In the stash of stoner-detective-noirs such as The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice, The Big Lebowski and Scooby Doo, the imitation gumshoe that is STONE gets lost in the haze.
Developer: Convict Games
Publisher: Convict Games
Release date: 21 Sept, 2018
STONE is an indie narrative game that puts you behind the fuzzy ears of Stone, an alcoholic detective koala on the case of a mysterious kidnapping, complete with bounty hunters, sassy bartenders, and run-ins with the law. Thematically it claims to be a stoner hip-hop noir, but I found it lacking in noir, and more sober than Joe Friday on a Sunday. Outside of the soundtrack, I’m not sure what STONE’s hip-hop credentials are aside from the main character’s key-chain which lazily reads “I Heart Rap”. Mechanically it appears on the surface to be a third-person adventure game, but in reality the game elements consist of nothing more than navigating the main character around very, very tiny environments to talk to a very tiny amount of side characters in order to advance the equally tiny story.
Gathers no moss
To be blunt, STONE is not a game in the traditional sense, or perhaps in any sense. There are no choices or decisions to be made, there are no puzzles to solve, or environments to explore, or tasks to complete, or challenges to overcome, nothing changes as dialogue choices have zero consequence. STONE gives you the illusion of limited interaction but bogarts control of the linear story for itself. Making sub-par use of the Unreal Engine, the exposition unfolds with all the elegance of a drunken koala playing Second Life.
Gameplay consists of controlling Stone as he follows the “objective” prompts at the top of the screen which literally tell you what to do, the typical pattern being: talk to person X; they say to talk to person Y; who in turn says to go to another location on the map and talk to person Z. This repeats over and over again for five acts and an epilogue.
When a Whodunit becomes a Whocares
I don’t mind narrative games, but they have to be well told, and though STONE is encrusted in an overwhelming array of gripes, its biggest flaw is with its storytelling. I appreciate that the game is trying to convey a deeper core story here, but it does so in such a painfully clumsy way that the results come off as nothing more than a tame, toothless, and overwhelmingly cliched demo featuring wise-cracking anthropomorphized animals.
The main character, Stone, is bafflingly unappealing…everybody seems to know him, and many characters in the game are devoted to him, despite their stated misgivings, but I’m at a loss as to why. Perhaps the other characters have reasons to like him, but we, as the audience, are never shown anything likable, charming or unique about Stone. He is nothing more than a passive device upon which the story can act. As a detective, he’s dumb as a rock; not funny-dumb, in a Lebowski way, but like a slow-witted uncle at an endless family reunion; harmless but embarrassingly inane.
The writing and dialogue are painfully pedestrian. Usually, an interesting cast of characters and witty exchanges are what propel a good narrative, but STONE can barely muster the few sentences necessary to move the plot from one lifeless scene to the next. The story itself has potential, but the telling of that story is so oafishly handled that any goodwill gets tossed aside, just like the carpet of empty beer cans lining Stone’s apartment. And the characters are so one-dimensional that any life the story did have gets sucked out by the insipid dialogue and hammy delivery; I’ve seen breakfast cereal mascots with a more developed personality than anyone in this game.
As both an indictment of this fact, and a contrast to the other characters, the most interesting personality in the entire game is Nigel, a talking toaster that appears during one of Stone’s “dream sequences.” Next time I’m stuck investigating a mysterious disappearance I’d much rather be a talking toaster than an inebriated marsupial.
The Big Snooze
None of this is helped by the voice acting. The supporting characters are ok, but Stone himself is distractingly miscast. I hesitate to say the acting is bad, because it’s dutiful and gets the job done, but the actor is a bad fit for the character and sounds more often than not like he’s forcing himself to say lines that are totally unnatural for him; whatever his range might be, playing a stoned-drunk-detective is not in his repertoire. The cringe-worthy dialogue and amateur theatrics make enduring the endless conversations a real test of patience.
Humor is subjective, but STONE is utterly devoid of any intentional comedy. I’m not sure exactly what my expressions were while playing STONE, but I guarantee they didn’t contain any smiles. Bewilderment, perhaps; boredom definitely, and no shortage of quizzical eyebrows. The most amusing parts of the game, for me, were all the Aussie slang liberally strewn about, a fact which is bolstered by the inclusion of an actual Australian slang glossary so you can follow along with the merriment.
Outside of enduring dull dialogue, there is almost nothing else to do in STONE. I say almost nothing, because for whatever half-baked reason, the developers have included six old black and white movies that you can actually watch in their entirety within the game, either on Stone’s TV in his perpetually trashed apartment, or at a poorly rendered movie theater in town.
The public domain films include such classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Night of the Living Dead, and are all reduced to a resolution that makes the worst YouTube clip look like IMAX. The big question, though, is why were these full films included in the first place? How stoned do you have to be to want to watch Night of the Living Dead in 320×240 framed by the giant head of a pickled koala?
The graphics are competent, but feel incomplete. The character designs are nice, and the animations (what few cycles there are) are fine…but the environments are dead, empty, lifeless, uninspired and tiny. I’m not even sure what the point of making this game in 3D was; you can walk around the bar, or club or bowling green, but why? The game doesn’t give you any opportunities to explore for the sake of uncovering additional world-building and is satisfied merely to offer you a static set that acts as a container for the one or two characters that you’re supposed to talk to. This false sense of interaction is really just another way to pad the game’s paltry content by filling up time making you traverse barren locations. The game’s only concession on variety is to occasionally change the color of the lights in the club scene. The rest of the world is a vacuous shell mistaking pragmatic utility for personality. In fact, the best graphics of the entire game appear as an optional gallery showing the game’s concept art as a slideshow; to be honest, I wish the whole game was done in that 2D style, as they demonstrate magnitudes more appeal than the final product’s anemic visuals.
Finally, the entire experience, as repetitively dull as it might be, is unexpectedly short. There’s barely 90 minutes of content (not counting the black and white movies) and zero replay value, so at $9.99US (regular price on Steam) this title feels like an intentional rip-off.
As far as having anything kind to say about the game, I usually like to include some sort of rebuttal, because I believe most games deserve the benefit of the doubt…but with STONE I’m really struggling. It does get brownie points for its cultural references, including not one, but two Jodorowsky nods, and a few other pop culture nuggets. The music isn’t bad, and there are some tracks that stand out. I do appreciate that the story goes in an unexpected and personal direction by the end. I applaud that the developers clearly had the best of intentions and were trying to make something beyond the rote narrative adventure game, even if they didn’t entirely (or even partially) succeed. STONE may be a failure, but I do sense enough of a creative spark from Convict Games that I would be curious to see what else they come out with.
I have no hate for this game; I’ve played and reviewed titles that have left me seething in anger and deserve their low scores. I genuinely feel bad for being so harsh on STONE, because I harbor no animosity towards it, and I recognize that the developers had good intentions. The simple truth, though, is that I just cannot recommend the final product to anyone for any reason under any circumstance. Even if you received this title for free, I still don’t recommend devoting 90 minutes of your life to it. There is just nothing here. It feels like an abandoned Early Access title or someone’s thesis project for a game-development class, but a fulfilling stand-alone gaming experience it is not. I sincerely anticipate greater things from the developers in the future, but for now, STONE is a game better left unturned.