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A decent Lovecraftian story, but a little frustrating for an IF novice, December 3, 2015

I'm pretty new to IF (though I'm no stranger to video games). I chose to play this game because of the high rating it received. After playing it through to completion, I'm slightly surprised at how it could've gotten such a good rating, given the experience I had with it. The writing in this game is on par with any good Lovecraftian horror story, but as for the actual gameplay, I encountered a number of frustrations and issues that I'm not used to in the other video games and few IF games I've played. Ultimately, my experience with this game was one of frustration and annoyance, but I suspect if I had a few more big IF games under my belt, or I wasn't so used to the fast pace and instant gratification of modern video games but not the pace of IF, it might've been a much better experience for me. That said, I can only judge the game based on how much fun I had with it and compare that to how much fun I have with other games. I took some notes on the parts I had trouble with - I'm sure some of these "issues" are due to my own lack of familiarity with IF, but perhaps it's interesting or useful for future reference to see how someone of my level of experience (and with my addiction to constant stimulation brought on by modern video games) felt and thought as they played the game.

My main criticisms with this game tend to involve failures of the parser, the lack of sufficient description, a lack of describing "affordances" (or what you are currently able to do in a given situation, a necessary feature when your only interface to the world is text), and several glaringly bad puzzles that usually fail due to parser issues, lack of description, or a failure for the game world to do what you want it to do and having to guess what the author wants you to do. It's hard to really get a sense of the problems with the game without pointing to specific examples. The frustrating experience of this game is caused by many little small, specific issues rather than glaring, generic flaws. So, from here on, I'm just going to go through all of the specific, little problems and issues I noticed as I played through the game, and most of it is going to be spoilers. Just know that knowing a few story points or puzzle solutions isn't going to hurt your experience of the game. If anything, it'll make it better.

At some point, you will notice a locked room in the house attic. (Spoiler - click to show)This door is locked, but it has a keyhole, like so many other doors in the game. You may assume that, as with the other doors, this door will not open until you discover a key somewhere else. Also, if you've been paying attention to the writings, you'll know that, at one point, William was kept in here, locked away from the rest of the family. You won't find a key, though. You are supposed to first decide that you should look in the keyhole. You almost NEVER have a reason to do this anywhere else in the game. There's a hint that light is coming through the crack under the door, but that doesn't immediately make you notice that there ISN'T light coming through the keyhole itself. The absence of this keyhole light isn't noted by the description, but, even if there were light coming through the keyhole, you probably wouldn't expect the parser to say something like that - it's just an irrelevant detail. So, it's very unreasonable to expect the player to think to look through the keyhole. Furthermore, you have to perform several actions before you even look in the keyhole. You look at the door, then the lock plate, then the hole, the you look IN the hole. Why make someone go through all the trouble, risking losing some percentage of players at some step in the process as they decide, oh, everything checks out, no reason to keep looking here.

Furthermore, you have to jump to the conclusion that, because the keyhole is dark, it's because a key is in the hole. That's a very unlikely explanation. First of all, why the hell would a room that's been used to lock somebody inside it have a key stuck in the hole on the inside? Second of all, perhaps there's a piece of furniture or covering over the hole? The description hardly hints at all that the hole affords sticking something inside it, if you're even fortunate enough to realize you can look at the keyhole in the first place. Also, if you've had any experience with keyholes in 1999, you'd probably notice that they don't typically go straight through the door. So you wouldn't really think anything of looking in a keyhole and seeing black - you'd think you're looking at the back wall of the key receptacle for this side of the door. Anyway, once you somehow figure out that there's a key in the hole and you can push something in the hole to push the key out, it becomes a good puzzle.

My main criticism with this puzzle is that it's really not hinted at enough and doesn't really make sense in the first place (because why would the key be inside the door, anyway?). In the context of a text adventure where you have many, many rooms to explore, this dramatically magnifies the problem. You don't even know that you CAN open this door at this point, so you might spend your time wandering and wandering elsewhere, spending countless hours of your life seeing the same descriptions over and over again, making no progress. If this was a self-contained puzzle where you had some knowledge that you were supposed to be able to get into the room in order to make progress, that would be fine. Or, if the description of the door hinted more towards the solution. Like, instead of asking the player to look at the door, then look at the keyhole plate, then look at the keyhole, then look IN the hole, just put all that info right there when the player looks at the stupid door.

