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A shoggothy shaggy-dog story, September 21, 2022
In an IF scene that’s largely oriented around a model of games as small, auteur-driven jewels, Cragne Manor stands out. There’s the unmitigated gall of its conception: pay tribute to the all-time-great Anchorhead by soliciting one-room contributions from basically everyone currently writing IF, then knit their divers productions into a single patchwork whole, exquisite corpse style. There’s the sheer avoirdupois: 84 authors producing an eight and a half meg game file, both of which are way, way too much. And there’s the clumsiness: this is the game that broke IFDB for a couple years with its gargantuan list of authors and tags. Fittingly, it’s also the rare work of IF that’s gotten a modicum of mainstream attention – it even has its own TV Tropes page.
It's surprising, then, that as of this writing its IFDB page boasts only 15 ratings and a paltry 4 reviews – three of which were penned by contributing authors, one by a key beta tester. Kudos to all those folks for their contributions to the game and to the discourse around it, but where are the players? Even accounting for the fact that its many many authors might feel some reluctance to evaluate a project they contributed it, are we to understand that Cragne Manor is a classic in the Twainian sense, that everyone wants to have played but no one wants to actually play?
Well, that’s probably part of the reason. Anyone who’s been around the block a time or two surely quail at the combinatorial hell promised by such a gargantuan, semi-coordinated game, for example, and given that you can play a dozen different high-quality pieces of IF in the time it takes to even crack open the door of the eponymous manse, it’s understandable that many folks have laughed at the premise but declined to delve into the reality of Cragne Manor.
Partly, though, I think the issue is that the game seems to frustrate the whole concept of rating or reviewing. This is in no way a single integrated whole; if I were to pull out three highlights and three lowlights, the way I would for an ordinary game, I would a) have communicated less than ten percent of the full measure of Cragne Manor, and b) not provided much of a guide to the remaining 90%, because the off-kilter mood piece that is Wade Clark’s Music Room has little to do with what’s awesome about Chris Jones’s gonzo Meatpacking Plant Bathroom, and the bugginess of the Cragne Family Plot isn’t what’s wrong with the cool-in-concept but overly obscure puzzle in the Disheveled Studio. Reviewing the game is like reviewing America: sure, lots of racist relatives, overall presentiment of doom, but in issuing a generalization that applies from Alabama to Wyoming, the texture of the thing risks being so profoundly lost that it feels like there’s not any point to the attempt – it might be that the most compact map of the territory is the territory itself.
Lucky you, though, if Cragne Manor is America, I am its de Tocqueville, an impartial foreigner who has visited its shores, traveled exhaustively, and comes now to render a judgment whose hubris is exceeded only by its smugness (here’s hoping tuberculosis doesn’t get me in my 53rd year).
(Incidentally, dear reader, if right now you’re feeling frustrated by this review’s verbosity, overall shagginess, and stubborn delay in getting to what per its title it’s ostensibly about you uh might not like Cragne Manor. If, on the other hand, you nodded along to that the-map-of-the-territory-is-the-territory bit, you might prefer to click the link in the previous paragraph, which goes to a 23-chapter annotated Lets Play of the full game I posted on the IntFiction.com forums.)
With throat-clearing done, it's tempting to jump straight into a travelogue and talk about specific individual rooms, because of course that’s what you spend the game doing: come to a new place, suss out what’s on offer, solve a puzzle or soak up some atmosphere or realize you’ll need to come back later, then move on and do it all again, at least until you finally reach the limits of the map and wind up spending more time running down rapidly-collapsing puzzle chains to reach the endgame. And there are some really exciting set pieces to experience: beyond those I’ve already mentioned, Andrew Plotkin contributes a robust alternate take on his Hadean Lands magic system, Hanon Ondricek has what feels like a puzzle-light lost Stephen King short story, Daniel Stelzer and Jemma Briggeman offer a tough-but-fair and very atmospheric puzzle that serves as one of the game’s first choke-points… and beyond the justly-celebrated name authors, a couple I’d never heard of before wrote some of the moments I enjoyed best, like Michael D. Hilborn’s Church Steeple, which combines a forlorn backstory, an eerie landscape, and a clever, climactic puzzle mechanism. Original Anchorhead author Mike Gentry even takes a satisfying, self-effacing bow that’s a lovely grace note for the project, so how can I not discuss that?
