The Ghost Train

by Paul T. Johnson

Horror
2003

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The Creature from the Black Lagoon vs. "Cabbage Man", January 26, 2018

Maybe it's because Halloween is coming up, or maybe it's because I just read Jimmy Maher's analysis of Transylvania at The Digital Antiquarian, but when I saw the announcement on IFDB that release 7 of this game was available, I decided to give it a try.

According to the author's own description of the game's origin, it was inspired in large part by a carnival ride of the same name. My own experience with such rides is very limited, but the ones I've encountered all seem to suffer from at least two common failings. First: In their quest to create a suitably "scary" setting, the makers heap image upon image until they have far overshot the mark, resulting in a panoply more bewildering than frightening. Second: The production quality is usually so low that suspension of disbelief is impossible for anyone but very small children. Unfortunately, Ghost Train seems to reflect both of these qualities, leaving the player with sense of having run into something that had the potential to be terrifying but didn't quite pull it off -- an encounter with Cabbage Man instead of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Although I give this work 2 stars, it does show some promising elements. The thing that impressed most me was the author's attempt, for at least the first half of the story, to keep the setting alive and vibrant through the use of transitory events and details happening "in the background". This isn't easy to do well, and it shows a dedication to polishing the player experience that is very much to the author's credit.

However, this level of polish is not consistent, and it is most noticeably absent in some key scenes(Spoiler - click to show): as an example, the encounter with "The Demon" that opens the final act. Here, the challenge is not pulling the player's attention to the background to give the illusion of a broader world, but focusing the player's attention on the foreground and (ostensibly, at least) forcing a plot-critical choice. It's quite odd that the player can dither about for as many turns as he or she likes while the antagonist waits patiently for a keyword.

Coding quality was, in general, good enough, though there is definitely room for improvement in those cases where the author feels compelled to clumsily spell out the correct grammar to achieve certain actions. The only thing that looked like a true bug to me ended up helping instead of hurting(Spoiler - click to show), when 'x parchments' was interpreted as referring to an object named parchment due to Inform's word length limit.

This game would benefit significantly from additional attention to proofreading and editing. It is rife with errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other aspects of grammar, and it suffers from an irritating tendency to repeat the same adjective, phrasing, or information multiple times in quick succession. In some cases this is probably not desired by the author (as when an object is mentioned both in the location's description text and via default room description rules(Spoiler - click to show), e.g. the clock in the abandoned station), but in other cases it appears to be the result of simply not re-reading what was written(Spoiler - click to show) (e.g., in the opening sequence: "On silver moonlit track it races clear" followed shortly by "The steam engine 'Bluebell,' races fast and clear").

As I've said elsewhere, horror is an exceptionally difficult genre within interactive fiction, and this piece is another example in support of that claim. I would expect most players would find it about as entertaining and diverting as the carnival ride that was its namesake -- amusing enough if you're in the right mood for it. Outside of those rare occasions, its main value is in challenging the aspiring author to ponder how one might improve on the original.

On that note, I point the reader to Michael Coyne's list of First-Timer Foibles as an evaluation guide for this work. I spotted #2, #4, #8, #10(Spoiler - click to show) (most bothersome in situations where multiple locations are used when one would suffice, such as the signal booth area), #12, and #13(Spoiler - click to show) (e.g. the spelled-out instructions for certain actions, the prompt encouragements like 'Tell me what to do.' that aren't set off as being separate from normal story text).


Comments on this review

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AdamThePhantump, December 20, 2017 - Reply
(Spoiler - click to show)The game insta kills the player character on the last step of the wreckage part. Seems the game is bugged unless someone here can tell me what I'm doing wrong.
OtisTDog, January 26, 2018 - Reply
It's been a very long time since I've played this, and I don't remember a whole lot of the details. I know that I definitely finished the game prior to writing the review, and I see that there are two solutions/walkthroughs available on the game page. Perhaps you can find some assistance there?

If not, a more specific question might help myself or others, and I would suggest that you take it to the intfiction.org forums instead of posting it as a comment here at IFDB. You're much more likely to get a fast response there.
turthalion, November 7, 2017 - Reply

Nice review. It's gratifying to see people still linking to First-Timer Foibles.


However, the address has changed, due to MTS removing their personal webpages section a few years ago.


The new (permanent?) home of First-Timer Foibles is at:

http://turthalion.blogspot.ca/2017/11/first-timer-foibles.html

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