Don't Chat With Strangers is a pixilated and short trek back in time, into the instant messenger-style chat of yesteryear. Released on January 6th, 2017 by developer Bartosz Bojarowski, it's a title like many others in that it seeks to recapture elements of puzzle horror games from the 90's.
Ghost Girls and Video Games
Given that the screenshots included on its Steam page make it plain for all to see, I don't feel bad mentioning that Lucy is a ghost girl. Her interlocutor is the game's main character, and he appears to be just another average Joe who gets home to curl up in bed, only to wake up to the sounds of an "IM" on his computer. It's her, Lucy, just "a girl" online who wants to chat and possibly watch him play a couple of video games. That, and quench her thirst for vengeance in a whole host of vicious, murderous ways.
Don't Chat With Strangers has a minor plot, in which players must figure out how to appease Lucy long enough to survive, by way of soothing her restless spirit. What happens is a whole lot of trial and error, which involves more than a few ghastly deaths for our poor protagonist. Environments are limited to a single bedroom and a handful of outside locations (if you can figure out how to get there in one piece), plus the computer screen where players interact with the mysterious Lucy. You can interact with several items in the bedroom, from its door and window to the lamp and the bed, and these objects all carry some significance; you'll need to use the radio at one point, and the phone at another, to survive these encounters.
The Danger of Repetition
As someone who loves retro-inspired, pixel-heavy titles, I was excited to give Don't Chat With Strangers a try, especially after reading there's a mystery to solve. Unfortunately, the game falls flat in one major way, and that right from the start: It's exceedingly repetitious, even for a retro point-and-click. There's also a lack of clues for how to survive and appease Lucy -- I simply had to die, over and over again, while trying to remember the exact order in which to say or do things. These reoccurring series of events became tedious in a hurry, especially because the payoff was minimal; I would go through numerous dialog options with Lucy, only to have a giant cross descend from the ceiling out of nowhere, looming in the background.
It didn't end well for me.
For anyone else, such lack of explanation and rewards will surely leave them frustrated and unimpressed rather than pleased and excited, and Don't Chat with Stranger's minimalistic plot itself doesn't help players care what happens in the narrative. Who is Lucy? Why is she so angry? Why does the gas pipe keep leaking?!
I'm all for trial and error, but there's a process of elimination, and then there's unnecessary and taxing busywork. It's a shame, because the graphics are cute, and I enjoyed the audio cues as well; even the mini-games on the computer are a fun break in the monotony of attempting to navigate dialog choices.
Regarding presentation, there is no interface to evaluate, no save feature, and the Escape button is merely a global restart – which you'll have to click after you die unless you want to stare at your corpse for a while. Then are the technical issues: the game is rather unstable; I had to resort to using my Task Manager just to exit it, or it would have run indefinitely in the background, with no apparent indication of doing so.
Eventually, I turned to a walkthrough guide on Steam that a community member provided and found out how to proceed through the dialog/interaction choices successfully; even then, I kept encountering issues and roadblocks that felt more like a programming glitch rather than repeated errors on my part. For example, when using the phone to talk to Lucy, the call wouldn't connect because the game mistakenly flagged her digits as incorrect.
The ending is lacking as well, which is, unfortunately, no surprise given the lack of sustenance in the rest of the storyline. It felt abrupt and seemed to confirm that Don't Chat with Strangers relies on a needlessly complicated series of steps to arrive at its resolution. I would have enjoyed more plot, more interaction with Lucy, and certainly more survivability. I'm okay with a permadeath situation that requires me to start over, but I think the developer could have given the players a little more margin for error -- unless the whole point was to bolster playtime and complexity through a forced repetition of playthroughs.
As much as I wanted to recommend Don't Chat With Strangers, your time and money are better spent elsewhere. Accumulating Steam Achievements which are, essentially, a scrapbook of the many ways in which Lucy killed you, is undeniably fun. Sadly, these aren't enough to make the title shine: Don't Chat With Strangers is another retro, point-and-click adventure with much novelty and a great premise to begin with, yet it ultimately fails as a puzzle horror game.