Review: Nucleosys' "Scratches" (2006)

Matt Barton's picture

Nucleosys' Scratches, developed by Agustin Cordes and published by Got Game, is one of the scariest graphical adventure games I've played to date. However, it's suspense is much more subtle and relies more on extended tension than "boo!" moments (although there are a few). What I'd like to talk about in this review are the techniques the game relies on to generate so much anxiety despite its point-and-click interface: a brilliant story, masterful pacing, incredible ambiance, and uncanny artwork.

Perhaps Scratches' closest antecedent is ICOM Simulation's Uninvited (1986). Though some significant plot details differ, the basic setup is the same--you're stuck in a "haunted" house out in the middle of nowhere, with no way to escape since your car has died. Your only choice is to explore the house, learn the secret of its curse, and attempt to lift it without getting yourself killed (or worse) in the process. However, though the game shares much in common with Jonathan Boakes' Dark Fall and Lights Out! games, though I daresay Scratches is much darker (and definitely more fun than The Black Mirror). That said, there is some fun humor in the game--I found lots of "easter eggs," such as a bottle of booze that causes Michael to remark, "J.B.--my favorite. Why does it make me feel that I'm falling in darkness?" The reference here, of course, is to Jonathan Boakes' game Dark Fall. There are also several fun books in the study, such as "Worlds of Myst," which Michael describes as hopelessly dull. Another of the books is called "How to Grow Successful" by John Holmes. Little touches like these make the game more enjoyable and keep the game from becoming insufferably grim.

Story
The main character in Scratches is a horror novelist named Michael who's suffering from writer's block. Michael and his agent have the brilliant idea that shacking him up in a spooky old Victorian house for a few weeks might spark his inspiration. Naturally, the old house turns out to have a story of its own, and it doesn't take Michael long to get deeply invested in figuring it out. Eventually, a very dark story emerges as Michael begins to put together the various journal pages, newspaper articles, letters, and miscellaneous tidbits he finds throughout the mansion. At first, the game feels more like a traditional mystery game--it's going to be about finding secret passageways and keys. And then Michael goes to bed.

The Dhalmaar Mask: Spooky, but is it really being controlled by supernatural forces?The Dhalmaar Mask: Spooky, but is it really being controlled by supernatural forces?The game contains at least two eerie dream sequences, and it's not clear to the player at first whether Michael is dreaming or not. Furthermore, some of the things you see in the dream seem to be relevant to the waking world. I say "seem" here because, throughout the game, it's never clear whether Michael is, in fact, dealing with the supernatural, merely hallucinating, or simply the victim of an elaborate bit of chicanery. While this ambiguity may irritate some players, I found it refreshing. I detest it when adventure games try too hard to "tie up all the loose ends" at the very end of the game, leaving the player with nothing to think about.

While it'd be a cardinal sin to reveal too much of the story to folks who may not have enjoyed the game yet, suffice it to say that it's a nice mix of South African voodoo, Gothic romance, and loss. If you're the type who's opposed to any type of "spoilers," skip the rest of this paragraph. However, I'll try not to give anything important away. Anyway, the house formerly belonged to a civil engineer named James Blackwood, who had discovered a strange tribe of natives during a bridge-building expedition in South Africa. Blackwood "acquired" some of these natives' holy (or, unholy) artifacts and brought them back with him to display in his home--only later deciding that one of the items, a mask, is cursed. A few years later, his wife gets pregnant, but apparently the child dies at birth. James apparently begins to lose his grip on sanity, and tries to convince his good friend Dr. Milton to take the curse seriously and help him perform a horrible ritual to lift it. What happened next is entirely ambiguous. James is accused by his maid of killing and burying his wife Catherine in the front yard, and she has a hopelessly blurry and grainy photo to "prove" it. Before the case can come to trial, though, James dies--or, at least, is pronounced dead by his friend Dr. Milton (the police aren't allowed to investigate because of the family's powerful political pull in the town). Dr. Milton lives on in the house for some years before he begins succumbing to the same delirium that took James, and apparently dies soon after (again, there's the possibility that he may have faked his death). To put it simply, everything that Michael "learns" about the mystery only raises more questions. Were Dr. Milton and Catherine having an affair that Michael found out about? What really happened to Catherine's child, and who was its true father? Who murdered Catherine? Is James and/or Dr. Milton really dead?

