Doesn’t Quite Scratch the Itch

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In my continuing quest to find recent adventure games that are actually good – during which I found Barrow Hill lacking but was quite taken with Secret Files: Tunguska – one name kept popping up as a contender for king of the horror-themed first-person Myst-alikes: that was Scratches, developed by Argentine studio Nucleosys (who actually claimed it was the first adventure game ever developed in Argentina).

The premise is simple: it’s 1976, and Michael Arthate is a horror writer whose latest novel, Vanishing Town – the details of which seem to be a sly reference to the Dark Fall series of horror-themed first-person adventures – is a smash hit. Struck by writer’s block, he’s in search of a little seclusion; luckily, his good friend Jerry Carter is an estate agent, who’s able to acquire for him the property of his dreams – Blackwood Manor, a creaky old Victorian house deep in the woods in Northumberland. You control Arthate as he pokes about the house discovering the inevitably grotesque family history, whilst suffering in the night from strange dreams surrounding a strange collection of African artifacts from James Blackwood’s personal collection, and from being woken up by a strange scratching sound from the basement…

Where Scratches excels, at least for the first two days of Arthate’s stay in Blackwood Manor, is in establishing and maintaining an intensely creepy atmosphere. The graphics, whilst not really up to 2006 standards, are a big step up from Barrow Hill. The use of lighting is especially effective, as is the level of attention paid to the environment – the mansion contains everything you would logically expect to find in it, for example, and likewise outlying areas such as the garage, conservatory and chapel show the same level of thought. You don’t get the thing you get in some games where you think “hold on, if people were meant to live here, where did they eat/sleep/keep their food/go to the toilet?” Good use is made of the weather, too – a storm confines you to the house on the second day, making the place even darker than it usually is and regularly illuminates rooms with bright flashes of lightning.

Fatally, the limitations of the graphics are most apparent in the end sequence, when the final reveal comes leaping out of the darkness gnashing at your face. I’m sorry to say that the poor soul you are faced with looks so goofy that he completely shatters the immersion that the game had previously strived to achieve and maintain. The ending, in general, is so anticlimactic that all my efforts to reach that point felt kind of wasted – it’s really brief, and consists of Arthate dropping everything and just running away, which might be a sensible reaction to the horrors he’s discovered but isn’t really a satisfying one.

The use of sound is far more consistently excellent over the course of the game. The gentle ticking of the grandfather clock in the main hallway (which, incidentally, acts as a little progress meter – time only advances when you solve puzzles, so a glance at the clock gives you some idea of how far you are through the day) is a sedate, comforting noise to greet you when you first enter the house, but it soon gives way to creaking doors, your own echoing footsteps, pensive silences, and of course the scratching noises from down below. Enhancing the mood is the superb soundtrack by an individual known only as Cellar of Rats, who specialises in writing music for adventure games. For the first two days you’re in the house there’s this ever-increasing sense of isolation and dread, and the sound and music do more than their share in making that happen. My only complaint, as far as sound goes, is in the voice acting, which is a little flat, but that’s reaching a little, especially since you only hear the voice acting when Arthate is on the phone to someone – on the whole, Scratches is a fantastic lesson in the sonic presentation of a horror game.

The gameplay is very slightly more glossily than that of Barrow Hill, although it does stumble into a few of the same traps – rather than clicking on the edge of the screen to turn around and have your character abruptly snap to a new facing, the game engine is sophisticated enough to allow you to pan about in a full circle, as well as looking up and down at things. That said, this is still recognisably a slideshow game – you can’t move forwards and backwards at will, so you’re still on rails there, and when you do advance or retreat the game snaps to a new slide rather than animating your progress (except for when you open doors, though I suspect that’s to hide loading times). There is, in fact, an option to switch the game into “slideshow mode” which turns off the 360 degree panning in favour of click-to-turn, which can sometimes be helpful if you want to make absolutely sure you’re seeing everything you are supposed to see. Alas, however, there’s no hotspot-highlighting function this time around, and I did have to regularly resort to walkthroughs to discover which tiny little pixel I had missed clicking on. Most unforgivably, sometimes you will get different results from clicking on different parts of the same object in the game, whereas there’s no compelling visual clue to suggest why that would be so.

This is a shame, because for much of the game the puzzles are quite logical. Items in your inventory are pretty consistently used for precisely the purposes they were intended for – no sticking things to cats this time! One of the nice things about the game is the way you are encouraged to regularly keep in touch with Jerry (and Barbara, Arthate’s secretary), and that your conversations with him generally point the way towards what you’re meant to do next. The by and large fair and reasonable construction of the puzzles is let down at three points, however.

First off, you can’t progress during the second day at all unless you notice a safe hidden behind a painting, and the only way to find that is click on a small hotspot concealed on the painting. Considering how many paintings there are in the house, I think I can be forgiven for giving up on examining them closely after every single painting on in the game turned out to be crudely inserted public domain images, especially since the hotspot in question didn’t really seem to correspond to anything unusual or out of place about the painting.

Secondly, there’s a bit where you have to dig up someone’s grave – and you have to click on the precise point where the grave is in order to do it. You can get a photo of the scene of the crime which shows the approximate location – but it’s only approximate, you can’t actually get into a position where you are looking at the area from the same angle as the photographer so it’s of limited help, and worst of all you can’t even take the photo with you to look at when you’re choosing where to dig.

