The allure of the 'old dark house' is unlikely to wane as a cultural cornerstone of intrigue and atmosphere, even if its iconic power holds more promise than is usually fulfilled once we have delved into its secrets, confronted its ghosts and thrown open its curtains to reveal the somewhat less intimidating 'old house'. Nevertheless, the allure remains, and so as the box blurb for Scratches intones "Something sinister waits in the old Blackwood house…", one can be forgiven for wanting to expectantly tread the creaky boards of what is, as it turns out, just another old house.
This time the house has been bought by horror writer Michael Arthate (you), seeking solitude in which to write the follow-up to his hit debut novel. Upon arrival Michael is fascinated by the breadcrumb trail towards mystery that is revealed by the previous owners' diaries, newspaper cuttings, letters and so on (none of which the National Trust seem to have bothered clearing up in the 6 year interim between occupants). Over the course of a weekend—time passes when specific points of progress have been made—players must point and click their way through the house and its grounds to unravel the truth behind Blackwood's occult-tinged history of murder, suicide and disappearance.
First things first: Scratches requires an accommodating player. One must buy in to the basic premise as outlined above, because it will only get more hackneyed as the game unfurls, and the skill and invention with which it does so is strictly on ration. One should probably also play it in the dark to add some player-assisted atmosphere to the elementary 'find the hotspot' mindlessness of exploration, which never wholly repudiates Scratches's outward appearance of a dreary, laborious slog. And most importantly of all, one must dismiss any illusions that this game will bring anything new to the adventure genre.
Yet Scratches does at least present itself amiably. The 360° look-around camera, though unwieldily at the mercy of the mouse's cursor, greatly enhances the sense of place beyond what can be achieved with still-screens alone. The surroundings themselves are consistently well drawn and detailed, and the crucial soundtrack accompaniment excels, with its expectant and unpredictable piano tinklings becoming ever more prominent as the long weekend crescendos.
Less easy to digest is the all-pervasive sense of indulgent fan fiction and a script full of inadequacies; from calamitous approximations of telephone chatter to trite diary entries (so overwrought and unrealistic they hint towards a hammy tone their writer was obviously far too Poe-faced and Lovecraftian to play with) to lazy descriptions, albeit in character with our sickeningly colorless guide Arthate—though if a novelist were to point out some coffee table literature, I'd hope for a little more insight than: "Just a bunch of uninteresting books".
Equally grating is the atrocious and impossibly laboured voice acting, which crosses the Atlantic more times per sentence than most people do in a lifetime. Although at least their conduit is a worthy feature; namely the telephone from which Arthate can chat to his estate agent, PA or follow up any numbers he finds on his investigation. Nicely, rather than becoming an embarrassing help resource for lost or inadequate adventurers, the phone is actually a key tool for establishing the mood and progressing the narrative. It also doubles as a handy "What's going on?" reminder after having spent time away from the game (the kind which many more story-based games ought to consider).
Not that the game is free from frustration by any means; the passing of time can make puzzles and progress criteria infuriatingly sequential as well as obtuse. So when hot spots and key items are often wickedly camouflaged within scenery and you're charged with investigating the right interactive object at the exact right time with all the right inventory items in order to take a step forward, there's no reason to feel ashamed of that FAQ. And though such a lifeline would most definitely detract from the game if kept too close to hand, Scratches, to its credit, would still hold up; the pleasantly paced narrative certainly capable of enticing the player through this short story without actively relying upon brick wall moments and their dramatic, "Eureka!" solutions. Finding the right door for the right key and vice versa is never anything but a tedious way to hold up a cosy little tale like this, but broad genre criticisms seem somewhat futile when dealing with a game that embraces them so wholeheartedly and reverently.
It's shame that the ending is so inadvisably abrupt, opting for a limp 'shock' finale rather than a satisfying closure that would have sat so much better with the game's slow-burning narrative. Still, the spooky intention is not completely lost, and neither is that of the game as a whole, even in spite of its antiquated methods, sigh-inducing cliché and those appalling voice actors. There's no reason to think that this will fully satisfy anyone's 'old dark house' intrigue, but it fulfils the basic criteria of evoking atmosphere and rewarding progress; enough to ensure that Scratches' allure is not entirely weakened by its modest ambition and underwhelming execution.
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