Scratches

Review by Scout
March 2006

I love horror. Cheap "teens-lost-in-the-old-house" horror, snobby "turn-of-the-screw" Jamesian horror, lurid Lovecraftian odes to the ancient gods at the edges of time and space horror, modernist "the monster-is-us" horror, whatever medium, flavor or mode ... as long as it's dark and disturbing, bring it on. Shirley Jackson's gothic masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House, introduced me to horror's peculiar delights and gave me nightmares for a week. When the movie adaptation came out, I was trembling in the middle section of my local Midwestern theater. One scene near the end scared me so much I levitated straight out of my seat, spun 180 degrees and landed on the popcorn-littered floor, facing the back of the room. When I got my very first VCR, I combed the local rental shops for horror, ultimately exhausting their supplies of mainstream, foreign and slasher titles along with my live-in girlfriend's patience. My bookshelves still host old paperback titles by Koja, Straub, Ligotti, Campbell, Oates, and Tem. For years, I read, watched and basically ingested way too much horror. Back in the early nineties, I even published a few pale imitations of horror short stories in now-dead pulp rags. So when Scratches, the long-awaited horror-themed adventure game released by the fledgling Nucleosys, came up for review, I snatched it up. Spooky house, ancient secrets, brooding atmosphere, all wrapped around a puzzle core. And the developers had even built their own engine to run the thing. I had played the demo and, while I found it sparse, I thought it promised a well-done adventure game. So did Nucleosys deliver?

Well ... yes and no.

If you stop reading here, no foul, guys. I'm supposed to be telling you whether or not this game is worth your hard-earned $19.99. The thing is, I don't know, and I'm not going to pretend I do. I'll tell you my reactions to this game and you can make up your own mind, which you should and will do anyway because you are smart. I'm giving Scratches a Thumb Up rating, but just barely and with a lot of qualifications. It's been a while since I've gone back and forth so much on a game rating. In fact, it probably took me longer to decide on the rating than it did to play the thing, and it was only the ending that finally pushed it into the second-tier rankings.

Nucleosys is a two-man game developing team out of Argentina. Agustin Cordes handles the programming and design, and Alejandro Graziana does the art direction. They brought in another indie shop, a sound studio called Cellar of Rats, to perform the audio chores. In developing Scratches, Nucleosys did a lot of things right, just not enough of them, and not soon enough or solidly enough, to earn my unqualified validation. Was I ever scared? No. Did I experience an extended shiver of fear? Not really. Sure, once or twice they "stung" me, using the old standby of creepy music interrupted by a sound spike and an unexpected visual to startle me, but anyone with half a brain can do that. That does not a horror moment make, but at least they had to the good sense to use the "sting" sparingly. Otherwise, I was never really in the game, never really convinced. I did find myself getting more enthusiastic at the very end, and the game does deliver some satisfaction if you're an adventure game fan. I'll get back to my reaction and explain it in more detail, but first some information about Scratches.

The story premise is tried and tired, yet apparently Nucleosys still considers it serviceable enough to be true. It's 1976, and Michael Arthate (my spell checker spit this back as "art hate," for what that's worth ...), a newly successful horror writer, is struggling to finish his follow-up novel. He has commissioned a friend and real estate broker to scout out and purchase an authentic Victorian house so that he might complete the novel in solitude and, I guess, a suitably spooky setting.

The game starts as you, playing as Michael, arrive with a single suitcase, your manual typewriter and a key to the front door. There are no cell phones and no laptops, which is a good thing because the player quickly discovers that there is no electricity either. In fact, there is no running water or food or heat or much of anything in the way of amenities other than a made bed, a pile of logs in the downstairs fireplace and a big ticking grandfather's clock in the entry hall.

I fiddled a bit with the interface, as it requires a few extra steps to enter and exit inventory. You right-click to get into inventory, left-click on your item, right-click to return to the game and left-click to use the item. The inventory item becomes your cursor, and it glows when you mouse over a hotspot. Once I got the sequence down, things went smoothly, though I never fully adjusted. I was constantly reversing the sequence, dropping items back into the inventory or leaving the inventory screen before I was ready.