However, the biggest and most pressing problem in Scratches is titular: What in the heck is making those awful scratching noises?

Pacing
One of the hardest things to get right in an adventure game is pacing. How can a developer manage to keep the player interested in the story while providing puzzles that must be solved to move forward? In many games, the puzzles take over, and by the time the player finally figures them out, he's lost track or is no longer interested in the story. At any rate, the dramatic tension is gone. At the other extreme, the story dominates to the point where the player is really just clicking through the game without much chance to interact. Of course, if the story is vacuous to begin with, nothing much will help!

The Inventory: Michael eventually require dozens of interesting objects--but what are they for?The Inventory: Michael eventually require dozens of interesting objects--but what are they for?Scratches manages to keep the player genuinely invested in the story, but the setup and a few of the puzzles almost manage to derail the tension. The most obvious problem is the "day" setup of the game: Michael must complete a certain number of arbitrary actions in a given sequence to trigger the next day. This is a common setup in many games (Gabriel Knight and several of the Nancy Drew Games, for instance), but it almost always results in players being forced to consult hint sites. After all, it's difficult to predict exactly what part of the story Michael is supposed to do next. Is it time to call Jerry, the agent, or Barbara, his secretary again? Has Michael done X and Y so that he can now use object Z? Although the game features a built-in hint system, the hints are scarce and not very useful anyway. To make matters worse, there's a bit of pixel hunting here, and players will have to be crucially observant to ever hope to complete the game without cheating. It's also frustrating occasionally to see a perfectly useful-looking tool lying about that you can't pick up, even though it's easy to imagine how that tool could be used to solve a particular problem.

I don't want to overstate the case, though. The game is far from impossible, and there were only a few spots in which I was forced to use a hint site. Usually, the problem was that I didn't realize I had triggered some parameter and that I could now use an object or access an area I couldn't before. For instance, during one sequence, Michael can actually climb into a furnace and down a tube. However, there are no signs that this feat is possible before or after that one time. It's little things that like this that could have benefited from a simple hint like having Michael say, "I'm not quite ready to do that yet," or some such.

Ambiance and Artwork
However, despite a few dips in pacing caused by a few rigid gameplay sequences, the aural ambiance and immaculate artwork more than make up for them. First off, the old Victorian mansion feels exactly like an old house like this should feel. I've been in such houses, and Nucleosys has captured that sort of dread mixed with morbid curiosity that such locales exude like poisoned perfume. The sound effects and animations (opening doors, footsteps, creaking) just couldn't be better done, period, and with a good surround system--you'll be shaking in your chair. The music, performed by "Cellar of Rats," is some of the best I've heard in any such game. A few of the tunes reach Tangerine Dream (the early years, mind you) levels of quality and affective power. Even if you just played these tracks by themselves in the dark, you'd be scared witless. Combined with an already ghoulish game, they're nearly overpowering. For hours and hours, I just knew that at any second some kind of monster was going to leap out at me, and I dreaded entering each room. This anxiety built slowly during the gameplay to an almost feverish pitch during the horrific end sequence.

Cut Scenes: They're rare in Scratches, but effective.Cut Scenes: They're rare in Scratches, but effective.The graphics and artwork are also top-notch. While not precisely photo-realistic, everything nevertheless looks sharp and as though it belongs. Everything in the house looks appropriately old and dusty. The interface is similar to Myst, but features the modern spin-panorama technique of games like Journey to the Center of the Earth. In short, you click where you want to go, and can then spin as though you were turning your head around. It's not quite as fluid or intuitive as a full-immersion system like Doom or Myst V, but it gets the job done. However, the spinning might induce nausea in some players; even I got a bit dizzy at times.

Concluding Thoughts
Make no mistake about it; if you want to see how far horror-themed adventure games have come since 1985, Scratches is the game to play. For a paltry $20, it's almost a crime not to give it a chance. If nothing else, you'll enjoy pondering the enigmatic ending (the net is full of speculations about it!) and putting together your own story of what "really happened." It's a great game for mystery lovers, particularly those drawn to the morbid and the Gothic.

Oh, and, of course, this is one game you'll want to play in the dark!