Need to know
What is it? The final form of a 2008 browser game about telling stories to solve puzzles.
Expect to pay: TBA (the Switch version is £12.49)
Release date: March 23, 2023
Developer: Daniel Benmergui
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Reviewed on: RTX 2070, i7-10750H, 16GB RAM
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
Storyteller serves up conundrums drawn from time-honoured narrative structures and tropes. As a teller of tall tales, you’re tasked with mucking around with these story skeletons to see what sticks, letting you drop in characters and concepts until you’ve crafted a story that fits the title of each puzzle.
In Storyteller’s comic-strip world, any tale can be told in three to six panels, eight at a stretch, and it’s your job to figure out how. Perhaps the title is Eve Dies Heartbroken, for example, and you’re handed two scene types to play with, a wedding and a graveyard, and two characters, Adam and Eve. Place the wedding scene, then drop Adam and Eve into it, and they fall in love. Place the graveyard on the next panel and Adam on the tombstone, and he’s dead. Place Eve next to the grave and, yep, she’s heartbroken. Now all that’s left for panel three is for Eve to kick the bucket.
From that basic beginning, the stories become more convoluted, cunning and farcical. What if you place a third character in a wedding scene with someone who’s already hitched, for instance? Well, the married party will reject their new suitor, leaving them either heartbroken or scorned. At least that is until later puzzles introduce an affair scene, in which case you can turn said spouse into a cheat, and even have another character hiding in the nearby bushes to witness the illicit tryst.
Love, betrayal and jealousy fuel many of these tales, of course, simply because they’re such timeless themes, and Storyteller takes you on a whistle-stop tour of fiction, from fairy tales to detective stories, Shakespearean tragedy to gothic horror. Yet at the same time it plays with traditional expectations, with pleasingly flexible results. While each character has certain desires or traits—the baron in the chivalry tales, for instance, schemes to usurp the throne—roles can often be reversed. So, in a classic love triangle scenario, why shouldn’t the two women get married and live happily ever after?
This flexibility also allows Storyteller to jiggle its comedy muscles by spiralling into silly ‘what ifs’, like the courtly romance entitled Everyone Rejects Edgar, where the hapless hero desperately tries his luck with anyone he can find, only to learn they’re already spoken for. This willingness to indulge the extremes of established setups equally revels in blending respected classics like Austen with soapy trash, like in a tale where Edgar dies (poor Edgar) leaving his wife Lenora behind, only to come back to life and find she’s already wedded Isobel.
The joy of Storyteller is not merely in its solutions, however, but the process itself. Often, you need to think backwards from the ending you’re trying to achieve, asking yourself, say, what would make Isobel want to poison Edgar when there’s no initial animosity between them? In some cases, the solutions involve careful manipulation of the pieces, considering what each character knows and feels about each other, and how to change their minds. It’s to the game’s credit here that it almost always maintains a tight logic, where intention and effect are clear.
Better still, because of that logic, sometimes the most fun you can have is to indulge in pure trial and error. Storyteller is funny by design, yet some of the deepest chuckles it induces emerge as side effects of experiments gone wrong. The beauty of its system is that simply swapping the order of scenes or exchanging one character for another may have unforeseen knock-on effects, like a version of the Frog Princess story which ends in two frogs snogging, or a tragedy in which a heartbroken Lenora drinks poison and dies, then resurrects, realises she’s still heartbroken and downs another bottle of arsenic.
The other reason such moments land so well is the game’s pitch-perfect visuals and interface. Plot building in Storyteller is merely a matter of dragging and dropping, and the moment you plop a character into a scene, they react without blinking, whether that means instantly falling in love with whoever’s facing them, or pushing them off a cliff. Or watch how the innocent statement “I am your mother” suddenly becomes a shock revelation when you move the pieces around in the game’s hilarious take on Oedipus Rex.
So enjoyable are Storyteller’s building blocks to play with, in fact, that you may find yourself wolfing it down in one sitting. Solving all 51 puzzles, plus some bonus objectives which ask you to reach certain conclusions in different ways, takes around two hours, after which there’s not much left to do than close the book. Still, if you’re on board with the notion of a game that serves up a charming 120 minutes before calling it quits, you may have no complaints.
Except, it is hard not to feel a little underwhelmed when the credits roll, even accepting how many years it’s taken developer Daniel Benmergui to make it work so beautifully and consistently. In part that’s because some concepts are left under-explored, like the monsters chapter that introduces vampire and werewolf characters and their particular modes of behaviour, then shuffles them offstage again after a couple of stories. But more than mere quantity, the issue is that Storyteller doesn’t really build to anything climactic or profound. It just stops.
Sure, its creative systems do offer up a few interesting ideas to chew on, such as what makes a story work or fall flat, or how stories can subvert apparently cast iron rules. But those themes are visible in the first ten minutes, as they were in last year’s demo, and don’t kick on as you advance. In contrast, other brief puzzle games like Gorogoa or Unpacking don’t feel cut short because they arc towards a conclusion, which Storyteller never does. For all the core genius of this game about telling stories, then, and the precise execution, the one thing it’s missing is a story to tell of its own.