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About the Story
"THE ARKHAM ABOMINATION" (aka: "The Vileness Under The Henge")
14th place - ParserComp 2021
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Number of Reviews: 4
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Arkham Abomination doesn’t put its best foot forward – a custom-parser game with no testers listed and a readme that’s actually titled “for testers” is spookier than any eldritch horror, and the fuzzy icons and garishly-colored text that greet you on booting up left me quaking in dread. Happily, it quickly shakes this negative first impression and serves up a quality bit of Lovecraftiana. If you’re burned out on the subgenre, it’s not doing anything novel enough to shake you out of your ennui, but it’s a well-crafted, well-written romp through the dark woods of Arkham Country with only a few flies in the ointment (or rather, mi-go in the slimy remnant of some nameless horror?)
Much of this is down to how it nails the Lovecraft style – and not in a “anyone with a skin tone slightly darker than ecru is a degenerate villain” way, thankfully, but by offering up prose that’s dizzyingly dense with recondite adjectives and ominously-overdescribed landscape. Here’s the opening location, for example:
"I am on a twisty trail west of old Arkham town. Looking around I see the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep, dark woods. I turn and see dark narrow glens where trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes I spot a few deserted farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages dilapidated and vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs."
Some of this is word-for-word Lovecraft (“…the hills rise wild”) but the rest of it could easily be. Or take this description of the not-at-all-suspicious monoliths at the edge of town:
"Occasionally, through gaps in the trees, the sky silhouettes with especial clearness a queer circle of tall stone pillars upon which a large grassy hill in the distance is crowned."
It’s awkward sometimes, but sure, that’s the point. And all of this excessively-detailed scenery is implemented, every gambrel roof and narrow glen of it. In a sea of Lovecraft-alikes that nick the fish-men but present their stories in the same flat prose you’d use to recount a trip to the supermarket, Arkham Abomination stands out by adopting the style as well as the substance.
The plot itself is also cannily chosen, as it’s riffing off a specific Lovecraft story, but not one of the over-used ones like Dunwich Horror or Shadow Over Innsmouth (Spoiler - click to show)(we’re looking at the Colour Out of Space, here). The classic setup has you visiting a threatening village, looking for a missing friend who was trying to get to the bottom of a strange wave of sickness that’s laid many of Arkham’s citizens low. The shape of what’s happened is pretty obvious from early on, at least if you’ve got much familiarity with HPL’s oeuvre, but going through the steps of the investigation is a pleasure, with clues that logically connect one to another and a detailed but not overly-large game world. The readme implies this is an adaptation of a pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu scenario, and if that’s right it does a good job of translating an RPG story into IF form.
There are only a few puzzles, most of which are pretty well prompted and pleasing to work through – light sources to use to illuminate darkened areas, makeshift ropes to discover, mazes to explore, and so on – and appropriately enough for a CoC scenario, it all ends in fire and explosions. The last major puzzle of the game was occasionally frustrating, though – it requires stealing some items from a half-crazed, randomly-wandering farmer, and avoiding the death-by-shotgun he visits upon you if he notices your thefts requires a lot of reloading, as UNDO won’t take you past the barrier of death. The puzzle is also a little fiddlier than it should be, due to some commands that work in earlier scenes not behaving quite the way you’d expect them to in this sequence – it’s not awful by any means, but in a game without hints or a walkthrough, it’d be unfortunate if these niggles put players off from finishing (if you are feeling stuck, this thread might get you going again).
To close with a word about implementation, Arkham Abomination is yet another example of a well-made custom parser that’s made me reconsider my previous negative feelings about such things. Modulo that UNDO inconvenience mentioned above, it has all the features a modern player would expect, and it understands basic actions in a completely transparent way. Besides a few small bugs (sometimes X FOO would result in “I X the foo…” before printing the description instead of the usual “I examine the foo…”), the only real complaint I had is that much like in Somewhere, Somewhen, it’s hard to look at or interact with objects in containers, even open ones, without first retrieving them (is there something in the water making custom-parser authors think players want to fiddle about with containers in this anal-retentive way?)
Does the world need another Cthulhu scenario, or another custom text-adventure engine? Probably not, but Arkham Abomination demonstrates that you can have a lot of fun with such things nevertheless, so long as the craft is there.
This game is an interesting mix of skill and rough edges. I'm going to review it on my five-criteria scale:
-Polish: The game could use a bit more polish, especially in the area of synonyms and responses. A lot of art is in error responses, to guide you towards the correct phrasing. I was told repeatedly I couldn't (Spoiler - click to show)tie a vine to different things, only later to find that I had to call it (Spoiler - click to show)a creeper, not a vine. That's not so odd, but the error messages all implied that the problem was the action, not the noun. There are similar issues later on, with a lot of people having trouble with the final actions of the game.
+Descriptiveness: The game is lushly descriptive. I could quite clearly picture everything in the game outside of the mazes.
-Interactivity: The frustrations of the parser took this one down for me. Otherwise it's honestly not bad. There are mazes and combinations but they're all solved easily for you. The better parts of the interactivity are all the little hidden details that reward your actions. The worse parts are instant deaths with no undo :(
+Emotional impact: Despite the many frustrations, I'm a fan of Lovecraftian horror, and I thought the core of this was well done.
-Would I play again? Not until it's souped up a bit more.
(Regarding the parser, please see my edit at the bottom.)
Home-made parser. Oh well. I fear it for two reasons: 1. The authoring systems available are around for years, or decades in some cases. They have been used and reviewed by hundreds auf authors, they have been constantly improved, they are at the top of the parser evolution ladder. A homebrew parser will never be able to complete. (I’m talking Inform or TADS, not AGT) 2. The author obviously wants to show off his coding skills. Given that few people scintillate in several fields of expertise, how are the chances a good coder is also a good author? But let’s see.
The game world is pretty lovecraftian. Room and object descriptions are full of old school adjectives. A pleasant experience, just like in the novels. The grade of detail could be higher tho. The closer you look at stuff the more often you get a generic response. Also, apart from one man who’s important for the story you won’t meet any living person, that’s a bit dull. And the town of Arkham is off limits which is a bit frustrating as the game starts right on the outskirts of it. The map is small, the central village is two houses big. There’s a large maze which will seriously annoy you if you stumble into it without having found directions upfront. The parser lists objects you can interact with. Except when it doesn’t list them. There you go. Home-made parser. My left eyelid twitches.
The development of the story is nice. Step for step you gather clues about what happened. Travelling is quick as the map is so small. The puzzles are easy, and pretty much standard. Romping through the game is a rather quick experience. In my opinion it would be worth the effort to enlarge the game, at least with a bigger village and one or two more NPCs, and with the number of puzzles increasing the maze could removed as it’s mainly annoying, and it doesn’t even make sense as it consists of outdoor paths leading nowhere in particular.
If you like Lovecraft you’ll want to give this game a try. It’s short and cooked to the point, but it lacks sophistication and leaves you somewhat unsatisfied because it could have been great, but unfortunately it isn’t. As for the subject of home-made parsers, please allow me to quote Jackass for your own and all our sanity: Don’t try this at home.
EDIT: As Gareth Pitchford pointed out, The Arkham Abomination was not created using a homebrew parser, but using the ThinBASIC_Adventure_Builder. This renders all my comments regarding the parser moot. Lack of research on my side. Sorry for any inconvenience.
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