Thirdly, there’s a puzzle which requires you to guess the name of James Blackwood’s poor lost son, which requires something of a logical leap – there’s no combination of clues which directly and unambiguously tells you what the name is. This might be alright if you have a reasonable knowledge of English names, but if you don’t you’re kind of stuck.

Two out of those three puzzles occur on the third and final day of the adventure, which by and large is the most problematic one, both in terms of gameplay and atmosphere. It starts off great, with the nightly dream sequence and your nocturnal meanderings in search of the source of the scratches providing the two best scares of the game, but when morning comes around the structure of the game sort of goes to shit.

First off, by far the majority of the puzzles you have to solve are crammed into the third day – and some of them are exceptionally fiddly multi-stage puzzles. Whilst, on the one hand, this does create the impression that Arthate has squared his jaw and decided to tackle the matters facing him at Blackwood Manor in a decisive fashion, it also means that the third day drags in comparison to the others – and I’m not sure Arthate manning up and getting to grips with the situation is necessarily the impression the designers really wanted to create, since his determination and resolve undermine the horror atmosphere.

Another blunder is in the placement of the storm that confines Michael to the house – it would have been much more interesting to have Michael free to explore the grounds for the first couple of days before being trapped the next day, providing an ever-increasing sense of claustrophobic isolation. As it is, the dawn of the third day and the consequent slackening of the rain means that you seem to have more freedom and agency then than you did earlier, which would be fine for most genres but in a horror game is, again, fatal to the atmosphere. Granted, it would have required some major reworking of the puzzles to allow for exploration of the outside areas on the second day rather than the third – certain reveals that happen there would need to be moved elsewhere – but the thing about horror games is that they don’t work unless plot structure, gameplay and presentation are all subject to the needs of establishing and maintaining an atmosphere of dread.

Finally, because most of the puzzles are relegated to the third day, most of the frustrating pixel-hunting happens then as well. There’s one bit where in order to find the third support for a gas stove you have to click on the correct grey brick in a large pile of identical grey bricks, which are all clickable – but all of them except the one you have to click to find the item just yield “sorry, these are just grey bricks” messages. Damn it all.

The plot also made me reach for my Minority Warrior sword. There are two parallel mysteries that unfold over the course of the game, which might or might not have anything do to with each other, but are both offensive in different ways. In one plotline the main horror is the deformed child of the Blackwood family, who in predictably gothic style got bricked up somewhere in the house. I could almost buy that plot if the Blackwoods’ story took place in the 19th Century, or perhaps even the early 20th Century, but it took place in the 1960s, when thalidomide was making the rounds and deformed children were generally considered to be worthy of help rather than being shut away and forgotten about. Even so, the fact that the child does appear to be insane and murderous (as such things tend to be in gothic novels) is a rather tedious slur against people with congenital abnormalities – haven’t we got better things to scare ourselves with than “ooh, that kid is really ugly”?

The other strand involves James Blackwood’s former career as a civil engineer in South Africa, where he had trouble with the “natives”. There were apparently a crazy tribe that all the other tribes were scared of, and who ran around killing people with their bare hands. Blackwood apparently stole a sacred mask from them which turned out to contain their evil god. I’m sorry, but having sinister evil emerge from the darkest depths of the darkest cultures of the darkest-skinned people of the Dark Continent is just incredibly racist in this day and age. I know I made excuses when Ramsey Campbell did it in The Claw, but I do genuinely feel that in that case Campbell had made it clear that the dark forces of the claw were just as alien and out-of-place in Nigeria as they were in England – it was about something that didn’t fit naturally into either place’s culture and was inimical to both. Whereas Scratches seems to suggest that the crazy murder tribe had been worked into the tribal structure of South Africa and ascribed their own place in the order of things, so it really can’t make the claim that it’s not essentially having a nasty stab at the tribal cultures of South Africa with this strand.

The cultural insensitivity is heightened by the diaries of James Blackwood, which you discover and read through early on in the game, since his discussion of his time in South Africa stinks of smug, superior colonialism – which is another thing which makes him seem like a throwback to the early 20th Century, along with the photographs you can find of him and his wife in turn of the century garb and the turn of the century furniture, telephone, radio and gramophone player you encounter during the game. In fact, there’s nothing in the house that would place its most recent occupancy as being at any point after the 1920s, except a Stephen King novel you can find on one of the shelves. It’s almost as though Nucleosys intended setting the game in an earlier time period, or perhaps failed in their research.

All things considered, I can’t really recommend Scratches. There was apparently a Director’s Cut released which included a spruced-up version of the original game, plus The Last Visit, a little coda set in the modern day, but browsing walkthroughs and guides I can’t see enough of an improvement to make it worth me recommending. (The horrendous African plotline is still present, for one thing). Nucleosys did a fantastic job setting up a scary atmosphere, but they blew it in the second half of the game, and their plotline resembles one of Kipling’s more jingoistic stories.

Meanwhile, Just Adventure gave Scratches an A grade, and gave it four out of five stars, which would put it more or less on a par with Barrow Hill in their estimate – which puts it ahead of all those classic games I bitched about them rating lower than Barrow Hill in my review. Further proof, as though I hadn’t already come up with enough, that you just can’t trust adventure game fans to review adventure games.

4 thoughts on “Doesn’t Quite Scratch the Itch

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