In the town, you will come across a bum holding a key. (Spoiler - click to show)The bum turns out to be the obstetrician who birthed Edward and the abomination William, something you can discover by asking the bum various questions after giving him some alcohol. I don't really have a problem with this part of the bum puzzle - I thought it was fun to try asking different questions to try to figure out what he's talking about and cross-reference it with the various documents I had read up to this point.

Eventually, though, in order to get the key, you are supposed to convince him that William, who he thought was dead, was not actually dead. I thought that showing him the pages of the Anna's writing found under the child's bed would be sufficient, because it explained exactly what had happened. And I figured my character would be able to fill in the details. But no, it treats it as if you had shown the bum any other useless item, instead of offering a hint like "the bum isn't convinced by what is written" or something to that effect. So, you need to go to the crypt and open the coffin, which you've probably already found at this point, and grab the bones. Now, why would anyone think that showing some random animal skull to somebody, when that person doesn't know where it came from, would have any effect of convincing someone? I could've just brought any old animal skull. Better yet, I could've just told the bum what happened; it's not like showing the skull offers any more solid evidence than my words.

The worst part, though, is that showing the skull is not even enough. Wouldn't your character be able to explain it to the bum? No. You have to keep asking different questions. The types of questions you have to ask are VERY restrictive, and you don't receive any sort of feedback that "it seems he is starting to realize something" or anything like that. I tried asking lots of different things and they kept getting the same responses. How are you to deduce that you're on the right path? You freaking can't. It makes me mad. It's almost laughable when you finally say the "magic words" and then get a large text dump. Why not just let me show the skull and be done with it? Why force me to guess what I'm suppsoed to do? The only challenge is due to the parser not being able to translate what I want to do into actions. How am I supposed to guess the exact way you want me to phrase the question, you stupid parser? It's just making a game challenge by forcing me to get around the limitations of the interface. This was terribly frustrating.

Here's a more general problem with the game - an occasional, but critical, lack of a clear description of the available exits. There's several spots where a room description utterly fails to inform you about an available exit. And there's no "exits" command. Even worse, a few rooms WILL tell you where the exits are when you go in an invalid direction, but many rooms will simply say that you can't go there and that's that. This causes frustration at several points in the game: When trying to find your husband near the start of the game after getting the manor keys, (Spoiler - click to show)the room just south of the pub doesn't tell you that you can go west, which is where you need to go to get to the college. I wasted a bunch of time thinking I had already explored everything because I assumed that the descriptions were exhaustive. And later on, (Spoiler - click to show) when you get to the path near the slaughterhouse with the stump and the trampled sapling, there's no indication that you can go SW (or SE or wherever it was). You NEED to do this in order to make progress. Why is my character able to go there, but not able to see that they can go there?

In general, that class of problems is frustrating because it's only challenging because the author didn't include an adequate description of the room. You generally trust those descriptions, though. So now, if you decide not to trust them, you have to try EVERY possible direction in EVERY room, lest you miss some possible exit. It's a boring, tedious, time consuming process. If you don't happen upon this realization, you'll be stuck wandering around irrelevant areas of the game, thinking you've explored every option and there's some solvable puzzle in one of the rooms you need to do in order to advance. But no, you just made the mistake of trusting the room description. There should've been an accurate representation of the exits, or at least some indication that there's possible exits not in the description, or an "exits" command.

