A Broken Home
HIGH: Neil Gaiman’s few moments of dry, sardonic narration.
LOW: Watching yet another trap tool wasted because of a delayed response.
WTF: What unholy mutation produced a race of bug-eyed, cephalothoracic humans?
Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. The man has an almost supernatural talent for writing fantasy and horror stories that are imbued with an originality few others can replicate. His works blend philosophy, mythology, meta-narratives and the elements of fiction with a sense of genuine wonder. I re-read American Gods every year because it’s so masterfully crafted. I am an unapologetic Gaiman fanboy, so I was enthusiastic when I heard he was writing the script for a game. I couldn’t wait to see what his spark of mad genius would bring.
…Now that I’ve played Wayward Manor, I can only shake my head at how a masterful storyteller could have been responsible for such an atrocious work.
Dozens of world mythologies have their own version of the genius loci, a spirit which inhabits a home and protects its residents. If treated well, the entities would perform kind gestures for the family dwelling within. If treated poorly, they would not hesitate to punish ungrateful humans. One such spirit has become part of Wayward Manor, a Neo-Gothic New England estate, and it’s very upset with its current lodgers.
The prestigious Budd family has let the house fall into disrepair as they pursue the indulgences of the Roaring Twenties. The manor itself wants them out, but with no way to act upon its frustrations, it must silently suffer more abuse and neglect. By a stroke of luck, a chance for salvation arrives when young Polly Budd opens a chest left in the attic for years. This seemingly innocuous act frees a more forceful spirit, and with the aid of this poltergeist, Wayward Manor sets in motion a plan to drive the Budds out and to return to a peaceful state of abandonment.
The concept of a haunted house that turns out to be sentient isn’t a new idea, but I assumed that Gaiman’s imagination would lead to a magical, slightly macabre interpretation of the premise. That sense of enigmatic wonder never materializes.
For example, the manor’s reason for wanting the Budds to leave never resonated with me. Yes, the family was annoying and haughty, but I never saw them doing any real damage to the house. The dialogue is lifeless, mostly consisting of prosaic insults towards the family and instructions on how to complete each level. According to the developer’s website, the original pitch for the game would have focused not on the house, but on the ghost in the chest learning more about his death and unseen dangers facing the family. This is a much more intriguing idea, and I honestly don’t know why The Odd Gentlemen abandoned it for something duller.
A significant issue I had with the narrative was the number of loose ends that are never resolved. Where did the ghost in the chest come from? How does it know the spirit of Wayward Manor? In the final chapter a new antagonist emerges to threaten the Budds, but his motivation is never discussed. I know that keeping some plot elements vague is crucial to building an engrossing mystery, but there needs to be some closure at the end to make sense of everything. I asked Gaiman if he could provide some clarity, to which he responded, “That’s another story for another day.”
I was not satisfied with this answer. If he means to address these questions in a written work, it makes the game seem even more worthless because crucial lore was deemed unnecessary. Gaiman has fallen into the trap of not explaining certain elements of his work before, but this is usually easy to overlook because the fantastic brilliance was enough to keep me invested and overlook those issues. There’s nothing engaging in Wayward Manor, so the problem becomes more blatant.
One of the most significant issues hindering The Odd Gentlemen’s work is that their games aren’t very original. Flea Symphony was a standard physics puzzle game in the vein of The Incredible Machine that replaced mechanical equipment with musical instruments, while The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom took concepts from Braid (reversing time) and The Company of Myself (creating clones to solve puzzles) yet failed to use these mechanics in any novel ways.
Similarly, Wayward Manor borrows heavily from Ghost Master and the more obscure Sega Genesis/Mega Drive title Haunting. The ultimate goal is to scare the Budd family out of the manor by manipulating different objects to create scenarios that will frighten them out of each room in the estate. Players are first limited to only a few items per room, unlocking more with each successive scare. Ideally this would result in constantly evolving emergent gameplay that offers players a variety of options on how to reach their goal. But like everything else in the game, the core idea was seriously flawed in execution.
Wayward Manor commits the greatest blunder a point-and-click game is capable of—unresponsive object interactions. There were numerous instances where I tried to click on something to spring a trap only to see it fail to move. In the worst cases I’d have to click at least six or seven times before it finally triggered a reaction, only to then have the setup ruined because my target had moved away. Adding to this problem are the times when characters move yet the player is unable to act, forced to wait until they’ve done something before gameplay can resume. This game is built around accurately timed responses, yet it constantly sabotages efforts to get the timing down.
Delayed reactions and failed trap activations ultimately lead to another significant problem. As new objects to interact with became available, I naturally wanted to experiment with them to see what chaos I could unleash. This was a huge mistake because some items can only be used once in a certain room—even though the game never tells you so. Gunpowder barrels explode after activation, while potential obstacles that can be moved by the wind or animated suits of armor can end up pushed into a recess where they can’t be accessed again. In looking for the most creative trap scenarios, I ended up wasting the tools simply because I wanted to see how they’d work. Once again, any potential fun is ruined because of poor design choices.
The final chapter offered an interesting twist where players have to help the Budds escape traps, but these just involve setting up items that have been used before. I assume the developers intended this as a final challenge for players to show how they’d mastered each of the various traps, but after slogging through them for the previous four chapters I’d had enough.
Wayward Manor may be the worst game I’ve played this year. If it was just another low-effort adventure game put out by a no-name indie developer I’d simply forget about it, but this had one of the most creative minds in the literary world working on it, and it ended up as a scattered mess that was a chore to play. Maybe Gaiman just had difficulty translating his style to an interactive medium, or maybe he should have partnered with a more experienced studio. Either way, I expected better.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download through The Humble Store and reviewed on PC. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. The game was completed, but not replayed to unlock every Secret Scare. There is no multiplayer mode.
Parents: Wayward Manor has yet to be given an ESRB rating. The game is devoid of obscenity, vulgar moments, sexual content, or graphic violence. There are occasional moments of cartoon violence, such as tussles between children obscured by smoke clouds and characters getting shot in the rear with arrows, but these moments never depict blood or injury. There is also infrequent use of alcohol.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: The introduction and ending of each chapter are narrated without subtitles, so any player with hearing problems will miss out on some of the backstory. Considering how annoying and grating several of the sound effects are, playing Wayward Manor without any audio could actually improve the experience, if only slightly.