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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.
8 people found the following review helpful:
So I guess I should try Anchorhead some time, huh?, May 4, 2021
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.
17 people found the following review helpful:
Don't let it scare you (except for the scary bits), January 6, 2019
(I wrote an unmemorable 1% of this game. The stars are for the other 83 people.)
I'd like to push back just a little bit on some of the introductory text from Cragne Manor. Not the parts about how the game is insane and brilliant and fun; that's all true. I'm immensely proud and grateful to have been part of it. No, it's the stuff about being prepared to be frustrated or overwhelmed on account of its hugeness. I completed it a few days ago, and I was surprised at just how playable it was.
There are a couple of things that distinguish Cragne Manor from something like The Mulldoon Legacy (which is amazing, but is definitely overwhelming). First, Cragne provides a fantastic amenity in the form of an item that tells you if you're able to solve the puzzles in a given room, or if you need additional information or items from elsewhere, or if you've done everything you need to do already. It's difficult to overstate how comforting this thing is. I get overwhelmed in huge games from the combinatorial explosion of rooms, puzzles, and information. I can't keep everything in RAM, so to speak, and become exhausted even looking at my inventory. The (Spoiler - click to show)coffee cup in Cragne kept my headspace manageable.
It also helped tremendously that each room was written without knowledge of the other rooms. Without saying too much about how the game and its puzzles are structured, this means that almost every item or piece of information is single-use. There are definitely things you'll need to take notes on, but for the most part, you use an item or a piece of info, and you can then throw it away (or put it in the zipped-up trash pocket of the brilliantly-implemented carryall). And many of the biggest and best set-piece puzzles are standalone.
I worked alone in my playthrough, and only needed a few hints. It probably took me over 30 hours to finish, and 6800 turns (maybe twice that when you consider moves lost to restores). But I always knew what I could do next, what would have to wait until later, and what items were still useful, and that made it manageable. Don't let the size of Cragne Manor scare you off.
11 people found the following review helpful:
Ambitious syncretism!, December 9, 2018
84 rooms, each written by a different author, but co-ordinated into a structure and based around a tight enough theme that it all hangs together though often with intriguing incongruities.
Roughly, you can split the rooms into two different sorts: rooms which function as typical text-adventure rooms (a key might be hidden somewhere, there might be a short puzzle to get it); and rooms which are short games in themselves, which immerse you in their own unique stories, force you to learn a new set of interacting systems and so forth. As such, the game is constantly confounding your expectations.
Some of the rooms are genuinely horrifying, others are laugh-out-loud funny, more still are challenging and satisfying to work through. I recommend to anyone who likes text adventures especially its inspiration, Anchorhead. Expect to need hints!
(I contributed to this game, so per my own policy I've omitted my rating from the average.)
25 people found the following review helpful:
An enormous collaboration horror game, December 8, 2018
I've played and reviewed over 1500 interactive fiction games, and there has never been anything like Cragne Manor.
1-5 of 5 | Return to game's main page
This game was written by 84 authors. Some authors (including me) wrote small rooms with one minor puzzle, or, occasionally, only one.
Others wrote rooms that themselves could be entered into IFComp and do well, including complicated conversational games, (Spoiler - click to show)a miniature version of Hadean Lands, a monster breeding game, and story-focused cutscenes.
The game is a mishmash of different styles and levels of implementation. One room might be the most elaborate and smooth game you've ever seen, with varied tenses, custom parser responses, and complex state tracking; while another room might be basically a pile of dirt with nothing implemented. Puzzles range from super easy to very unfair.
For fans of big puzzle games, people who wish that longer games would be released, Infocom fans, fans of any of the people in the author list, conversational games, or IF in general, this game will provide hours of enjoyment.
As a warning, this game is overwhelming. It has 500K+ words, which is huge for parser games. As a comparison, Blue Lacuna had less than 400K, and much of that was devoted to verbose text descriptions. This game is just pure content. This game is longer than Curses!, Mulldoon Legacy, Worlds Apart, and roughly the same size as Finding Martin.
Prepare for the sinking in your stomach you will experience as you open a door to find another 6 or 7 rooms, each with their own fully-fleshed out puzzles. Prepare to keep notes for information you find in the game, tracking the many keys and doors.
The content warnings for the game are accurate. Every author has their own style, so some rooms have more of profanity or explicit content than others. I would say that maybe one or two rooms has anything sexual, and about a dozen rooms have violence or gore running from silly to horrifying.
As of writing this, there is no walkthrough, although that will likely be remedied soon. With the help of many of the authors, as I tested this game, I still took well over ten hours to beat this. Expect a long, long, long play time.
Perhaps the last thing I'd like to say about Cragne Manor is that this is almost like a little IFComp of its own. The number of games in the two is similar and the quality of the entries is similar, except that even the weakest rooms in this game have been tested and worked on as a group, and all the rooms in this game support each other, instead of fighting against each other.
Please enjoy this wonderful game.