Here's another small gripe - having to close and lock doors before you go to sleep. I understand how it adds to the atmosphere of the game, about not feeling comfortable and feeling vulnerable in your own manor. But, in practice, it just turns out to be WAY unnecesarilly tedious. It starts with you remembering that you left a door open. So you try to leave the room. You idiot, you have to get up first. So you get up, then leave the room. You idiot, you have to put on some clothes for some reason. So you put on clothes and find your way back to the door. "Lock door". The door is open, you idiot, so you can't lock it. Close door. Lock door. Back to bed. How about this, instead - I go to bed, then I get a brief description describing how my character does all these steps for me, which I would have to manually do anyway? It's just unnecesarry tedium and it doesn't add anything to the game that wouldn't be there with just a simple description. This would give the author opportunities to embellish these descriptions to add to that atmosphere. At the very least, if the only way my character can leave the room is to put on clothes, get me the hell up, put on my freaking close for me, and leave the room. I don't care about losing control of my character, I care about having fun, and Mavis Beacon (or even Super Mario) Teaches Typing is always there for me if I want to have a blast typing words that I'm asked to type.

Your kitchen has a pantry.(Spoiler - click to show) That pantry leads to a wine cellar with a puzzle involving bottles, which could've been fun had it not been so poorly implemented. The actual puzzle involving rotating the bottles is actually pretty great - especially with how you have to use the information you learned about the family history. But, in context of the larger game, there's a glaring flaw. I discovered these bottles earlier. I KNEW that this lead to a hidden passageway because the bottles were fixed in place. So I tried all sorts of different commands to try to get my character to thoroughly search these bottles, to no avail. If I was there in real life, I would be pulling, twisting, and feeling every single bottle. But there was no way to get my character to do this. So, having exhaustively tried all sorts of options, I decided there was nothing to be gained here. Later, though, after your Michael uses the wine cellar, your "look" command reveals some new information. Argh. I had already written off this room because I thought I had exhaustively searched it. Plus, if that really was how you got into the room, I would think there would already be a noticeable difference with the bottles even without Michael using it (since obviously people used it before) - at least a different amount of dust or some scratch marks on the floor or hearing a hollow thud when hitting it. None of which happens. So I wasted a bunch of time, as always, exploring other areas of the game because that's what the help text told me to do. But I got nowhere. This should've been hinted at more when you initially explore the bottles, otherwise you may end up just writing them off and forgetting about them. Also, the dream says that "michael is doing something in the basemenet". But the room from the stairs in the pantry is called the "cellar", not "basement". So you may think you need to find some OTHER passageway. Maybe there's an exit in one of the rooms that the description neglects to mention, as has been done so many other places in the game? Time to waste some time...

Let's talk about the librarian at the library. The interaction here is godawful. (Spoiler - click to show)It's possible to discover this information in another way, but it doesn't excuse this small, stupid puzzle. Let's not even talk about trying to get Michael's ID. It's another "magic word" puzzle, because the parser absolutely fails to produce the desired result, even after trying so many different commands. No "librarian, give book", no "ask librarian about book" (replacing book with the full book name). The actual command that worked for me was "ask librarian FOR book". This is a problem, to me. At no point in the game do we know we can use "ask person FOR". Up until then, we can only say "ask person about", like with the bum. So, to expect the player to know to use "FOR" instead is absolutely rage inducing, ESPECIALLY considering that you get a sense that the parser is not very robust to inputs after trying so many different commands here. So you CERTAINLY wouldn't mess with the established practice by using "for" instead of "about". But no, you have to. You may not even think that you CAN get a book from the librarian, because the description hints that the librarian is a strange fellow. Maybe they'll just always ignore you? This one made me mad.

At some point in the game, you may discover a musical instrument. (Spoiler - click to show)The interaction with this stupid flute is also terrible and clunky. First of all, it took me quite awhile to figure out how to even cover the different holes. I didn't realize I could even do so, after trying so many different commands and not receiving any sort of useful feedback. The description doesn't hint at this. It tells you about holes but doesn't say how you can interact with them. In real life, this wouldn't be a problem, but in a text adventure you need to describe the affordances of the interface. So it fails on that front. Even then, when you figure out how to cover holes, the interaction for covering and uncovering them is woefully inadequate. As far as I could tell, there's know way to tell what holes are currently covered. It could've simply said what holes are covered every time you covered or uncovered one, or told you what's covered when you look at the flute while holding it or use the inventory command.

