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About the Story
You were always told not to go into the cellar. Told many, many times. But you were never told why.
[...] David Whyld has created an impressive story of pulp adventure that feels straight out of Lovecraft's time. That's the good news. The bad news is that you the player have no role whatsoever in said story, which is conveyed to you via a series of extended infodumps.
-- Jimmy Maher
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David Whyld's The Cellar was part of the H.P. Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 organised by Peter Nepstad. This was a remarkable project whose IF angle I knew nothing about prior to researching it in relation to The Cellar. I had known what Lovecraft's Commonplace Book was: the place where the author used to jot down unused story ideas. While the Book's contents have been used as a launching point for IF games or IF competitions on more than one occasion, what was neat about the 2007 project was that the six games which participated were set up for play as part of an exhibition in Switzerland's Maison d'Ailleurs, aka The Museum of Science Fiction and Utopias. Further details are available in Peter Nepstad's article about the project in SPAG#50.
Concerning The Cellar, it is no spoiler to reveal which idea from the Commonplace Book the game is based on, as it is displayed on startup:
“Man’s body dies - but corpse retains life. Stalks about - tries to conceal odour of decay - detained somewhere - hideous climax.”
The game is written from the point of view of a character initially standing outside of its unsettling events: the boy Nevare, whose father made him promise not to go into the cellar after returning from a trip to Africa. When the game begins, you (Nevare) find yourself alone in the house one day, consumed by curiosity and with an opportunity to at last search for the key to the forbidden room.
The prose of The Cellar is quite good, and the game's revelations fall comfortably (or should that be uncomfortably?) into the Lovecraft mould, as do its methods of writing, perhaps. One character emerges to tell the game's backstory at great expositional length. It is the quality of this story that is the soul and effect of this game, but the linearity of the whole piece and its broad sidelining of interactivity are very apparent. The choice moment of being a child in a room and having to look around for an object from the world of adults is repeated a few times, and it's well done, but these are the only moments in which you get to really do something other than listen to another's story. Of course, it isn't literally "another's"; being a tale of family, this story involves Nevare indirectly, which turns out to be a salient point for the denouement of The Cellar. However, I imagine many regular IF players would simply wish they could do more in this game. I wished that, but I still enjoyed the story. I can also imagine a game depicting some of the told material in interactive fashion, though this isn't a case where speculating on a significantly different game that isn't will pay dividends. The Cellar's linearity might also have made it more accessible to random passers by in an exhibition. Either way, its story is a good realisation of Lovecraft's jotted idea.
I'll admit it; I've never been a fan of Whyld's sparse and over-the-top humorous games, which is why I downloaded this one with a bit of trepidation, even fear. What I discovered was, given the author's previous games, stunningly well-written. The game itself layers the dread stone by stone until you feel the weight of the dread conclusion hurtling at you like a freight train. There's only one problem: a handful of turns before the climax, at the penultimate moment, you are kicked back to a previous scene with no way to escape from it. I really, really, hate to give two stars because the writing is so good, but at least running Spatterlight, you can't finish the game.
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