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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Sus-studio, May 15, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

(This is one of those games that can’t meaningfully be reviewed without spoiling a particular narrative and gameplay twist, so it might be best to go in blind – though if you’ve read the content warnings you probably have some sense of where things are headed…)

I am really eager to read the postmortem on this one. Studio takes the my-dumb-apartment setting of many authors’ first parser game and uses it as the canvas for a violent, nervy thriller, and I’m very curious whether this was meant from the beginning as an intentional subversion of the subgenre, or if the deeply-implemented setting came first and the plot was added as a way to leverage it. Either way, its confident storytelling and sandbox approach make Studio a standout; it’s a bravura performance in an under-explored gameplay paradigm.

The key insight here is that a stealth-focused immersive sim – think Thief, or playing a sneaky build in Deus Ex – can work really well in parser form. There’s logic here; parser games are generally good at modelling detailed environments that reward exploration, and their turn-based nature can heighten the drama of an alert enemy slowly drawing near to your hiding place. There’s also precedent, as last Spring Thing’s I Am Prey was a solid proof of concept that stealth can work in IF (I promise I will get around to reviewing that soon…)

A narrative certainly exists, and it’s deftly rolled out via the introductory tutorial section: as you finish unpacking in your new apartment, which takes you to its various corners and establishes the key features and actions that will be important in the game’s second half, the hints that things aren’t quite as innocent as they seem escalate. A mention of a mysterious contact, a casually-stored taser, a safe whose combination is keyed to the made-up birthday of an assumed identity – the details aren’t fully spelled out, even when you’re prompted with a REMEMBER command that fills in some specific backstory, but they don’t need to be. You’re on the lam, running from dangerous people, and you’re something of a dangerous person yourself, which is all the setup that’s required to make the home invasion that kicks off after the prologue concludes feel motivated and intense.

What makes Studio so fun is the wide field of possibility open before you when you wake panicked in the middle of the night and hear suspicious scratching at your door. There’s obvious stuff to do to prepare (hide under the bed, grab the paring knife from the knife block). There are obvious points of vulnerability (do you really want to let the intruder grab your wallet, or break into your laptop?) There are obvious courses of action that are probably a bad idea (is it smart to get the cops to alerted to whatever your deal is?) There are obvious repercussions to your choices (just booking it and running away poses some risks; so does trying to subdue or kill him). And with only few exceptions, this all works seamlessly, turning this tiny apartment something of a playground.

I found seven different endings, most with variations depending on exactly how I reached them, and found it fun to collect them not because they implied drastically different narrative outcomes – in fact many of them are pretty similar, and the denouement is generally left to the imagination in each case, with just a few ambiguous sentences providing a hint of where things might go before asking the player if they’d like to try again. No, it’s just that seeing the simulation respond and react is delightful. If anything, despite the horror-movie premise I found Studio something of a power fantasy; the protagonist knows how to handle herself and UNDO and SAVE will correct for any misstep, so it was enjoyable rather than stressful to set myself challenges like ghosting my way around the apartment until the intruder got bored and left empty-handed.

The implementation supporting all of this is truly a gold standard for my-dumb-apartment games. Usually such things founder at the kitchen or the bathroom, as implementing all the fixtures is an annoying pain, but here they’re all present and accounted for and work exactly as you’d think. Beyond that, there’s a dishwasher, a laptop, a phone (with charger), a radio, and everything is fully interactive without being excessively fiddly. This attention to detail continues when the stealth section kicks off; in particular, it feels like the intruder has a coherent plan in mind and improvises based on what he finds or doesn’t find, rather than behaving like a robot.

There are a few places where small bugs or moments of friction creep in – the unlocking action retains an implicit take, which leads to odd response messages when you refuse to take a key off its keyring, and sometimes I experienced momentary confusion about how to properly interact with the phone’s various submenus. But these are niggles on what’s otherwise a very polished experience. If I have an actual complaint, it’s that the game is maybe a hair too straightforward – one decisive action is usually enough to trigger an ending, and I get the sense that there are a bunch of esoteric interactions that I didn’t get a chance to uncover because it was so easy to just hide behind some boxes and either stab or smash a vase over the head of the baddie. Pacing and escalation in stealth games can be tricky in general, though – they lend themselves to binary success and failure states – so it’s hard to hold that against Studio. Still, I can’t help but be curious to see what an expanded version of this concept might look like, with a bigger environment and additional affordances like, say, being able to throw stuff around to distract the intruder’s attention.

All of which is to say that despite being rooted in one of the hoariest of IF tropes, Studio breaks new ground for future exploration while being perfectly enjoyable in itself. The purity of the concept and the depth of the programming that support it are equally praiseworthy, so like I said, I’m anxious to read the postmortem to get a better sense of where exactly the ideas came from, and maybe a clue to where they could be further elaborated, too.

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