Then, there's my most hated puzzle in the game. It involves a hatch that you're trying to open. (Spoiler - click to show)In the sewer, there's a rusty hatch that you need to open late in the game in order to get north of the bridge. When I first encountered this hatch, earlier in the game, I assumed rust was the problem and the solution was using the fish oil. So I "put fish oil on hatch", or "put fish oil on hinge". It tells me that "putting something on the hatch wouldn't accomplish anything". Okay, guess I have to maybe open the hatch from the other side or something...NOPE! Wrong! You have to first OPEN the tin, THEN you can use "put fish oil on hatch" to loosen it up. This is unforgivable. The first message makes you think that you shouldn't try anything else, so look elsewhere for a solution. But you literally have to use that EXACT command, it's just that the fish oil tin was in the wrong state. Why not at least say that you need to open the tin first? This puzzle is the true horror of this game.

There's a few random nitpicks I had with the interface for reading documents. Sometimes, while reading a document, the description will shift from the text of the document to a narration of your personal reaction to that document. But there's nothing to distinguis those blocks. Addiitionally, when the length of a document exceeds the length of the screen and you need to press space to scroll, there's no indication of where you left off, so you'll probably spend a moment having to figure out where you should resume reading from.

At some point, there's a wheel you want to turn. (Spoiler - click to show)It's too hot, though. So you have to wrap the towel around the wheel. Again, the parser utterly fails. There's all sorts of commands that totally make sense, like "wrap towel around wheel", "wrap wheel", "grab wheel with towel" or something like that but none of them work. You have to use "put towel on wheel". Ugh. I don't think "put" is a very descriptive verb for what I'm trying to do, and the only time I had to do it earlier was when I wanted to put things inside another thing. If someone told me to put a towel on something, I would just fold it up and set it on top of that thing. A frustrating waste of time that could be easily solved with a little bit of hinting or better description of affordances.

On the third day, towards the end, (Spoiler - click to show)you'll get a key from a corpse. You're supposed to use it to unlock a locked drawer in the real estate office. How are you supposed to know that there is a locked drawer there? Of course, the description for the room doesn't give you any indication that there's a locked drawer. I've been in quite a few offices and I've rarely seen locking desk drawers, so I would assume that a locked desk drawer would be called out in the description. Heck, some desks don't even have drawers, so I would expect that fact to be called out in the room description (it never is, with the few desks that appear in this game, the opening of which is required to make progress). Even then, you would assume that the key on the corpse is just the key to enter the building, which is locked at the start of the game. And it would be a big leap in reasoning to assume that this key ALSO unlocks a drawer, because that's not usually how keying works.

There's a few areas where the unlocking of doors is needlessly complicated. For example, if I'm in front of the lighthouse and I have a key, I can't simply type "unlock lighthouse". I have to type "unlock door". I shouldn't even have to do that - it should just unlock doors whenever I try to enter them, if I have the key. It's just a simple quality of life improvement that prevents breaking up the flow of the game.

Here's one that also had me pretty annoyed. On the final day, (Spoiler - click to show)once you break out of your padded cell, you don't have any of your items. Oh hey, there's actually a closet right next to your door that wasn't mentioned in the room description that has all your stuff. What? First of all, why would the cultists bother to even keep my stuff so close to my room? Second of all, and more importantly, WHY THE HECK IS THAT NOT IN THE DESCRIPTION! I NEED MY STUFF IN ORDER TO BEAT THE GAME! ARRRGHHHH!!!!!

Another small annoyance I encountered at the very end of the game - (Spoiler - click to show)when Michael asks you for the mirror, even if you have the "treated" mirror, and you say "give mirror", it doesn't bother to ask which mirror you were referring to. It just gives him the working one, which you would have NO motivation to do. Also, why doesn't Michael notice that you're holding one mirror but taking a mirror out of your backpack and giving it to him. It's the conclusion of the game, so I'd expect it to be the most polished part of the writing, but there's this big, glaring plot hole. This Crosius guy or whatever his name was has lived for a long time, certainly he is observant enough to detect trickery.

Finally, also at the very end of the game, (Spoiler - click to show)how are you able to physically get the needle from your jacket while cuffed? You're probably not going to happen on this solution if you correctly assume that this simply isn't possible in a reasonable amount of time. But no, you have to use the needle.

