Review: Necronomicon

Necronomicon (official web site); Wanadoo Edition (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Quite good
Very good
Simple but okay
Writing and dialogue
Very good
Quite good
Not too hard
Forgiveness rating
You can die, but you always get some warning; fatal mistakes are immediately fatal.

I was in the mood to play a Lovecraftian game. Partly because I haven't played any really good supernatural horror in a long time. (Fatal Frame on the PS2 was a nice idea, but by day three the ghosts were whupping my ass, and I couldn't get to the end.) Partly because I just read Michal Oracz's essay De Profundis. (Brilliant stuff -- go find a copy if you have any interest whatsoever in the non-computer sort of role-playing game.) Partly because, hey, what's cooler than Cthulhu?

Necronomicon sort of satisfied me.

One morning, William Stanton receives a brief visit from a nervous friend, Edgar Wycherley, who hands over a mysterious warning and a mysterious geometric stone fetish. Soon thereafter, a Doctor Egleton appears, asking after Wycherley's mental health. All very curious (and quite standard for a horror story). So off you go, in an investigation that begins with Wycherley and ends... elsewhere.

Necronomicon does a lot right. It has a very keen sense of setting and genre -- the 1920's New England towns of Lovecraft's own work. From your own small but well-kept house, to the upper-class mansions and libraries, to the run-down shanties and bungalows near the docks, I felt a consistent and unforced sense of history. A time within living memory; but definitely not my time. These are houses built before the advent of fiberglass insulation and aluminum siding. It's a small thing when I say it, but I don't recall seeing it that often -- solid background research, convincing history.

And the content of the game -- the actions you undertake -- are spot on. You do research. You go into backwater Rhode Island towns and ask questions of laconic and unfriendly townsfolk. You poke through newspaper files and library shelves. You explore abandoned rooms. This is not an action-movie genre, and never mind the dozens of Silent Hill clones with their shotgun-toting heroes mulching zombie hordes. That came later. Lovecraft came first -- quiet men in quiet rooms, piecing together the scraps that hint of darknesses larger than worlds.

Much stuff in this game works, and then there's a lot that doesn't. I really want to know what was going on with the pacing. Long stretch of research -- exploring -- strange rooms full of who-knows-what -- working with the who-knows-what, discovering details, finally managing to perform a puissant ritual, terrifyingly successful --

Then you're back at home, chatting with the good Doctor. Oh, then you go out and kill a guy. Then you go home and chat some more. Then the game continues.

It's so jarring that the designers must have had something in mind. Perhaps a chapter transition, as in a book, with a pause and a change of pace. Except to make that work, they would have needed a chapter heading. A static screen saying "Part 2" would have done it.

And that killing -- an steep emotional peak if you consider the story per se, but entirely undistinguished in the structure of the game -- it's a cut scene between two other cut scenes. (Separated by a single "go there" interaction.) Three cut scenes in a row is already a mistake, and to put such a strong story element in one? I can't see how it was supposed to work.

Perhaps the designers had something else in a mind -- a more interactive sequence, more engaging to the player, drawing him into the action -- and they couldn't pull it off. Either they ran out of time, or they couldn't make the game engine do the job, or some editor intervened; and the intended scene never got implemented.

I'm just theorizing. Who knows what actually happened. I wish it had worked out better, though.

That's just one sequence in the story, anyway. Most of the game is well-paced -- the research, as I said; the strange discoveries, more research, and the even stranger odyssey of the endgame. You pass through a nice gradation of alienness and isolation, starting outside your front door and ending... as I said, elsewhere. And (with the exception of the jarring parts I've described) the pacing isn't forced. A cut-scene or swathe of dialogue doesn't end a "chapter"; instead, it ends and leaves you free to wander. You will usually have been given a hint about a new location (or old), or a new character to talk to (or return to). In fact, the game may have a bit of branching structure, or choice about which bits to explore in which order. I'm not sure of that. And honestly it doesn't matter. It feels like you're choosing your path, not being dragged along a linear plotline, and -- though it may offend a game-player's soul to hear this -- the illusion is just as good as the fact. If it's done well.

The environments feel expansive. Not just in physical size, but in richness, and even in mobility. You can wander around quite freely, and you always find enough detail to get a sense of reality -- a sense that these places exist, and are not just nodes containing game elements. In the town, you can knock on dozens of doors. Most are not answered (what Lovecraftian town is friendly to inquisitive strangers?) but a few give curt or fearful replies, here or there. And there are a few people standing or sitting around in corners, alleys, front porches. Some might talk to you. And if you come back later in the story (as you will), different people are standing around. In different places. A tiny touch, not at all critical to gameplay; but you can tell the designers cared enough to make it seem real.

Necronomicon uses the anamorphic-panning engine familiar from many Dreamcatcher games of its era. (Dracula Resurrection, The Messenger -- it seems to be associated with Wanadoo / France Telecom, for what that's worth.) It's used pretty well in this case. Some nice touches of interface, some puzzles that go a little beyond the simple use-tool-on-scenery idiom. You wander in the dark, at one point -- and it is dark, but not pitch-black -- finding light, losing it, finding it again. The darkness becomes an interesting and detailed part of your environment; not a mere barrier.

