In fact, death is something that was absent from Bischoff's alpha altogether - something he promises will be gleefully rectified in the finished game.
"Adding in death really changes the flow of the story," he says. "Various deaths have been designed so that they're each unique. I have a feeling that some players are going to have a great time hunting down all of the ways to kill our poor protagonist."
If that brings back memories of deliberately waddling Isaac Clarke towards spinning industrial machinery just to see what would happen, then you and Bischoff are on the same gore-soaked page. It's been a long time since we played anything - triple-As included - that presented an atmosphere of sci-fi dread with such confidence as Stasis, and its humble origins only make the success of its alpha all the sweeter. If 2014 is the year that indies finally make a stand against their big budget cousins, Stasis will be on the front line, sporting a crazed grin and brandishing a bloody drill-bit.
You can download the Stasis alpha here.