Finally FINALLY, I really am not keen on the game's insistence on "save scumming" as the only way to make progress at certain parts of the game (especially towards the end). In general, I'm fine with games that rely on saving and reloading, but only if that interface does an excellent job of supporting that use case. Needless to say, this game doesn't. You're going to have to save often and you're going to have to name your files really descriptively, or else you'll end up in a state where the game is unwinnable. You'll have times where you have to replay through sections you've already been through. It's like if a book or a movie asked you to re-read or re-watch the same scene over and over again before letting you watch the next one. Designers should think more about how decisions to stick to certain generic conventions, like save / restore, affect the enjoyment of the player, instead of just going with them because that's what everyone else does.

That's it. I'm done. That's all the stuff I noticed. Thanks for sticking it out through this long review.

To sum up my thoughts on this game: it's ruined by an abundance of frustrating situations that hamper the enjoyment of the story and the enjoyment of the few good puzzles. I know there's an interesting Lovecraftian horror story in there, but, if that's what you're after, let me let you in on a little secret. There's this site, Amazon, on which you can buy books. These books allow you to experience the story without having to solve frustrating puzzles or re-read the same pages over and over. In fact, there's an author called H. P. Lovecraft who writes stories similar to this, and there's even books that contain his entire works.

Anyway, to avoid these issues in future games, I believe that developers could do a few things. First, more play testing, by people that don't already know the game. During this testing, make sure to collect enough info so you an re-play a player's session and see what problems they ran into. Second of all, be mindful of the concept of affordances. It's a text adventure, so you have to make it clear what somebody can and can't do. This means things like making obvious exits clear and providing feedback on how you can interact with objects and NPCs. This ALSO includes things like making sure all the relevant elements in a room are in the description. If you don't trust your ability to do this entirely through the description text, then provide procedural ways to list the state of a room - like listing all the interactible objects or something. Third, when designing a game, at least for someone like me who wants to enjoy playing a game, actually consciously think about the enjoyment of the player at each point in the game. For every decision, try to maximize player enjoyment. Don't just include generic conventions from IF because it's an IF game. Include them because they make the game enjoyable. Remove them because they suck and make the game frustrating. Avoid saving and loading-based gameplay unless you have a really solid interface for that, because people don't usually like to do that because it hurts immersion when you die and reload. I'm not saying that you should compromise your artistic vision or your message in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator - think about the enjoyment of your art or aesthetics as one aspect of player enjoyment - I'm just saying that there's some design decisions you might be making "on autopilot" that can have devastating impacts on the game. In this case, it took an entire person's many hours of effort and toil and turned them into something I wished I'd rather not played.

In short, if you're an IF novice or you're used to the fast pace and instant gratification of modern video games but not IF, I do not recommend this game. However, if you're new to IF but you generally have a good time with games regardless of whatever problems others might have, I would definitely recommend this. For me, though, it gets two stars because, at least, it's a decent Lovecraftian horror story and quite a few of the puzzles are fun. If it weren't for the frustrating moments throughout the game, it would've received a much higher rating. But, a few major frustrations can completely sour the experience of a game - it doesn't matter how GOOD the good parts of a game are if the bad parts are really, agonizingly bad.

Comments on this review

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mjhayes, November 30, 2015 - Reply
I'm sorry to hear your experience with Anchorhead was different than mine.

I'm just curious: in what year did you play this game? I think that's significant, because at the time this game was written, there were a lot more technical limitations within interpreters than there are now. This game in particular seemed to max out the capabilities of Inform's .z8 format. General writing style and game design within IF seemed to also be evolving at the time. Other games considered to be among the best IF, Curses and Jigsaw, were much harsher in my opinion, and so I tended to be lenient regarding the points you had brought up.