On the other hand, in that same sequence, you can stumble into a bottomless pit and die. This game can kill you. "Oh," you say, "it's horror, of course you can die." But truly I don't see the need for it. There are only a few danger-points, and they're not at particularly dramatic moments in the storyline. Bother one character too much, and he clobbers you. Walk around in the dark room, and you fall into a bottomless pit. In the climax of the endgame, sure, horrible fates await if you fail, but earlier in the story? Those scenes would have worked just as well without the death (and restore, and retry). Feh.

The research was another slightly dull point. Some of it I liked: poking through old newspaper files is good; wandering around exploring is always good. Poking through a library's occult section... should have been good, but I wasn't convinced. The idea was absolutely correct -- you can't delve into ancient mysteries without cracking a few books. But the implementation wound up walking this way: Look at a shelf, and drag your cursor along it, scanning titles. If you see one that looks relevant, click on it. You get a bit of text -- just a paragraph, usually -- with a footnote that leads to another book. If you remember seeing that book before, go there. Otherwise, go back to scanning the shelves.

Is this research? Yes! (Presuming a occult library with no handy card catalog, nor indexes in the books. The Dewey Decimal system isn't to be thought.) It gets across the experience of searching bookshelves because it is searching bookshelves. You can't ask for more realism than that. But... it's pixel-hunting at its worst. It's boring and tedious. I like poking around in library shelves, and this was exactly like that, except no fun. What's wrong?

Lack of material, I think. You're not looking through books, but rather through blank book-shaped objects, mostly untitled, nearly all unopenable. The game tries to pick out the few interesting books as being the few you notice, the ones relevant to your search, but I don't think the trick works. You can't pull them off the shelves; you can't flip through an idle chapter or go off on a tangent. They don't smell like books. The fun's just not there.

No, no, I don't see how to do better. It would be a hopeless task to write a library full of background material, or even to import it from public-domain sources. (Necronomicon's library is full of recognizable names and historic references -- they got that much right -- and their period is long out of copyright.) Even if you did manage to include true bookloads of information, players would go mad trying to read through it. But this design -- a bare paragraph or two in a handful of books -- is, though playable, just as unsatisfying. In between must be a workable compromise. I hope someone finds it.

Between death and boredom, I've harped on the worst aspects of Necronomicon's puzzles, and I didn't mean to do that. Most of them I quite liked. The darkness, as I said, was a nice piece of complex environment work. The alchemical and symbological puzzles don't go much beyond simple pattern-matching, but you have to draw from a variety of sources; and the sources have a ring of accuracy (at least historical accuracy!) in their mystical ranting. The devisements and mechanisms get steadily more alien and incomprehensible, as they should, as the game goes on.

And there's a maze, which -- I will once again horrify the game afficianados -- is a pretty darn cool maze. It's not a maze with a gimmick. No logical keys, no changing colors. No moving walls or hidden clues. Just an area of confusing passages. I loved it, and you know why? The designers thought of something I'd never seen before. This maze -- and I can't spoil it in words, because the words won't tell you what it's like -- is a space with no straight lines. Ancient inhuman intelligences, right? Architects of alien soul and mind? Necronomicon pulls it off; it's genuinely different from any maze you've ever tried to maneuver through before. That's all it takes, you know. A new angle on an old idea.

Okay, enough soliloquizing. The puzzles, I liked them -- you get the idea. The other endgame puzzles, after the maze, were even niftier. (And weren't mazes.)

I only looked at a walkthrough twice: once for a doorway that I'd just missed, and once for a cryptogram that I never got around to solving. (I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I think it was for the cryptogram; the walkthrough just provided a clue I didn't have, and I'm assuming that the clue was in the cryptogram. Hey, walkthrough writers, please explain the signposts along the trail. Don't just write down the answers. Even a cheater can enjoy a game if he understands what he missed!)

Conclusion: Necronomicon is worth a look. It's not a flashy game, but it's got a lot of solid design and some clever ideas, down beneath the familiar adventure trappings. It's convincing, if not completely engrossing, and the stumbles in the storyline are more than overcome by the deft touches.

Three weeks later, I added this postscript to my review:

My interest having been piqued by the game (and other things), I picked up a large Lovecraft story collection a few weeks ago and proceeded to read many of these stories for the first time.

I was somewhat surprised to find that nearly all of Necronomicon's story and background are taken directly from "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". The names are all changed, but everything else is the same, down to the details of rooms described and the phrasing of letters.

Having now read the story, my opinion of the game is somewhat degraded. The game has all the same background information, but does a much weaker job of tying it together into a conclusion -- all the strange hints wind up being a secondary tangent to the storyline. They mostly fit together, but they don't do anywhere much. In the original story, those same hints all come together to propel the storyline to its climax.

It seems like the game's designers were trying to "import" a sense of consistency and clarity for their story. But since they used an original ending, the effort rather backfired. (The ending of the game is entirely different from the ending of the story. You can see it as a sort of alternate history, but I'm not sure it's consistent with the earlier part of the story.)

Oh well.

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