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About the Story
People warned me about being a private dick in Arkham, Massachusetts. Sure, I’d heard the stories of monsters, cults, and other bizarre happenings in this old New England town. My take? The world is scary enough without help from the supernatural. It wouldn’t be until a mother walked through my door looking for her missing son that I realized how wrong I was. A prequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, live the adventure of detective Jack DuVrey as he investigates a case of mystery and madness. Will you survive, The Call of Innsmouth?
47th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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When I was on an airplane many years ago, I had the idea of writing a Lovecraft pastiche in a noir voice suddenly pop into my head. After I landed and got home, I fired up my computer and had enormous fun writing a page and a half of my hard-boiled private dick sharing how he usually deals with ghoul infestations and musing that if you’ve seen one Hound of Tindalos, you haven’t seen a Hound of Tindalos – but then the juice suddenly ran out because I couldn’t figure out where the story would go. If I kept up the world-weary noir thing throughout, the Cthulhu elements wouldn’t land because the cosmic horror doesn’t find a purchase in the protagonist's psyche. And if you lean into the Cthulhu bits and have even the noir hero shaken by the burden of things man was not meant to know, well, you’ve just written a Lovecraft pastiche with some weird similes, clipped phrasing, and hopefully less racism. It’s a mashup that ultimately needs to collapse into just being one thing or the other, and therefore can’t be fully satisfying (this is also why every attempt I’ve seen to do a pomo detective story doesn’t work – yes, I’m calling you out, Paul Auster) (and before I wrap up this ridiculously self-indulgent introduction, let me shout out the one completely effective Lovecraft genre remix, which is the Cthulhu-meets-Wodehouse of A Scream For Jeeves).
Anyway, given this tediously-explained context, I was interested to see how Call of Innsmouth followed through on its blurb, which seemed to presage going hard on the noir tropes, and avoided this dilemma. The answer is that mostly it sidesteps the tension by presenting a completely straight-ahead take, with prose that doesn’t commit hard either way – the smoky, jazzy tones of noir and the adjective-mad enthusiasm of Lovecraft get a few hat-tips, but the style is overall quite normcore. The same is true for the plot, which mirrors the plot of the mid-aughts Call of Cthulhu video game remarkably closely – and even if you, like the author, haven’t played it, proceedings will still feel pretty familiar so long as you've read the Shadow Over Innsmouth. I think the biggest story-related surprise I experienced was that at one point, after I made a bad decision, I was expecting to get eaten by Dagon, but instead I got eaten by a shoggoth.
None of this is necessarily bad – if you are in the mood for a Lovecraft game, Call of Innsmouth has you covered in spades! It’s big, with lots to do that gives you that old Cthulhu charge – you prep for the investigation by visiting an Arkham boarding house and consulting Miskatonic’s Professor Armitage, and you get to raid Devil’s Reef and meet Zadok Allen (though oddly, his name is misspelled and he’s given a weird dialect different from what he’s got in the book, maybe coding him as Native American? Zadok is a biblical name so I always assumed he’s a Quaker or something like that). There are a number of action sequences, and while it’s (appropriately) easy to die, the correct choices aren’t too obfuscated, and unlimited rewinds are offered if your guts do wind up decorating a Deep One’s claws.
Writing-wise, as mentioned the style is pretty straightforward and there are some typos, but also a few nice bits of characterization – when the player character’s client breaks down in worry over her missing son, he just shifts uncomfortably rather than comforting her, for example. And while you appropriately freak out at some of the revelations, and start out a bit skeptical about this whole dark-god-and-fish-men business, it isn’t overly belabored so there’s no tedious tension between the genre-savvy player and the notionally new-to-all-this player character. Call of Innsmouth delivers what it sets out to, and if it’s not the most novel take on these tropes, and the prose plays it down the middle, you still get a meaty adventure to satisfy any Mythos cravings (like for a game I mean, not forbidden knowledge or human flesh or anything gross like that).
Right from the outset, The Call of Innsmouth builds itself upon a strong aesthetic foundation. The style of the prose and the parlance of the characters just screams “pulpy noir set in the 1920s.” This, combined with a darkly atmospheric visual presentation, makes for a game that oozes an instantly-recognizeable flavor. About 15 seconds in, I was absolutely hyped to go gumshoeing across Lovecraft Country, slowly uncovering unsettling hints of more sinister happenings behind a seemingly-mundane missing person case.
Except… that’s not quite how it goes.
Generally, I reckon that preserving a sense of mystery throughout the bulk of the story is crucial to the appeal of a piece of detective fiction. Ditto for a played-straight Lovecraftian work. But The Call of Innsmouth goes in the other direction, laying out quite a bit of blunt exposition early-on, so that the entire mystery is explained fairly clearly, even well before the climax. And I do mean explained - in most cases, you as the player aren’t making deductions or trying to weigh evidence to figure out what’s going on. Nor is there much room for ambiguity. You just get told everything directly, either by other characters who are happy to volunteer everything they know in a few major info-dumps, or by the internal monologue of a protagonist who can sometimes be exceptionally quick at jumping to conclusions.
This, I think, is a detriment to an otherwise well-written story. I would have preferred the underlying horrors to be revealed more slowly and gradually, with more opportunities for the player to apply their own logic to the course of the investigation.
That aside, I did enjoy many of the more action-oriented scenes in the latter half of the game. Many of the choices at that point are hazardous, with plenty of opportunities for insta-death, but they didn’t feel arbitrary. On the contrary, these choices reward the player for paying attention to the current situation and applying a bit of logic or intuition to it - for example, realizing that you need to take a hostage because you are unlikely to defeat/outrun your foes otherwise. That’s great. But why aren’t there more opportunities for the player to use their brain like this in the earlier, more investigative sequences of the game? As it is, there are very few points during the investigative phase where the player’s choices matter at all.
Overall, strong writing, has the right vibe, but could have done a better job at making me feel like a detective.
This entry is a serviceable addition to the Lovecraft universe, although it stumbles over some common challenges that plague initial releases.
The story visits standard New England locations that are central to Lovecraft's work, and design choices support a creepy atmosphere. Presentation details, like the custom background and buttons to choose your next action, are a welcome departure from Twine's black-and-white defaults.
The investigation that leads the narrator to Innsmouth is much less exciting than time spent in the town itself. Early pages end with the equivalent of "click to continue" buttons, and every possible conversation option must be exhausted before doing something else.
(It made me feel less like a sharp-eyed detective and more like a bored student hearing lectures that repeated the same few ideas about Innsmouth and its sinister residents.)
However, it's evident that the author's skills were honed during the process of developing this work. My experience in the town of Innsmouth was briskly paced and full of enjoyably tense decisions. There are multiple ways to encounter plot points before fleeing to safety, and although bad decisions can end in disaster, the author allows players to undo their mistakes.
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