You walk as the world ends. Bleak foggy countryside gives way to a forest infested with colossal bipedal nightmares, a series of underground cities and a reality-shattering discovery. There is snow. There is fire. There is death. There is more. You keep walking.
It occurred to me as I was writing this that I really like walking simulators. Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Inside, Stela and Paratopic are all abjectly different experiences in different genres built around that single idea; forward progress. The end of the game becomes a transformative experience. You get to either rest or understand. Stela finds a third way to end its journey.
As Skybox Labs’ game starts, the world is ending. The game’s nightmares evolve and escalate as a measure of your progress even as the countryside changes around you. The loping, baying nightmares of the forest level are an early, terrifying high spot as you sneak between their feet. When you fail, and you will, they kill you with feral enthusiasm, unbounded by the two dimensional game play you’re trapped in and walking in and out of the screen. When you’re in that level, they’re an existential threat. When they resurface later, in the snowy final levels, they’re still terrifying but out of their depth and it shows. The graboid-like burrowing wolves attracted to sound in that level are as dangerous to them as they are to you and the game’s cinematic peaks are a ‘let them fight’ moment between the two monsters and a chase between you and one of the burrowers that finishes with a cliff jump that’s the closest thing to triumph you get. You have no weapons except your brain and the game does an exceptional job of forcing you to think like a survivor. This sequence in particular is fantastic; trapped in someone else’s war you dart across a battlefield that doesn’t even notice your presence, finding shelter as arrows rain down.
The fragility is the point with Stela. The world is already broken, but you aren’t and that’s where the tragedy and hope both lie. A moment with one of the nightmares, trilling sadly to itself, the endless war above, the Cthonic destroyer you flee from in the caverns and the shattered remnants of the polar civilization the wolves have destroyed all speak to that. This world isn’t dying, it’s dead and it’s just taking a while to realize. You are literally and metaphorically running between the wreckage, trying to find something bigger. You do, and the game begins to tell a larger narrative pretty quickly, leading up to a surprisingly touching ending. The world still ends. You don’t. You carry what you witness out into whatever’s next and after a while you realize you don’t have to run anymore.
Stela is difficult (Don’t play it on a Switch in bright sunlight, oddly enough) complex and simple all at once. It’ll haunt you in the best of ways and it’s out now for Switch, Xbox, PC and Apple Arcade.