So I decided to take a week off from blogging (the bulk of my His Dark Materials post was written months ago) and in that time I suddenly developed a craving to play old school point and click adventure games. My thought process around this went something like “hey I should play old school point and click adventure games.”
And then I did.
This is a short, free horror adventure developed with the freeware Adventure Game Studio, which appears to have quite some oomph to it judging by the number of commercial releases that were made with it. The game boasts very evocative pixel graphics and full voice acting, some of which (in the case of the protagonist) is actually pretty decent.
Our befuddled hero is Harold Lang, a college professor who wakes up on a train with a headache and a mild case of amnesia. Upon exploring the train it quickly becomes apparent that something extremely weird is going on- all of the windows are shuttered, the train appears to be empty apart from two staff members and a very sickly looking dude in a black cloak, there are huge black bags in all of the unoccupied carriages, and the walls are decorated with unsettling black and white photos. But then, it appears that all is not quite right with Harold as well. Maybe he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be…..
If I had to sum up Sepulchre with a pithy phrase it would be “The Shining but on a train”. There’s even a bit where Lang talks to a bartender who might be a ghost and who seems to know more than he should. I swear the dude comes within a hair’s breadth of announcing that Lang has always been the caretaker. That’s not to say this is a bad thing, mind you. The game’s sense of atmosphere is impeccable despite the tiny handful of locations, and it’s a great exercise in using silence and visual cues over jump scares or loud noises (of which there are none) to evoke a sense of horror.
I’m an outsider to this kind of game, and I find it interesting that a lot of the classics that tend to be waved around as the apex of the genre are kind of terribly designed, often sending the player wandering around lost because they failed to click on a specific pixel that looked indistinguishable from every other pixel on-screen. Modern adventure games seem in large part to be designed with the intention of fixing as many of these flaws as possible. In Sepulchre’s case that means your cursor turns red when you hover over interactable things, and once you’ve finished with a particular room the door will lock mysteriously, which doesn’t make much sense but does ensure that you never end up wandering around locations pointlessly.
That said, there are still some annoying gameplay quirks. The train is a little bit too full of things that you can examine but which don’t seem to serve any useful purpose, like the fire extinguishers, and Lang keeps expressing a desire to see what’s in the creepy bags which made me assume I should keep examining them even though you never actually get to open one. But those are minor problems. For the most part Sepulchre is a fun, absorbing little horror story that left me really wanting something more substantial. Which we are now getting, thankfully.
For my next foray, I decided to play another game by the developers of Sepulchre. This one is also a free, short horror adventure made with Adventure Game Studio, adopting the “escape room” format that’s so beloved of Newgrounds.com.
You play as a guy who wakes up in a locked room where a woman in mime makeup says weird shit at you. A number of fairly sensible find-the-thing-and-use-it-on-the-thing puzzles follow. There isn’t much to say about this one. The puzzles are as good as those in Sepulchre but the plot is trying way too hard to be edgy and dark, man, dark. I don’t want to start psycho-analyzing the developers or anything, but the tone of the storytelling in this one is significantly less mature.
The control scheme also infuriated me. In what I gather is quite a classic adventure setup the game has you switching between examine and interact functions, which very rapidly gets tedious, especially since the game often seemed to get confused over which function I currently had active. I much prefer how Sepulchre (made by the same developers on the same engine, remember) just maps the two different functions to the left and right mouse buttons.
A free mobile game for Android and ios (don’t be scared off by the “in-app purchases” notice on the store page, it’s just an option to pre-order the second episode), The Silent Age stars Joe, a 1970s janitor with an amazing porn star mustache who gets into a spot of bother at the faceless defense company he works for. Specifically, an intruder dies of acute gunshot to the chest and Joe happens to witness it. The stranger claims to be a time traveller from 40 years in the future, come back to prevent the imminent destruction of humanity. Only he wasn’t supposed to get shot, obviously. So he hands Joe a portable time travel device and tells Joe to find him in the 70s and warn him to watch out for security guards this time.