But ultimately I think that’s a futile approach – as I’ve said, there’s so much variety here that it can’t be adequately conveyed in summary form and makes this a questionable use of word count (like, to return to this review’s leitmotif, I really enjoyed taking an architectural river-tour of Chicago one time, but in a review of America as a whole how much time can justifiably be spent on that?), and besides, much of the joy of the game is discovering what’s going to pop up next on the roadside. There’s also the risk of biasing things too much towards the big stuff, when the game’s also enriched by a number of quiet, unobtrusive rooms that have some well-written flavor text, or an easy but innovative puzzle, that risk getting lost in the shuffle. So I’ll try to stay focus on the overall gestalt, and what a whole made up of so many pieces can possibly add up to.
The first and most important thing to communicate is that this a trip that’s far less grueling than it appears on first blush. It’s of course a long, long game, and most players will probably want to pace themselves rather than dive in and not come up for air until they’ve completed it. But the puzzles are usually not that hard – some of the trickier ones even have bespoke integrated hints – and the structure of the game is such that you’re almost never looking at a gargantuan inventory list combing through it for the one item that’ll solve a room (admittedly, my inventory was often so big because I delighted in picking up clear red herrings and scenery that had been incorrectly flagged as takeable). Because most challenges are self-contained, usually the stuff you find in a room is what you’ll need to resolve it, and on the occasions when an item from elsewhere is needed, there’s usually more than adequate signposting. There’s even an in-game mechanism, heroically implemented by co-organizer Jenni Polodna, that will flat-out tell you if you’ve got everything you need to complete an area, or if you need some thing or information from elsewhere before proceeding.
Sure, a player will need to gird their loins for some disambiguation issues – by midgame, a command like X BOOK could easily generate a dozen potential options – but there are tools to manage that, too, so it’s much much less of a pain than it could have been. As the cherry on top, the game’s even Merciful for the most part, modulo the odd bug or oversight (one very small spoiler to protect the unwary: keep a save before you’re tempted to try on any dodgy gloves).
This isn’t to say there aren’t some rough patches – as mentioned above, there’s at least one room with fairly serious bugs, and several places where most players will either need to resign themselves to a lot of trial and error or a quick peek at one of the many, quite robust walkthroughs. Such things are inevitable in a project of this size, scope, and complexity. But the organizers have done an amazing job smoothing out the experience, providing not just hastily beaten-out trails running through an untamed wilderness, but a gleaming, modern Interstate system linking the game’s incredibly disparate pieces. All of which is to say, if you’ve been daunted by the prospect of taking on Cragne Manor, as I was for a long long time, you’re not necessarily wrong, but you should probably reduce your imagined daunting factor by like 70% or so.
As for structure and the big-picture narrative: if (I repeat) Cragne Manor is America, the direction of its traversal must surely be east-to-west; starting with a reasonable grounding in New England, you work your way through an often-terrifying Deep South and an interminable Midwest with too many libraries and bathrooms, much like Dakotas (don’t get me wrong, some individual libraries and bathrooms are amazing, and I presume the same is true for Dakotas), then breaking into the clear air of the mountain states and feeling some momentum as you descend towards the endgame, before reaching the psychedelic, what-did-I-just-experience California that is Dan Ravipinto’s shack – the game’s clear climax, a brain-melting bit of parallel-worldism that I still haven’t fully digested – and realizing that there’s still the Alaskan anticlimax of wrapping up the last puzzles and an empty penultimate location to go, ultimately concluding the trip in a Hawaii of an ending that’s quite pleasant, though rather small-scale and not especially connected to anything that’s come before.
