Reviews by Wade Clarke
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2013 was a prolific year for this author. The first game by MTW I played was The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons, and in the same year he released all of Castronegro Blues, Ill Wind, Dark Carnival, The Vanishing Conjurer and The Voodoo You Do. Several of these are Lovecraft-meets-hardboiled period mysteries in which you play an anonymous (or at least unnamed) detective – or dick. I feel like calling him the anonymous dick because he certainly can be a dick, and so can most of the NPCs he has to deal with in these amusingly profane games set in lurid environments.
You play the dick again in Dark Carnival, and are charged with investigating several mysterious disappearances at a run-down carnival east of town. The place is populated by a bunch of hopeless, cynical and foul-mouthed carnies, which might explain why I didn't see any customer NPCs on the premises. The carnies are very busy, as are all the NPCs in this game. There are tons of people wandering around, looking at you or the scenery, or doing carny things like yelling swear words. All this action plus the extensive carnival map (every exhibit has its own room, or series of rooms) makes for a great feeling of animation.
My main problem with the game is that the investigation isn't well integrated with all this content. From the word go, you've got five murder incident reports to ask NPCs about. That's a mountain of 'ask X about first', 'ask X about second', 'ask X about third', etc., to get through. And for the most part, people either have no significant information for you, or they just tell you, in their own colourful fashion, to piss off. But there are so many NPCs here it's hard to give up on the asking as you continue to hope to find the needle in the haystack.
I'm not sure I ever found a needle. It was only by thorough investigation of the locations that I stumbled into the hidden section of the carnival. The maze design and atmosphere down there were exciting, but when I solved the case, I felt it had been pretty much a case of 'and in a single bound, Jack was free'. All my conversation attempts had achieved little, mechanically. There's evidence that they should have achieved more – for instance, some hidden portals in the game block the player and suggest one should do more investigating upstairs, first. But I only found these portals after I'd reached areas on the other side of them. Whether this was down to bugs or oversight, the consequences were the same.
Comparing this to Brian Timmons, that game was very well directed as an investigation game, if linear. Carnival goes in for a much busier world and a theoretically more interactive investigation model, but that world isn't feeding the investigation mechanics. Nevertheless, the whole is again vividly written in MTW's style, with the particular attitude of this series strongly represented.
The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons is a Lovecraftian adventure based on a scenario for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, a scenario in turn based on H.P. Lovecraft's short story 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward'. In spite of its convoluted sounding provenance, this game is actually one of the most accessible Lovecraft IF games out there. A player doesn't need any prior knowledge of the source material or of Lovecraft's work to be able to get into it, and while it's of moderate size, it's more about linear action than the kind of painstaking puzzling folks often associate with Lovecraftian games ala Anchorhead. A word of caution; it's also a game which gets shootier and bloodier as it goes on.
While Lovecraft's protagonists usually have some kind of personal involvement in the supernatural goings-on they face, the PC in Brian Timmons doesn't. He's a detective from the hardboiled school who gets mixed up in a stranger's supernatural goings-on only because they stand between him and his next paycheck. The novelty of adopting an outsider's viewpoint is a welcome one in this busy IF subgenre, and the detective brings humour, attitude and action to the table – three things you normally don't much associate with Lovecraft. The resulting game is straightforward, episodic in a good way and becomes quite gripping as you move towards its climax, though some elements of the delivery could be improved.
Brian Timmons is divided up into scenes set in different locations. Each car trip you take from one location to the next acts like a chapter break, and you don't have to worry about deciding where to go. The hero chooses the next relevant stop as soon as he's got enough fresh leads from the current one. While the game itself suggests you should use ASK and TELL to communicate with its characters – and at times it's essential to use these methods – the majority of communication actually consists of the NPCs telling you their stories one line at a time. While a lot of games use this method and it gets the job done, the game could be richer if it would allow the player to interject with some relevant ASKing and TELLing (as is, the characters only respond on the most vital of topics), though I acknowledge this is never an easy area to program. The characters do a lot of neat fidgeting of their own accord when not speaking, and the game is also generally strong in the area of random atmospheric detail, throwing in lots of little snippets about passers-by, the weather and other environmental changes.
