In the old days of computer adventure gaming, before games had their own message boards, they had automated hint lines. For 50 cents a minute or so, when you got stuck in a game, you could dial up a hint by using your phone. Some games had puzzles that were so illogical and obtuse that it felt as if they were purposely designed to milk you out of extra money via those hint lines. It is in this way that Don’t Chat With Strangers feels like a throwback, and that is not a good thing. It is supposed to be a puzzle-based adventure game, but its challenges lack any logic and, at best, are a series of punishing trial-and-error events. Each time that you experience failure, you are sent back to the beginning of the game to try it all again. The game’s rules are so arbitrary that it feels as if it were explicitly designed for you to learn the game’s secrets on youtube or message boards. This combination of trial-and-error gameplay and permadeath turns Don’t Chat with Strangers into an exercise in tedium and frustration. Other than a few entertaining, darkly humorous death moments, there is very little in this game that makes it recommendable.
In Don’t Chat With Strangers you play as some guy with a computer minding his own business, when, one night, you receive a chat message from a strange woman named Lucy. In typical ghost story fashion, the game then proceeds to torment and threaten you as you chat with Lucy, an activity that almost always end in your gruesome death. You make some simple dialog choices along the way, but all conversation trees either end in failure or converge on a critical story moment. There are a few objects in your room for you to manipulate as well, like a lamp and a telephone. Eventually, if you play your cards right, you reach the game’s abrupt and unsatisfying ending, where are you are rewarded with a screen that says “Winner”.
Lucy is very temperamental, and if you do or say the wrong thing, she will leave and you will fail instantly. If you ignore her for long enough, you will fail. If you don’t turn on the lamp, you eventually fail. If you turn on the radio with the lamp still on, then the radio explodes in your face and you fail. If you walk outside to get in your car before the right time, then you fail. If you don’t act fast enough or if you do anything out of sequence, then you fail. This game is 95% failure, which by itself wouldn’t ruin it, but for the fact that what you are doing in between these failures gets so mundane and boring. Outside of a few darkly humorous moments, the chat dialog with Lucy is rather simple and dull.
At one point, as Lucy is about to deliver a critical piece of information, your in-game computer reboots to install an important update, forcing you to twiddle your thumbs for a minute. The first time that this happens, it is a funny joke. The second time that it happens, it is a minor annoyance, and by the thirtieth time that it happens, it is just aggravating. Another critical story point involves playing a satirical minigame for at least a few minutes until an arbitrary point comes when you can make more story progress. Once again, one or two times through, this dull minigame is tolerable. A dozen times isn’t. Each time that you fail, it gets harder and harder to get back into the game, knowing that you have to repeat this drudgery again. The death scenes in Don’t Chat With Strangers are at least entertaining the first few times that you experience them. Lucy the vengeful ghost uses an impressive variety of graphic ways to kill and maim you. The death scenes are the highlights of the game’s retro, pixelated graphics, which are otherwise rather simple and ugly.
Getting through the game requires near perfect timing, which forces you to figure out exactly what the rules of the game are. It rarely communicates these rules to you though, leaving you to flail aimlessly until you either give up and find an unsatisfying answer on the internet, or eventually stumble onto the solution. A perfect example of this problem is with a ghost that appears at random intervals and slashes your throat. In order to prevent the ghost from appearing, you have to walk off screen to fix a gas leak. It may take you twenty or thirty throat slash deaths to figure this out. What is the logical connection between a ghost appearing and gas leaking? How are you supposed to know that walking off the screen will “fix” the leak – especially when you are usually punished for leaving the computer? It is this kind of seemingly random punishment that requires dozens of trials to solve.
Don’t Chat With Strangers feels less like a game and more like a practical joke being played on the gamer. It fails at just about everything besides delivering punishment through trial-and-error. It isn’t a clever puzzle game – it’s just an irritating one. Each scare or surprise is effective once or twice, but they all wear out their welcomes before the end. And, when you finally do get to the end, the game reveals how little content it actually has. It is a ten minute experience stretched into three hours via insta-fail and permadeath mechanics that force you to play through a series of boring, mundane events dozens of times. While the idea of a vengeful ghost terrorizing you through a computer chat window is an intriguing one, the game fails to deliver on that premise in any way that would make it a satisfying game. It is a poorly designed experience – one that you are better off seeing in a youtube video for free instead of paying five dollars for.