You may or may not have noticed that the author started working on a Director's Cut, which is being written in a new format and so will greatly improve on the original game. Hopefully, he will take your input into consideration. I do think you're right though. If I was playing this game for the first time today, I might not have the patience for it that I did in my college years. I'm not trying to plug the Guided Tour I recently uploaded here, but I hope it will be of use to future players.
tobiasvl, February 18, 2021 - Reply
A little late to the party here, but I've only played the "director's cut" version, and it's really interesting to read this review in retrospect since pretty much ALL the puzzles mentioned here have been changed (and IMO to the better, judging by these descriptions). Some of the overarching criticism here still holds, but it seems like a major improvement.
chairbender, November 30, 2015 - Reply
I played it just a few days ago.

I really liked that guided tour, it helped me get through the game and see all the sights without spoiling things before I got to them, so thanks for that.

No matter how well you write a guide, though, I usually feel "taken out" of the experience - like it hurts the immersion and atmosphere, and like I'm missing out on the core experience of the game, whenever I consult outside help. A lot of the experience of playing some games comes from "being" the player and trying to figure out how to solve a puzzle given only the info available to the character in the current situation. My brain just can't reconcile suddenly learning something that isn't in my model of the game world and what my character sees there, and I switch to thinking about the character as someone more separate from me than before.

The rare exception to this is a well-written "hints" guide, but people rarely write those because such a document is much more difficult to get right than a typical walkthrough. For example, the old adventure games, Myst and Riven, have some excellent hint systems that make you feel like you're still figuring things out on or just getting a little nudge in the right direction when you're stuck, without making you feel bad, whether that's due to feeling stupid at having not realized the solution, or feeling like you no longer really inhabit the game world because your character knew something they didn't figure out on their own.
mjhayes, November 30, 2015 - Reply
I'm glad to know there's somebody out there who was able to put the Guided Tour to good use.

As an example of what you just described, I've recently moved on to playing through the Andromeda series, in order, and was impressed by the in-game hint system of Andromeda Apocalypse. Perhaps that's what you had in mind? If so, I think that should definitely make it into the Director's Cut.
IFonthebrain, July 25, 2016 - Reply
Welcome to the World of IF!!
I think you nailed it in the first few paragraphs, about your not having much experience with all-text IF, and the self-deprecating(about all these being small details and gripes).
But just about everything you mention is par for the course in IF text adventures. Some of the 'difficulty' is actually important to the story. However I do see how some of these thing can be frustrating, especially to a beginner. I hope you do get more experience with text IF, I think that you will see that there are certain idiosyncracies about it that you will learn to get around or even use to your advantage. It will become like second nature. Programming games like this is flat-out DIFFICULT. You have a limited vocabulary to deal with, as a programmer to begin with. The extent of possible human interactions, in the real world, is staggering, let alone interactions with objects. Imagine having to write a program taking account of all these. But knowing this is helpful in itself. You need to go into it knowing that you will only have to use a few simple words for each action, and knowing that the characters will have very limited numbers of possible responses. And most cans will need to be opened before you use the contents. (The game(=computer) probably understood the words 'fish oil' only as 'can of fish oil', in part because the words 'fish oil' was in the name of the object, and in part because the actual 'fish oil' was enclosed and not visible.)
You must realize that ALL of these things are part of the challenge.
Welcome to IF!
chairbender, September 15, 2016 (updated September 19, 2016) - Reply
(EDIT: Removed embarrassingly stupid thing I said because I got defensive).
IFonthebrain, September 19, 2016 - Reply
I think you took me way the wrong way. 'Dumb' was the furthest thing from my mind(I can tell that you are hardly that), and I did not say that your criticism was invalid. I played many many of the early IFs, they were mostly z-machine games like this one, very small vocabulary. What I was implying was that the more games you play like this one, the more you will appreciate the limitations of them. I am sorry that that was your experience of this game. Again, I never meant to make it sound like your comments were invalid. I was just welcoming you to the (at first) frustrating world of IF. I remember my Dad having similar experiences with Zork back in the 80's, he gave up and never tried again. You apparently stuck it out to the end, and I hope you will keep at it.
chairbender, September 19, 2016 - Reply
Thank you for clarifying, I shouldn't have assumed hostility. I appreciate the suggestion that these sorts of limitations are just a part of the experience and I think it will help me appreciate IF more, going forward. I definitely will keep at it!
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