Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
Developer: Nucleosys
Year: 2006
Platform: Windows

Horror is my favorite fictional medium, and I think there’s a simple reason why. I have virtually nothing in my wonderful life to fear, and thus it is an emotion I rarely feel. Additionally, it is an adrenaline-inducing intense feeling with the security of fiction laced around it, making it very attractive. And when I mention horror, I refer to the suspense of the unknown, not hack’n’slash gore. True horror allows the imagination to create feelings of terror. Bad horror has a cat jump out of the cupboard, coupled with disproportionately loud noises, jarring the senses.

Naturally, horror is more difficult with the visual medium. Feeding the eyes information usually eliminates wonder, while giving the mind less to run wild over. Though Friday the 13th was far from a great movie, I felt that the final scene with Ms. Vorhees was terrifying as the lighting was poor (it was pitch black, after all).  The audience couldn’t see any better than Alice could, giving the gift of the unknown.

Horror is even more difficult in computer games, as the writer is not in charge of the pacing. Thus, the creators must account for many possible actions the player may take, ensuring a terrifying experience no matter how it is played out. This precarious balance is held by Scratches at times, but crashes more often that not, creating just as much frustration, off-setting the adrenaline rushes it doles out.

The cliché ridden plot has you, an author, moving into an old Victorian house to help further propel your writing career as a horror novelist (Phantasmagoria, anyone?). Still, the cliché usually works, and it does here for a while. You play in the first-person perspective, moving around pre-rendered screens, with 360 degree rotation available. The graphics are gorgeous, well-detailed, and the rotation is flawless. The music and sounds are also a boon for the environment, subtle enough to put the player in the mood. Of course, little writing is accomplished, and the three days spent in the house entail the investigation of unexplained sounds and an unsolved murder that took place on the grounds many years ago.

There are a few short parts in Scratches that had me on the edge of my seat, but they were quickly overshadowed by sub-par game design. For starters, the player character is erratic, eccentric, and inherently unlikable. You contact your realtor several times throughout the game, and during nearly every conversation he admonishes you for your idiotic behavior. I couldn’t help but agree with his assessment. Basically, what scary moments exist would never happen to a rational, normal person, as he would’ve gotten the fuck out of there, or at the least, contacted the police. I loathe having my actions pigeon-holed by a character I cannot identify with.

However, worse than this are the puzzles. Oh, my, we must have puzzles. Puzzle design is the second most difficult concept to implement after NPC interaction. There needs to be some form of puzzle to pace the game, ensuring the player has enough to time to let the atmosphere sink in, and so the game isn’t over in two hours. But more than fifty percent of the show-stoppers here are of the lock-and-key variety. What the hell kind of realtor gives you a house where almost half the doors are locked? Yet, not all of the locks are on doors.  Some of them are simply pixel-hunting missions, finding the tool to stick in another tool to make another tool work. Yes, they are all logical, but also pointless and run contrary to the story arc. Puzzles need to be a part of the horror, not a diversion from it.

One puzzle in particular stood out as a colossal mistake. The puzzle contained four steps:

1)Find the key you need to open another door, but realize you can’t get the key right now.
2)Perform an action to help move the key to a more accessible location.
3)Perform another action to make the key even more accessible.
4)Get the key.

Sadly, I was able to perform steps #2 and #3 without even knowing that the key existed. So while I could have gone straight to step four, I had no idea there was a key to even be had, thus no motivation to look for it. Perhaps even more frustrating is a puzzle where a key is located in a fairly obvious spot; however, you can’t get it until you’ve stumbled across the clue for its location.  In other words, you’re not accidentally allowed to stumble upon the key. Go to hell, mimesis.

Finally, as has usually been in the case in the horror genre, there is no way to die. This is not a requirement, but it is real hard for me to get all worked up knowing there is no way to falter. Of course, death can be too prevalent, as in the end of Phantasmagoria. A mild threat would be enough, or at least an alternate ending in where you screw up and become a mystery of the house for the next tenant to solve.

I think I would be able to forgive this game if exploring the house was quick and simple.  Yet, I had no patience to solve the puzzles considering getting from one part of the house to another would take another ninety seconds of opening the same damn doors for the hundredth time. Scratches, for all its great peripherals, feels more like a chore than an engrossing story. There was a director’s cut released that has an alternate ending and another chapter, but I never quite had the patience to replay the game.

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