You move through the house on rails, using a pointing finger cursor to advance and turn. The hand becomes a magnifying glass when you find an area where you can close in to investigate. By sliding the mouse around, you can look up and down and turn in a 360-degree circle from the major node.

The setup screen gives you a nice set of choices. There is a slide show option I didn't use, a gamma adjustment with three settings (I turned it up a notch to get a bit of contrast), a hint system I didn't use and a surround music option I turned on early in the game. Unfortunately, I only have a couple of middling tweeters on my desk and a woofer on the floor, so no doubt I missed some yummy 5.1 effects. You can also adjust camera and text speed.

Gameplay consists of exploring the house, grounds, and outbuildings and occasionally making a trip to the front gate where your car is parked. Some rooms and buildings are locked, of course. What horror adventure game worth its salt would leave all of the keys hanging on a line of hooks in the mudroom? During your exploration, you will run into a few adventure forum in-jokes that will only make sense if you've read the adventure game sites for at least a few months. I personally found them stale and not very witty compared to the brilliant self-mockery of, say, the recently released freeware title Jessica Plunkenstein. I was thankful there were few such groan-eliciting moments.

The puzzles are logical, straightforward and realistic. I used a walkthrough a couple of times near the end, not because I was stuck but because, though I knew what needed to be done or acquired, I couldn't bear yet another trudge through the rooms, another door opening-and-closing sound effect, another node-hopping moment in that damned house. Both times I "cheated," I was proven right, so I didn't feel like I spoiled any gameplay.

And this is exactly where the game broke down for me.

For most of the game, exploration and discovery were as much a chore as a delight. Several times, I had to force myself to sit and play until I had advanced my character. There were a few times when I quit the game not because I was stuck or too shaken to continue but because of the tedious repetition, the endless looking in drawers, clicking on paintings, basically moving stuff around on the screen because I could. At one point early in the evolution of the adventure game genre, this activity was part of the fun, this newfound fascination with manipulating a well-constructed virtual world, and I enjoyed it as much as the next person. But I need more now, or maybe less—I don't know. Whatever, I'm done with the drawers and doors, okay? For this reviewer, all of this endless wandering, broken up by the occasional phone call, made for excruciating pacing well into the last third of the game.

You advance the game in time segments much like in the Gabriel Knight games, and you can measure your progress by checking the time on the very, very loud grandfather's clock in the entry hall. The game unfolds over a three-day span, three days in which you, as Michael, find yourself increasingly cut off from the outside world, without lights, without food (and apparently without sanitary facilities) and finally without a simple means of escape. Sure, it's a game, and your part of the bargain is to suspend belief as quickly as possible, but a lot of my irritation came from the increasingly dire situation our put-upon hero finds himself in because ... well, because he's an idiot. It's an old trope in horror that the protagonist finds himself in deep doo-doo because of a spate of especially bad decision-making, better known as the "don't go in the basement" plot, but Nucleosys really beat on this device, substituting escalating coincidence for clever plotting and an incompetent protagonist for a real, living, breathing character.

And yet, personal peeves aside, the developers did a lot of things right, too, and this is undeniably an impressive first effort. They assessed their situation, accepted their limits and worked within them. They kept it simple, first-person, leaving out the stiff puppets. The engine, an Open GL homebrew cooked up for this game, is an elegant and engaging solution, though I did experience a few lockups. But hey, so what?

The rooms are beautifully rendered in lush, loving detail, though some of the first- and second-floor walls are covered with really horrid wallpaper, eyeball-assaulting, nightmarish wallpaper from hell. A patina of gray dust seems to lay over everything. The curtains look as if they would crumble if touched, the floors creak if trod upon, the air reek of decay and disuse if actually breathed.

