The Call of Innsmouth

by Tripper McCarthy


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
It's beginning to look a lot like fish-men..., December 6, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

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 youíve seen one Hound of Tindalos, you havenít seen a Hound of Tindalos Ė but then the juice suddenly ran out because I couldnít figure out where the story would go. If I kept up the world-weary noir thing throughout, the Cthulhu elements wouldnít land because the cosmic horror doesnít 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, youíve just written a Lovecraft pastiche with some weird similes, clipped phrasing, and hopefully less racism. Itís a mashup that ultimately needs to collapse into just being one thing or the other, and therefore canít be fully satisfying (this is also why every attempt Iíve seen to do a pomo detective story doesnít work Ė yes, Iím 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 doesnít commit hard either way Ė 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 Ė and even if you, like the author, havenít 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 Ė if you are in the mood for a Lovecraft game, Call of Innsmouth has you covered in spades! Itís big, with lots to do that gives you that old Cthulhu charge Ė you prep for the investigation by visiting an Arkham boarding house and consulting Miskatonicís Professor Armitage, and you get to raid Devilís Reef and meet Zadok Allen (though oddly, his name is misspelled and heís given a weird dialect different from what heís got in the book, maybe coding him as Native American? Zadok is a biblical name so I always assumed heís a Quaker or something like that). There are a number of action sequences, and while itís (appropriately) easy to die, the correct choices arenít too obfuscated, and unlimited rewinds are offered if your guts do wind up decorating a Deep Oneís claws.

Writing-wise, as mentioned the style is pretty straightforward and there are some typos, but also a few nice bits of characterization Ė when the player characterís 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 isnít overly belabored so thereís 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 itís 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).

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great Flavor, Hasty Pacing, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

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 ďpulpy noir set in the 1920s.Ē 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.

ExceptÖ thatís 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 arenít making deductions or trying to weigh evidence to figure out whatís 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 didnít 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. Thatís great. But why arenít 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 playerís 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.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Well written Lovecraft fan fiction, December 2, 2020
by Stian
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

A truly well written Lovecraft fan fiction, which would fit right into any such anthology I have read. In terms of choices, there does not seem to be many branching narratives that do not end with a quick death; rather, choices are usually either correct or deadly.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Builds up to a satisfying conclusion, December 1, 2020

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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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A lengthy Lovecraftian game based on The Shadow over Innsmouth, October 11, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

I'm a big fan of 'Lovecraftian' horror, (although I generally like the genre referred to that more than Lovecraft's work himself; I especially like The Willows, which I think was before him).

Lovecraftian horror is a major genre for parser games, including XYZZY- and IFComp-winning games: Anchorhead, Coloratura, Hunger Daemon, The King of Shreds and Patches, Cragne Manor, Theatre, Strange Geometries, The Lurking Horror, Slouching Towards Bedlam, Lydia's Heart. Outside of parser it still does well; I especially like Heart of the House and Fhtagn! - Tales of the Creeping Madness, Anya DeNiros' Feu de Joie series, and the Failbetter oeuvre.

So I approached this Lovecraftian Twine game with eager interest, especially given the extended length.

In this game, you are commissioned as a private detective to investigate the disappearance of her son. The missing young man has been spending too much time at Innsmouth, a city inhabited by strangely fishy people.

As I write this review, I looked up Innsmouth, and realized that most of the story elements of this game are borrowed from the story The Shadow Over Innsmouth (and I now see that was mentioned in the blurb). This actually relieves me, because I felt like parts of the game were echoing the worst part of Lovecraft. The man whom the adjective Lovecraftian was named after is not the best author in his own genre.

This game has a lot of great elements in it; it's smooth, looks good, the writing flows well line by line. But I have problems with the pacing and the interactivity.

First, the pacing. As the opening quote of the game makes clear, fear of the unknown is one of humanity's most primal fears. That's why Lovecraftian games thrive off of slow burn. Outside of maybe one initial bizarre event, most great Lovecraftian stories start with mundane but disturbing situations. Slowly, over time, more frightening (but still plausible) events occur until by the end you are confronted with horrifying unknowing realities.

This game spills the beans really early on, though. An intelligent, sane man explains all of the game's mysteries very early on, with no skepticism, and shows you an impossible artifact. There are no major revelations after that; everything in the game follows directly from his pronouncements.

Despite this, the game follows the usual tropes of the protagonist refusing to believe in the supernatural. Here's some text soon after those revelations:

(Spoiler - click to show)When this case began, you had no idea it would lead you to the old, decaying port town of Innsmouth. You didnít even know the place existed. Now, the more you hear about it, the more you are filled with a sense of foreboding. Itís not that you believe the wild stories youíve heard. People living on a razorís edge of disaster are apt to fill the world with all kinds of fantastical tales and superstitions. But Professor Armitageís words and seeing the Innsmouth tiara in person give you pause. Still, the world is filled with enough man-made nightmares; the supernatural needs not apply.

Despite the professor explicitly saying [spoiler]the townspeople breed with fish demons[/spoiler], the protagonist is stymied by a genealogy chart:

(Spoiler - click to show)His wifeís name is listed as Phtíthya-líy, an odd name whoís ethnic origin you canít place.

My second issue is the narrative structure. It's what Sam Kabo Ashwell calls the Gauntlet is his very good article on shapes of narrative games. Every optional choice is either wrong and leads to death (with an undo, thankfully) or right and progresses the story. There are usually few clues as to which one is the right answer, making it somewhat an exercise in frustration.

I think both of these issues come from adhering to closely to the original story. By having a plot that 'must happen' to match the story, it forces the gauntlet structure. To make sure the stories are connected, the author doles out information at weird times. I had the exact same issues when I adapted some Sherlock Holmes stories.

The very best parts are when the author goes out on his own. I would love to see a game that has a lot more of the author in it and a lot less Lovecraft. The whole story revolves around a sub-species of human that is less than human and is characterized by bulging eyes and flat noses, which definitely stems from Lovecraft's obsession with racial panic; and Lovecraft's treatment of the homeless man and his thick accent isn't my favorite.

So I definitely think this is an amazing author and programmer who made this, I just would prefer an original story and structure next time (and I hope there is a next time)!

+Polish: The game looks great, no bugs that I saw.
+Descriptiveness: The game goes into significant detail about objects and people.
-Interactivity: The gauntlet structure didn't really work for me.
-Emotional impact: The early reveals spoiled a lot of the emotional oomph for me.
-Would I play again? Since there's only one main path, I don't think there's a lot of replay value.

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