When making STONE, developer Convict Games aimed to make a narrative adventure that bridged the gap between Bukowskian characterisation and arthouse accessibility. With the title being described in this way, onlookers may expect a serious, realism-focused project akin to Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch, but, instead, STONE takes place entirely in a world of bizarre, anthropomorphic Australasian animals. The result is a The Big Lebowski-esque snapshot of contemporary developed life; half-whodunnit, half-love-story, STONE is unafraid of grappling with what is real underneath its cutesy veneer.
The studio’s effort is a love letter to the absurdity of Australia, noticeably rough around the edges with a heart of gold, much like its eponymous protagonist. As already revealed in the project’s trailer, the game begins vividly, cutting straight to Stone as he awakes from a night on the sauce to find that his lover, Alex, has been kidnapped. In typical Dudeist fashion, Stone employs his skills as a private investigator to find Alex himself, retracing their steps through the clubs and bars of Oldtown. Distrustful of the police, players and Stone must believe in their own intuition to find his beloved “Chookie.” Sudden breaks to action is a feature of the game, which, in place of gradual movement or slow transitions, viscerally cuts between different scenes. In some ways, the sharp transitions fulfill STONE’s goal of extending the non-conformity of arthouse cinema but feels unsatisfying in gameplay terms. Some open-world segments between chapters or perhaps even a scene of Stone driving to the next destination might have been a better choice. Often, the snapshots to different scenes, whilst purposeful, leave the player feeling oddly disconnecting from the scene’s action.
With STONE being a low-budget effort, its developer can be forgiven for not including expensive open-world or transition segments, but the Unreal Engine-run game does end up feeling oddly skeletal, more akin to a tech demo than a full-fledged experience. A few visual bugs signify a lack of polish for the game, but, at the worst of times, STONE feels barely put together, acting more as an ersatz version of the studio’s true vision. Luckily, the title’s strong writing, art direction, and sheer zaniness are enough to carry it through its playtime of a few hours. As with most narrative-focused games, the title runs in at roughly two or three hours, which, if players embed themselves in the pacey story, flies by.
The story initially presents itself as a comedic alcohol-driven mystery, but the nuances of the game’s plot present themselves in surprising yet natural ways. Many of the characters, particularly the “British band” of foxes, are written hilariously. Stone’s best mate, Les, is a clear copy of The Big Lebowski’s Walter: a family man in a Kanye shirt who spitballs conspiracy theories about government drones for hours. STONE shines in how it deals with the real stuff, however, tackling topics, emotions, and lifestyles that bigger budget titles blush at. To give these subjects away would be spoilers, but those put off by STONE’s party aesthetic will find plot discussions and themes that match any mature, moody walking simulator out there.
To boil the gameplay down, STONE has players traverse through several areas of Oldtown, talking to people in each area in hopes of finding clues via conversation. These conversations come with two responses, usually allowing players to choose “soft” or “hard” responses. Whilst much of the dialogue feels uncontrived and zippy, the responses seem to yield no punishment. No matter what direction Stone chooses, the conversation always reaches the same end. Each location, too, only has one person to talk to and few items to interact with. STONE’s lack of locations, combined with their shallowness, leaves the revisiting as a tiresome experience. The maps initially act as strong summations of segments of Australian nightlife, but their depth is drawn away on repeated visits. When the title’s toolkit is so bare, the systems need to have a decent amount of depth or avenue for replayability, which STONE simply does not have. The best walking simulators do not only have a fantastic narrative, they have potential for their stories to be told in alternative ways or for player agency to at least have some impact on the plot’s presentation.
Some little idiosyncrasies stay nice throughout the game, though, with Stone’s interactive drum machine in his apartment and the jukebox at the Smoky Possum as standouts. Visiting the cinema or watching public domain films on the TV act as honest representations of stoner pastimes, too. The biggest flaw in the game is how shallow the explorable areas and the consequences are, making the whole process of conversation feel more tiring than it should.
While the following praise may provide the impression that STONE is a poor experience, the soundtrack is the most impressive part of the whole game. Not only is the selection of hip-hop, dance-inspired songs tonally relevant, but the way they are integrated into key plot moments is also superb. STONE lives up to its cinematic goals most when the music is blaring and relevant, which is thankfully most of the time. STONE’s biggest strength and weakness is how the game is designed as a cinematic experiment first, game second. Considerable credit can be given to STONE’s international array of audio and visual artists, which is surprising given the project’s wholly Australian theme. The soundtrack includes Perth trap artist Luchii , Australian artists Golden Grove and Grand Oyster Palace, UK-based House artist James Tottakai, North Carolina resident Ryan Little, and Finnish musicians Biniyam Real Love, Noah Kin, Color Dolor, and Warchief. The visual lead, Ivan Pozdnyakov, hails from Moscow, and his use of neon-lit and contrasting colours is a major force in STONE’s morning-after vibe.
STONE, like its protagonist, is bloody rough. Channelling the tough on the outside, soft on the inside of its literary inspirations—Post Office, for example—STONE’s buggy visuals and lack of polish almost exist as a statement in themselves. By presenting a story about an unkempt rebel’s life, the choppy visuals benefit the game. Overall, the experience’s worth will be strongly dependent on the player. Similarly to most great arthouse experiences, sometimes viewers must ignore the dodgy presentation and appreciate the heart of the piece. STONE, and its protagonist, have a lot of heart, and that shines the most.