Scratches immediately reminded me of Dark Fall, another solid first effort, and will no doubt be compared to it endlessly. Dark Fall's developer, Jonathan Boakes, even starred as one of the main voice talents, so the influences and connections are obviously there. The voice work was good, though the voice of Michael seemed wrong somehow. Whether this was the direction or the writing is hard to say. Michael was stilted and off-putting, but then so was much of the dialogue and text. Scratches was released in Europe before Got Game picked it up for U.S. distribution, and maybe the tone came from the localization, which, impeccable as it is, seems to ring false somehow and feels overly staged.

And, by the way, why, why, why use computer script font for handwritten letters in adventure games? If you're serving up a virtual library like Bethesda does in Morrowind or Daggerfall, I can see the point, but when there are only a handful of letters in a game, important, plot-advancing letters, why can't the artist be bothered to have a real person write them out? (If they did and this is a real person replicating each letter in machine-like perfection, Scratches will have finally and truly frightened me.) The devil in these types of games is in the details, and a few more personal, quirky touches would have made a big difference.

Also, the dozens of clickable paintings scattered throughout the house were a bit generic, as if someone simply scanned them from an Introduction to European Art History textbook. This tendency toward the generic was also evident in the textures and modeling, though I soon overlooked this element. What I'm getting at here is that form can be fudged and abbreviated endlessly, but content needs personality and specificity or it soon grows stale.

Only halfway through the last day did I finally feel drawn into the game and begin to care enough to start to fit together the pieces I had so painstakingly collected over the first two and a half days. I was just beginning to engage with this beast when it was over and I was sitting in front of my screen, watching the credits roll by. I had to go back and play from my last save three more times before I could see the pattern and receive my payoff. After unlocking all those doors, after countless ascents and descents of those accursed stairs, after scouring, combing, and basically tearing the house and grounds apart to get at its ever-elusive secret, it blurred by so quickly that I blinked and missed it.

Had some of the vitality of the last few hours been introduced during the first two-thirds of the game, had I been rewarded earlier and more often, had the ending been played out with a better sense of rhythm and pacing, I wouldn't have hesitated to rank this game closer to the top. As it stands, Scratches is more like several courses of bread and water topped off with an immense dessert than a satisfying meal. Maybe Nucleosys was afraid to give too much away too fast, maybe they were too clever for their own good, or maybe the story changed so much over the years that it slipped away from them, but something is missing, that elusive x factor, that "click" you get at the end that tells you that you were in good hands all along.

So I'll give it a Thumb Up with an asterisk because, in the end, for all the impressive production values and solid puzzles, the game left me cold. Perhaps I've seen too many horror movies, read too many horror novels, perhaps the mind-blowing excellence and dread-inducing impact of older titles like Amber, Shivers, Blackstone Chronicles and, to a lesser degree, Sanitarium have set the bar too high. Games like these affected me from the very beginning, shook me, filled me with unease every time I sat down to play them. Scratches, for all its detail and rigor and grand finale fireworks, doesn't even begin to crowd their ranks. Despite the obvious talent at work here, I felt the devs never really hit their stride. They have an okay game, maybe a good one if you're not me, but they don't have a classic, folks, they don't have one for the books.

This two-man team has talent to burn, though, and if they can bring the writing and direction up to the level of the art, programming and design and put it all together, I'm thinking they can make some waves. They've got the chops and a good distributor, and god knows the adventure game field is not exactly bristling with towering competition lately. With an original concept and less cliché-mongering, we could be bearing witness to a rising star. For now, though, it flickers with dim promise on the horizon, catching our eye but not holding us long enough to do much more than raise a finger and point. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Nucleosys
Publisher: Got Game
Release Date: March 2, 2005

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

800 MHz CPU (1.6 GHz recommended)
128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)
16 MB OpenGL-compatible video card (32 MB recommended)
24x CD-ROM drive
Sound card (5.1 surround sound card recommended)
450 MB free hard disk space

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