There have been quite a few first-person horror games on Steam since the critical and commercial success of titles including Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast. Most of them failed to bend or mold the genre in such a way to produce a product that I’d consider original. But the developers of Stairs seem to have hand-picked features from various horror influences across the digital medium and mixed them into a single turbulent and sometimes abstract game that, if anything, is certainly interesting.

In Stairs, the player will find themselves in control of a man going by the name of Adams, who is investigating a seemingly empty factory where the body of a missing woman has turned up. Adams snoops around with high hopes of snapping a few pictures for his own personal news report then leaving, but in a predictable turn of fate he finds himself trapped in a terrifying underground cave ducking and diving from the malevolent gaze of a hungry tribe of troglodytes. The Swedish developers of Stairs, GreyLight Entertainment, seem to take no shame in thrusting the player from one creepy environment to the next, travelling from The Descent-esque caves to The Sacrament-esque cult forest villages over no more than a flight of stairs. This absurdity is, of course, a hallmark of the Psychological-Horror genre. It’s about meddling with the expectations of the player and leaving them guessing where the game is going to take them next.

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Stairs also takes pride in its construction of atmosphere, building tension with the absence of repeated jumpscares and action sequences that many psychological-horror players have become used to. To credit Stairs, in the early game I found myself with a dry mouth and sweating palms as I jogged up and down the empty factory, my dread fed by the malevolent soundtrack that subtly droned as I explored deeper into the mystery behind the game. Stairs seems to take a less-is-more approach in regards to jumpscares, only using them after an appropriately lengthed build-up of atmosphere and tension. This approach seems to have also obscured the character models of the various monstrosities the player will encounter throughout Stairs, which is a saving grace since they look absolutely ridiculous and are most often found sliding across the floor haphazardly swinging their arms at you.

Stairs seems to severely lack player-motivation. As previously mentioned, the main motivational force for the poorly voice-acted protagonist is to get a quick scoop and make a few bucks in the process, leaving the player somewhat unsympathetic and confused as the linear path directs Adams towards an underground labyrinth of dangers and despair. I may have felt more motivation to explore, as is the aim of the protagonist, but Stairs only provides the illusion of freedom as the player is directed down what is essentially a narrow hallway with occasional instances of backtracking to allow for the apparently unavoidable trope of gathering a finite number of certain objects, such as keys, to pass through a blockage, such as a door. Of course this is not to criticize linear psychological horror games, but rather to criticize linear psychological horror games that fail to motivate the player to want to experience the story that is being told to them.

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Mechanically, Stairs is in no way breaking any new ground. The player navigates area A, looking for a key to progress to area B, with the occasional frustrating puzzle here and there to have the player scratching their head so hard some of their brains fall out. One of the most arbitrary mechanics in the game has to be the use of the camera, which seems to have been forced in to draw comparisons to well known horror-game camera icons such as that found in Slender and Outlast. The camera used in Stairs has the unexplained magical ability to lift items that were otherwise too-heavy-to-lift from the ground to their original positions or create doorways where there would otherwise be a wall, all at the close of a shutter. This mechanic is more frustrating than anything, since its lack of any explanation. The introduction fails to firmly establish the premise that it’s a puzzle-solving tool that should be regularly consulted rather than what it is described as in the beginning of the game, nothing more than a fairly useless camera.

But the real meat of the game does not exist in completing puzzles or reaching the destination of each area, but rather the journey to said destination. After traversing the dark and stuffy mine to find a stick of dynamite, I noticed countless subtleties that the developers had selectively placed here and there, subtleties that gradually spelled out that I was not alone in the labyrinth of enclosed tunnels. In travelling back to the door I needed to pass, I also noticed a plethora of minute changes in the environment, a few blocked tunnels now mysteriously unblocked and a few environmental props mysteriously moved or misplaced. These changes not only served to keep me on my toes but also served to build up tension to a well-deserved climactic scare.

With all grievances aside, Stairs never failed to captivate and intrigue me through its abstract and unpredictable narrative. It is clear that although the final product could do with some technical tweaks, the developers of the game have clearly poured their hearts and souls into the product, creating an altogether atmospheric and sincere psychological-horror title. If you have six hours to kill and a wallet to empty, Stairs is an altogether quite enjoyable title to have some Halloween fun with.

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Peter quite likes playing games, and quite likes writing. On IndieHaven, he has found a way to do both at the same time.

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