‘Stay dead’. If you ever need to issue this as advice to someone, it’s a signal that you’ve probably taken things too far. Thankfully, as computer gamers, we tend to enjoy the untouchable position of being able to murder the same people again and again without any consequence beyond the odd pang of guilt. No one stays dead where we’re from. Not those Middle Eastern clones you’ll massacre in the latest Call of Duty release, nor those leagues of Goombas you’ve cheerfully stomped your way through as everybody’s favourite plumber. In particular, no one ever stays dead in beat ‘em ups. If you happen to die there’s likely another round to be played. If you kill someone – however viciously – you’ll see their pitiful face popping up in the next ‘character select’ screen. Which makes Stay Dead an odd title for such a game.
Nobody dies in Stay Dead. Also – entirely unrelated to that fact – no one is likely to get much enjoyment out of this title beyond the first mind-sparks of idle curiosity.
In fairness, BRUCEfilm have created the game with entirely good intentions, basing its production on an interesting and experimental design philosophy. That is: Games aren’t enough like movies. To the casual bystander they don’t entertain, they don’t capture the the thrill of the silver screen. So, the idea behind Stay Dead was to create a game as watchable as it is playable, something that will get people’s blood pumping whether or not they currently have control of the characters onscreen. Unfortunately – but inevitably – this means compromises on both sides of the line.
Actions within the game comprise of measured video reels of punches, grapples and groin-kicks. You enact these by pressing a key corresponding to whichever move you want to perform. So, you can make an attack with a couple of directional key presses, or roll out a combo with more of the same. The third option is a defensive move which requires you, once again, to hit keys as they come up on the screen. On these grounds direct control over your avatar isn’t quite as responsive as you might expect from a standard beat ‘em up so, when the developer states that ‘you can freely move your character just like in any normal arcade game’, I’d take that statement with a shedload of salt.
It’s unfortunate that Stay Dead never elevates itself above a simplistic – if incredibly difficult – button matching game. The developer purports to be pushing for the next generation of video gaming, conjuring a genre that combines the excitement of movies with the interactivity of our favourite medium but, as the very notion suggests, it fails on a number of levels.
Photorealism isn’t the high watermark of playability. Good game design will do that for you. A game that looks great but gives no pleasure on a basic design level will be forgotten long before that ugly bastard in the corner that you can pour your life into. A collection of rudimentary action scenes lacking any solid plotting controlled by prompted button presses is simply packaging the worst attributes of both mediums and selling it to you as the next best thing. Simply put, you can’t pour tea into my coffee and call it a better kind of tea.
The notion that video games can’t be exciting without being more like cinema flies in the face of what a lot of good developers have been striving to achieve in recent years, never mind the emerging successes within the sphere of indie gaming itself. I can admire BRUCEfilms’ confidence in their product and the time and effort it must have taken to construct a title of this kind that works on any level, but what we are presented with is barely a game beyond the relentless choose-your-own-quick-time-event premise.
And with all that, a compromise: There are moments here – vague hallucinatory moments when the game doesn’t entirely baffle you with the preposterousness of its very existence – that Stay Dead can be seen to carry an odd kind of charm. For this reason I’m happy that it exists, but I can’t say that my time with it was equally joyful.
Stay Dead is currently available to buy from the developer’s website. The game is available on both PC and Mac for €7.99 and iPads for the lesser price of €2.39.[review pros="Intriguing in its experimentalism." cons="Uninspired reliance on QTEs, progression requires almost prescient reaction times, lack of variation." score=43]