Stranded – What We Think
Inspired by “art games” like Proteus as well as ’70s science fiction, Stranded is a brief tale of an astronaut crash-landed on a desert planet and desperate to survive. Nearly devoid of game-play in the traditional sense, it nonetheless tells a strange and thought-provoking story.
A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma Wrapped in a Space Suit
Stranded begins with its unnamed protagonist awakening from cryogenic stasis inside of a crashed spaceship; step outside, and you’ll see the extent of the damage. More ominously, an indicator on that initial screen highlights how many tanks of oxygen remain.
Without the use of dialogue and only the sparest hints of any text at all, the game has already managed to effectively tell a story: you have crashed-landed on a planet, it’s uninhabitable, and you have a limited amount of time to extricate yourself from this mess in which you have found yourself. It’s an impressive use of the video game medium as a storytelling device.
That said, many fans of survival-style games will find the lack of things to actually do in Stranded maddening. There’s no crafting, no means of using the environment to build shelter or increase oxygen supplies, no real enemies to fortify against or fight…Stranded consists of a single puzzle, and that’s using the word generously.
Simply explore the planet, and soon enough you’ll encounter giant stone heads, like some alien version of the Easter Island moai. Are they statues? Religious idols? Are they actually alive? And what is their connection to the shambling creatures (Robots? Aliens? Golems?) that you’ll encounter as you continue to explore? These questions are never quite answered, but merely hinted at, and to even get those hints, you’ll need to continue to wander, making note of how things change after nightfall.
No Oxygen but Lots of Atmosphere
There’s little more to the game than that, really; explore each screen, then return to various scenes at different times. And the whole thing is over in less than half an hour, and each time you play, the story is the same, so there’s not much point in playing Stranded repeatedly.
But for a game that barely meets the definition, Stranded is an incredible compact little piece of story and atmosphere. Helping things along are evocative but simplistic graphics, effectively sparse sound effects and an eerie soundtrack that recalls such early ambient music pioneers as Tangerine Dream. And the conclusion itself is haunting and extraordinarily strange, a cross between the science fiction weirdness of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the even stranger science fiction short stories of James Tiptree, Jr. and Harlan Ellison.
Don’t think of it as a slow video game; think of it as an engaging short story with a pulsing binary heart.