Cragne Manor

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Number of Reviews: 4
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
So I guess I should try Anchorhead some time, huh?, May 4, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I'm too close to Cragne Manor to give it five stars officially. I tested a bunch of rooms and wound up emotionally invested in it. I wanted it to be good, and I enjoyed getting so many sneak previews of rooms in the game, but ... how the heck would they all fit together? Nevertheless, it seemed like a fun project to be a part of. I'm glad I was allowed in. This, from someone who will never, ever write a long-form horror game. (Insert "not intentionally" joke here at your leisure.)

However, I also put in so much energy just looking at the rooms that I put it aside. I needed a break. I worried my own expectations were too high. I had my own stuff to write, for better or worse. I'd wait for the walkthrough. The spoiler-heavy one. I'd hope it all fit together. Anyway, it was fun to try and figure which rooms I tested might be next to each other. A modification of the Birthday Paradox noted there would almost certainly be a few. But I'll skip the details, for those who find calculations more of a horror than, well, horror.

I figured it would take a while for the main authors to put stuff together, and it did. But once I started playing, I saw it wasn't just about lumping everything together. There were big-picture items you couldn't put in the individual rooms. The coffee cup seemed like a weird joke, until it became useful indeed, with a clever trigger so your character understood what the swirls meant. The trolley pass helps shrink the map with shortcuts and gives an amusing reject if you try to guess the colors of stations you haven't been to yet. Even the error messages seem helpful. And CM probably needs this, because you have all manner of similar but non-swappable books, keys, and pieces of paper. It'd be nightmarish, except that fortunately most items have only one use, and you get a backpack with all sorts of zippered compartments, helpfully labeled and organized into ... the sort of item types you find in the game. In short, the lack of technical horror helps you concentrate on the narrative horror.

This wasn't enough to get me hooked right away. I wrote my own stuff and laid low until there were a few walkthroughs, and the game's big enough, you'll probably need a few, to contrast ways through and sort out trivial typos. There's no one that's best. And discovering a room I tested was like finding an old friend, until it wasn't. There were some I forgot I tested, which was freaky, and some I didn't remember I did, which was freaky too. Some rooms seemed to pop up much too early, and some wound up much too late. For some of the early ones, I didn't have an item I received automatically during testing, because they had two separate small puzzles. So I felt, well, held back by some unknown force.

Eventually it all fit. I wound up worried writer X's room might be tricky, because I found something they wrote to be thorny. Or one person in the Discord (or was it Slack?) community mentioned their room was a bit bigger than they intended, and I worried it might be a mess. But in the end these fears were baseless, and everything pulled together. And the overall effect was: this game never feels it's done "right" or properly, but it's done very well. The jokes and references swing from very technical (hexadecimal humor) to more literary. The rooms swing from mostly scenery, with a few things to search and maybe just a door to open, to changing identities you make spiritual journeys through space and time, as one does in games featuring the supernatural. And if anything about this confuses you, the main authors drop in a device that lets you see room-specific CREDITS, if the room authors chose to include them. It dropped at the right moment for me, and it has a few amusing touches, especially for the longer blurbs.

And though horror isn't my thing, and I knew CM would be forgiving, I definitely had shivers of "oh dear I better save here." Or "I better not mess this up." With some rooms, this turned out not to be a problem due to strong design, or maybe you could immediately undo any deaths. But with certain rooms I didn't see, after the room creators submitted the game, the tension really built. With all the death and occult stuff piling up, I felt sure I had overlooked something, even with walkthroughs to follow. There are a few bring-them-all-together puzzles at the end, which are well beyond the rather neat library puzzle you see early on, where you need to return a bunch of creepy overdue books. This one in particular got me, because I still had a few library books to return to a suburban library. They waived the fines because of COVID, and I could keep them as long as I liked, but I just couldn't check any new ones. And when I returned a few materials just before trying to finish CM in earnest, there was a lot of social distancing and using a machine to check things in. So having CM overlap with real life like this was unexpected. It was probably going to happen in some way, with all the different ideas the room writers threw out there. But this was almost freakishly on the nose.

And just the game's sheer size worked in its favor to create an atmosphere I didn't expect. I've had smaller games just throw stuff at me and leave me exhausted, and I wound up worrying I'd missed something that could lock me out of a win here, even though I logically knew I shouldn't. The sheer number of key/door combos and articles to sort and remember, as well as rooms named similarly but not too similarly, left me disoriented but genuinely glad when I found shortcuts. For instance, some keys only open doors that save you time walking, but it relieves your helplessness a bit to actually see, yes, these two rooms that seem like they should link up, do.

I'm hard-put to find weaknesses of CM. It's definitely exhausting, and even with a walkthrough, the disambiguation gets to you after all. And perhaps sometimes it feels like inside baseball. But even so, I think every community should have a game like Cragne Manor. One where even sitting down with a walkthrough over the span of two late nights is a rewarding experience.

And I do feel I missed a little by attacking the walkthrough directly. There's certainly stuff I glossed over for efficiency's sake. While I took time to do some things wrong, just to see what horrors might pop up, there are bookmarks I placed in my mental map of CM for next time. There will also be stuff I weirdly forgot and weirdly remembered, and it will make for an entirely different experience than winning for the first time or testing the rooms.

I think any long-lasting creative community would be lucky to have an effort like Cragne Manor. It was a relief to see relative newcomers step up and to see former IFComp competitors show something I hadn't expected. It was exhausting, but by the end, I wished there was more.