Where the game has some trouble is in getting all of its content to live in the same place tonally, at least at once. When the hardboiled shtick and language are in evidence, they really dominate. But they vanish too easily when the detective isn't delivering his Chandler-esque wisecracks, allowing the game to be overtaken by more utilitarian descriptive text. The sexy dame character is a bit cringy in this light – she triggers the "poured into her dress" remarks in extremis, but in isolation, and thus comes across more as a reminder of the game's tonal wobbling than an authentic seeming femme fatale character justified by the genre and context.
I have a few other nitpicks. The game suffers a bit from empty porch syndrome. It needs a little more proofreading. The inventory limit can aggravate, though this last point is mitigated by the coolness of having a trench coat with pockets of seemingly infinite depth. And it's just fun to wear a trench coat and Fedora in general. I enjoyed The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons a lot. It's also a game which comes without hints, and I was pleased to be made to solve it off my own back, pausing occasionally to scratch my head.
Ecdysis is one of the English language entries making up the HP Lovecraft Commonplace Book project of 2007, and in spite of its brevity – or maybe because of its brevity in league with its quality – it's probably the best of them. It is based on the following jotting from Lovecraft's book, which I wouldn't actually read if you want to approach the game in a pure state: (Spoiler - click to show)Idea #221: “Insects or other entities from space attack and penetrate a man’s head and cause him to remember alien and exotic things–possible displacement of personality.”
The great idiosyncrasy of Lovecraft's writing and subject matter are capable of indirectly prompting degrees of weariness from IF players, who cannot help but wonder why so many IF horror games choose to follow in the footsteps of one writer. Yet there is still a great variety of stances the authors of these games can choose from when adopting an approach to the material. What is strong about Ecdysis is that it manages to draw both extremes of the scale of Lovecraft's material together into a short game; the epic, cosmic end involving interplanetary concepts and great, smiting alien beings older and more powerful than humankind can comprehend, and the claustrophobic, imminent end involving monsters and putrefaction in the here and now.
Ecdysis is linear and uncomplicated, but the PC is driven in his actions, which tends to be the thing that makes linear games work as interactive pieces. When there are few actions you can take but they happen to be the ones you'll really want to take, it can draw attention away from the absence of a range of alternate choices and help keep the game out of "Why wasn't this written as a short story?" territory.
This is one of those games where to say more would be to spoil the effect, so I won't.
The best thing about Lonely Places is its high rate of dramatic escalation. I've never seen a game move from a single incident (your car breaking down – at night – in the rain) to the scenery-devouring business end of a whole lot of Lovecraftian shenanigans so quickly. No ponderous sloggings through the mythology of ancient smiting beings for this protagonist!
While it's set in the modern world, the game mobilises a handful of character names, speech styles and incidents from Lovecraft's stories, making it more a winky pastiche than one of those enormous reverent ones. Its own story is freestanding and does not demand any prior knowledge of Lovecraft, but the end of game assessment of the PC does, at least if you want to fully understand it; it tells you which Lovecraft character you most behaved like during play. Your playing style is also described in more practical terms, a neat feature which doubles as a means of giving clues for how you could try to change things up on your next play.
Lonely Places is not a very strongly implemented game but it does a good job of cramming a fair bit of action into a small space. I think it's actually a good example of what you can potentially do with Inform without killing yourself as an author. A significant element of this is the game's forward trajectory, where certain events keep crashing into the protagonist, forcing the player onwards or keeping them alert. It also helps that the forward movement often covers for the game when the player is trying stuff that hasn't been accounted for, which in this game is a lot of stuff.
Lonely Places is novel in its ramping up the traditionally glacial pace of Lovecraftian goings-on. It achieves a degree of hysteria quickly and the effect is of a kind of ghoulish humour, a funny and affectionate comment on the typical trajectory of Lovecraft's stories. It will be more fun if you've read some of his work, but there are no barriers to play if you haven't.
Dead Cities hails from the Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 and uses the following jotting of Lovecraft's as its inspiration:
"An impression - city in peril - dead city - equestrian statue - men in closed room - clattering of hooves heard from outside - marvel disclosed on looking out - doubtful ending."
While I've yet to play through all of the project games as I write this, I'm guessing that this one is the most technically ambitious of the bunch. It presents attractively in a multi-pane window which divides up the main text, an inventory list, a hint panel and black-and-white pencil sketches of many of its situations and objects. Suggested commands from the hint panel can also be clicked to enter them into the main window. Unfortunately, these flourishes are not trouble-free. I ran into a fair few bugs while playing, several of them related to the display, some of them serious (no save possible because it was not possible to restore) and was rarely able to determine exactly where the fault lay. I will discuss these issues at the end of the review.