There is something resembling a plot, sure, which isn’t too far off from Anchorhead’s: you play Naomi Cragne, who’s married into a clan of necromancers, sorcerers, murderers, and worse, in search of your lost husband Peter. But of necessity, who Peter is, and exactly how far gone he’s wound up, changes from location to location, and Naomi is likewise a shapeshifter, giving different accounts of her upbringing, job, and personality depending on where she’s standing, and even occasionally implying that she’s a Cragne by blood just as much as is Peter (ick). There are forces arrayed against her: you’ll hear about an incredible list of similarly-named Cragne relations, with various Edwins, Edmunds, and Edwards portentously introduced then never mentioned again once you’ve left the room (which might seem unrealistic, but eh, I’m half Italian, I still remember the family trip where we took a detour to meet up with like six cousins who lived in Vegas, who similarly emerged seemingly ex nihilo and retreated immediately thence as soon as we’d left). Looming above it all is the sinister presence Vaadignephod – on loan from co-organizer Ryan Veeder’s Lurking Horror II – who sometimes wants to kill you, sometimes wants to lure you into practicing dark magic, and sometimes seems to want to preserve you for vague, nefarious ends. It’s all riffs on riffs on riffs; just about every author gets in some references to Anchorhead and Lovecraft, but you only need to do a shallow bit of digging to turn up tips of the hat to Monkey Island, to Frankenstein, to hacker jokes, to Francis Fukuyama(!).
If you’re the kind of person who likes to invent headcanons, you could have fun attempting to fit all the pieces together – in the aforelinked Let’s Play, I decided Naomi was actually a cover identity for Lovecraft’s immortal ghoul-queen Nitocris, who delighted in lying to everyone she met about who she was and what she was up to – but there’s something to be said for just letting the madness wash over you, going with the flow and interpreting the thematically-consistent, narratively-bonkers plot as like successive different interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, or an endlessly-rebooted superhero movie. Either approach I think works; they key thing is to come up with some way to engage with Cragne Manor’s Protean nature, rather than keep your head down and hope to ignore it.
I should also say, there are some clear throughlines running through the game that do provide some sense of pacing and continuity. There are discrete puzzle chains that organize the player’s progress through the game: some challenges have to do with unlocking the map, others about a game-wide bibliophilic scavenger hunt, and there’s a compelling thread about digging up info on some extra-special Cragnes and their personal predilections. A few authors also managed to think creatively about how to weave their contributions into the weft of the whole game’s structure, most notably Lucian Smith, who constructs a multi-act plot that starts with an annoying inventory object and progresses into a surprising, emotionally-satisfying climax I wouldn’t dare to spoil. So while the game lacks one of the traditional pleasures of IF – gameplay unlocking the next bit of a narratively-satisfying story – it still definitely feels satisfying to solve puzzles and progress through Cragne Manor’s various tracks and systems.
Are there weaknesses? Sure; as I’ve mentioned, there are some rooms and puzzles that don’t work as well as others, due to technical issues or inadequate clueing or just going on too long (Christabell and Carol, I loved ya but please hire an editor next time!) Towards the end, the game can start to creak under the great weight it’s being asked to shoulder (DROP ALL would only divest me of like half my inventory list by the time I hit the Manor’s second floor). And as I’ve hopefully made very very clear, if you’re hoping for subtly-limned characters and the Aristotelian unities, friend, you are so out of luck.
Without underselling these flaws, and without steamrolling over the fact that there surely are people for whom Cragne Manor will be very far from what they value in IF, though, I feel it’s churlish to accentuate the negative here. What’s on offer is an overabundance of riches, far bigger, far weirder, but also far friendlier than you’d assume (I’m still sufficiently naïve to think that maybe that’s another way the comparison to America works?) There’s nothing else like it in IF, which is probably on balance for the best, but good Lord I’m glad this miraculous thing exists. And I suspect if you give it a try, you’ll feel the same way too.
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