The Haunted Carnival is a two-word custom parser game. While strolling through the woods you find yourself following a strange path that leads to an abandoned amusement park. Naturally, you throw caution to the wind and choose to explore. As you set foot into the park it comes alive with lights and sounds but no people. But then a gate closes and locks behind you. Leaving is going to be a little harder.
This is not a horror game. Even though the player is technically trapped, there is no sense of frantic escape. Being all alone in an abandoned amusement park may be the stuff of nightmares in some games, but in The Haunted Carnival this is an exciting prospect. No lines, no tickets, (almost) no rules. Take cotton candy straight off the cart. Its subject matter and gameplay are suitable for all ages. The map is moderate in size and the goal is to find five stars hidden around the park to unlock the gate.
What I like about this game is that while it chooses to stick with a generic amusement park setting, the puzzles are novel and creative. On the surface, the game goes for a classic approach with sights that people may recognize from their own experiences or from other depictions of amusement park and carnivals. Things like cotton candy stands, ring toss booth, animatronic (not the scary kind) boat rides, a Ferris wheel, and more. But the puzzles for these features are pretty fun. Reasonably well-clued but also gets the player to think creatively.
My favorite part were the ghost NPCs. Most appear in the middle of the game to help you or add atmosphere, such as the audience that appears at the stage. Interactions with ghosts are subtle. You do not initiate dialog. Instead, they emerge and respond accordingly as you make progress. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) if you fix the ladder for the trapeze platform and then climb it, a ghost materializes on the trapeze. She then swings to you to grab your hands so you can reach the other platform. The ghosts seem to represent the carnival's past glory but none of it comes off as sad or depressing.
There are some rough edges. Notably, I encountered a few bugs, particularly with the Ferris wheel. For example, if you ride to top and then attempt to go north the game freezes and you must restart. In one playthrough in a different area of the park there was one case where the game decided to no longer respond to my attempts to type, also forcing me to restart. Do not let this scare you away since bugs are scarce, but they do detract from the game’s overall quality.
Other issues are superficial, particularly when room locations do not adapt to player choices. You can take one bag off cotton candy from the cart and eat it. Presumably that was the last bag because if you try to take more the game says, “There is no CANDY nearby.” And yet the room description still reads, "At the side of the path, you see a colorful cart with bags of cotton." This error only occurs if you eat the candy in any location other than by the cotton candy stand. This is ultimately cosmetic, but it stood out, nonetheless.
In conclusion, I quite enjoyed The Haunted Carnival. It opts to go light on story and instead focus on gameplay and atmosphere, both of which were cleverly done. It is not flawless, but certainty has moments where it shines. A quality piece that I would recommend.
(Final note: I use the word “carnival” and “amusement park” interchangeably, although they are slightly different. My understanding is that carnivals are more like smaller, temporary amusements parks, so take these terms with a grain of salt.)
The premise is a familiar one: You find yourself in an unfamiliar room with no clear exit. Using the resources in your surroundings you must puzzle your way out. And yet, this game has a refreshing take on the concept by focusing more on brain teaser type puzzles.
Rather than having the urgency of a desperate escape the gameplay feels more casual with its use of riddles, sudoku, and trivia-like activities. The objective is to find the combination to the door that will presumably allow you to escape. The formula (this part is not really a spoiler, but I will tag it anyway) (Spoiler - click to show) is scribbled on a tissue in the waste bin. It reads:
sudoku(5,5) * 1000 + sudoku(5,6)^2 + riddle(sara) - song(beatles)
This formula presents an enticing challenge but not one I managed to complete. The section of the formula that I DID solve (Spoiler - click to show) was for “riddle(sara).” The answer is 5.
Inside the (Spoiler - click to show) desk is an iPhone that allows you to call Crafty, the person who decided to stick you in the basement. This functions as an amazing hint system because you can ask for help with any of the puzzles. I do wish he had more graded assistance. With the sudoku puzzle I was expecting him to provide guidance on how to solve a sudoku puzzle, maybe providing an answer for a few of the squares. Instead, he only offers to give you (Spoiler - click to show) the solution which is "For the Sudoku solution, bring up the puzzle and then click just to the right of the help icon at the top." When you click on the icon if gives a brief overview of sudoku but not enough to be helpful (nor does it provide a solution).
When I finally managed to hack out a finished sudoku puzzle I was unable to incorporate it into the formula. I must admit, this is not my strongest area of expertise. Sudoku fiends out there can probably run laps around me. If you are one of them, I would love to hear your take on the puzzle. Eventually, this is where I ended. I had already (Spoiler - click to show) searched the room, found the Walkman and the cassette tape, but had no other points to work from.
A fun note is that you can ask Crafty about a LOT of things. Even things that have nothing to do with this game or interactive fiction. Dolphins, carrots, all sorts of topics. If I am being perfectly honest, I probably spent almost as much time trying out different queries than playing the game itself.
The game is custom parser and has an extremely simple yet polished appearance. The screen space is a white rectangle with rounded corners, outlined in blue. The text is easy to read and is sometimes uses in game links to click on. This simple design is then punctuated with some nice visuals that incorporate a choice-based format. First there is a decryption puzzle with boxes and stylized buttons that you click on to input each letter. Solving this gives you instructions on how to unlock the iPhone. Then there is a spiffy sudoku puzzle that lets you “erase” and keep track of your answers as you play. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, these features make the “game inside a game” mechanic incredibly user friendly.
The visual design also shines through the game’s hint system. When you call Crafty, the game makes it look like you are having a text message conversation. You then “hang up” to return to the game.
I only scraped the surface of the story. Crafty is not some villain keen on tormenting the player into solving his puzzles. When you first call him, he introduces himself as Crafty the Puzzle Master, and his reason for trapping you in the basement is because he thinks that you like puzzles. Playful fun. Then again, I never made it to the end. Perhaps there is a plot twist that I am not aware of.
This is a new game and even though I did not complete the entire thing I just wanted to throw my thoughts out there. Normally single room games are not a huge draw for me, but this game made an impression. If there are any updates or new developments, I would be eager to replay it.