Dead Cities is a Lovecraft pastiche long on conversation, domesticity and quality prose. Lovecraft was good at fetisihising all kinds of things by dwelling upon them at what I like to think he would describe as preternatural length, and Jon Ingold achieves something similar here with the rare books which appear in this game. The player is a solicitor charged by Carter Arkwright with obtaining the signature of Carter's dying uncle. Carter seeks to avoid inheritance tax bankruptcy by acquiring his uncle's valuable books before his death, books which range from rare Isaac Newtons to Necronomicon-like volumes.
It is necessary in the first place to attend to social niceties in this game. You'll tie up your horse, make small talk with the maid and humour an old man. I would say that these things seem to flow easily here, when they often don't in IF, except that with my general dislike of the tell/ask system of IF conversation which Dead Cities uses, the truth is that I was unable to cleave myself away from the hint panel, which perfectly yes'd and no'd and asked and told my way all through the introductory section of the game – and then quite far into the game's core conversation with old man Arkwright. The hint panel feature strikes me as an excellent way to show people how to play IF, and would probably have worked very well for random folks looking at this game in the context of an exhibition. For regular IFfers, it may be a bit too much of an easy temptation, but personally I never say no to an opportunity to skip asking and telling.
The conversation scene with Arkwright has that black humour about it of someone trying to extricate valuable information (or just valuables) from an old person who is dying and knows it. Of course in this game you can say that it was all just business because you're playing a hired solicitor, but there is some scope in your yes-ing and no-ing to treat the old man well or poorly, or somewhere inbetween, which is interesting.
To speak of later more hair-raising shenanigans would be to spoil this not particularly long game. There is a lot of room in it to try little variations in your interactions with the game's few NPCs, but there are perhaps only a handful of opportunities to change a bigger picture. I found a couple of endings hard to read in that they made me wonder if I'd missed chunks of the game, as if I could have achieved something more drastic. But there's no walkthrough and no hints for the later part of Dead Cities, so I decided to be content with what I'd done. The general high quality of the prose and overall flow of events were the real attractions for me.
Concerning technical troubles, I can say that I was unable to successfully restore a saved game of Dead Cities in the current versions of Mac interpreters Gargoyle and Zoom – doing so produced a Glulx error. The game's hint panel spiralled out of control on me more than once, cycling madly through the hints, and in Zoom I found it was sometimes necessary to resize the game window mid-session to prevent the interpreter from pausing after every line of text. Dialogue and hints snuck into the inventory window occasionally, too. I believe this game was put together in two months for the Commonplace project, so it's already punching above its time-weight in overall quality, but it looks like it could have benefited from more testing, and it's probably become a victim of some degree of inconsistency in delivery of the relatively nascent Glulx format, or tweaks to that format over time.
The Museum is a short and flippant game in which you play a dude who visits the local Egyptian exhibition one night after the ceaseless leisure time afforded by modern existence causes you to become bored. There's a mummy on display, and if you happen to bring it back to life (it takes a bit of effort) your goal then becomes one of snuffing it out again so that it won't kill people. This premise obviously doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that's par for the course in The Museum. It's the kind of game where defeating the monster doesn't score you one of the six points on offer, but eating a sloppy banana that you find on the floor does.
The Museum was made for the TIGsource's Commonplace Book Competition of 2008. Entrants had about six weeks to turn out a game based on one of H P Lovecraft's unused ideas as scribbled down in his Commonplace (note)Book. The chosen idea here is #190: "Primal mummy in museum — awakes and changes place with visitor."
There are seven rooms in the resulting game and some prop-based puzzles delivered without leeway. Implementation is basic and people who like apostrophes in their prose will be disappointed. Nevertheless, the game offers some fun and several different endings. The tone waggles back and forth between being flip and smart-arsed, which would have grated on me had the adventure been any larger. I was kind of impressed by how annoying I found the protagonist, given the short amount of time I spent playing him.
The game has a couple of cool features worth mentioning; a neat cover graphic of the mummy and some original Egyptian-themed music which plays in the background. All in all, it's good for a laugh.
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