I believe scientists refer to what follows as a “romp”, with Joe flicking back and forth between 1972 and a desolate post-apocalyptic future.
By far the most arresting aspect of The Silent Age, apart from the excellent puzzle design and gripping story, is its art direction. Bold pastel colours and soft lighting are reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge, ensuring that the oddly dystopian 70s that Joe inhabits is just as fascinating, if not more so, than the empty future he’s trying to prevent.
The second best part of The Silent Age is Joe himself. The game makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he’s, well, kind of stupid, but rarely for any type of fiction at all, that doesn’t make him any less likeable. His sardonic, deadpan jokes and observations are frequently hilarious and the game overall does a fantastic job of selling the idea of a totally unremarkable person (an average Joe, if you will) caught up in an extraordinary situation.
I was somewhat hesitant about how a point and clicker would handle on a small phone touch screen, but The Silent Age has clearly been built from the ground up around the format. The minimalist graphics and bold colour scheme mean that items and other objects you can interact with stand out clearly, and the game generally does a very good job of signposting things that are likely to be important or useful. Even better, every incorrect item usage has a unique bit of text explaining why it didn’t work in that particular situation, and if your logic was close but not quite all the way there Joe will often give a hint as to how to solve the puzzle. It’s an incredibly useful feature that I wish all adventure games would adopt.
I really can’t recommend this game enough. If you have a smartphone or tablet capable of running it, definitely give it a download.
I got this one off the Adventure Game Studio website. Intending to take a kind of world tour of the different formats and gameplay types on offer, I specifically went looking for one presented in a first-person “slideshow” view (think Myst).
The Marionette stars a hapless sculptor who gets a mysterious letter in the mail, only to be clonked over the head and transported to a spooky house. There, a mysterious dude named Guiseppe (do you see) informs him that he’s under the sway of a girl named Alice and she wants him to confront some sort of dark event from his past before she’ll let him leave. Our hero then travels through vaguely spooky and magical-realism infused versions of locations from both his and other people’s past and if all of this sounds like a less subtle riff on Silent Hill 2 that’s because it totally is. Still, the game tells a fairly engaging little horror story with some well written characters and multiple endings. It might have been quite atmospheric if not for the decision to have loud and extremely intrusive midi music playing over nearly every scene.
This is a pretty polished game for something that’s being given away for free; not quite on the level of Sepulchre but the graphics are a testament to how versatile the Adventure Game Studio is. I’ve dabbled in first person point and click games before (specifically Barrow Hill) and while I can understand the appeal of the format if you don’t have the skill or resources to do a fully 3D Gone Home style, it seems to inevitably lead to disorientation on the part of the player as the viewpoint abruptly flicks from place to place. To give an example of how bad a problem this is, Masked was also in first-person and I found myself getting confused even though the whole game takes place in a single square room. Marionette falls into this problem repeatedly by providing multiple different vantage points on the same location, which quickly becomes disoerienting and vaguely headache-inducing. The only saving grace is that the game is parceled up into small sections so it’s impossible to get lost.
A few of the puzzles also tripped me up, such as an early one based around the arms and legs of a mannequin that are supposed to resemble numbers but totally don’t, and there are a few too many doodads you can pick up that don’t do anything. I get the feeling the developer forgot he/she was making a point and click game and not a survival horror game, where it’s usually obvious which items are there to give story information or act as plot McGuffins and which ones are going to come into play for puzzles.
The control problems from Masked also read their ugly heads (along with the game getting confused over whether I wanted to examine or interact with something, so maybe it’s a problem with the engine), only made worse because there’s a lot of fiddling with inventory items and turning book pages and stuff, which involves switching to interact to pick up the book, opening the inventory, clicking the book, clicking the front cover to open it, switching to examine to read the first page, switching to interact to turn to the next page, switching to examine to you get the picture.
Despite these flaws I found The Marionette engaging enough to play through to the end. The puzzles tested me far more than those in most of the other games I played, and the story really is quite gripping.
So I played one more game, also an Adventure Game Studio creation, but an unknown hero stepped from the mists of the internet to write about it more extensively. Look forward to it!