Cragne Manor

Back in June, noted interactive fiction authors Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna sent out a call for contributions. For the 20th anniversary of Michael Gentry’s classic Lovecraft-inspired cosmic horror game Anchorhead, they wanted to make a collaborative tribute game, where each participant writes one room. They expected about a dozen people to express interest. Instead, they got more than eighty, including me, but also IF luminaries Emily Short and Andrew Plotkin, Kingdom/West of Loathing authors Zack Johnson and Riff Conner, and even Michael Gentry himself. It’s one of the largest collaborative IF projects ever. Not the very largest, though; apparently there’s a furry porn game that has it beat handily, furry porn inconspicuously leading the way as always. But it had more authors than the annual IF Comp has ever had. The resulting game, Cragne Manor, was released to the public just a few days ago, after a lengthy testing period where the authors shook out the problems created by putting all the pieces together.

Again, each participant was responsible for a single room, although some bent this rule by creating sub-rooms or just plain additional rooms only accessible from their main one. Part of the organizers’ core concept was that they wanted the game to be a mishmash of authorial styles and intentions, like a patchwork quilt. And so they insisted that each author work basically alone, with no knowledge of what other people were writing, apart from how it directly touched their own work, exquisite-corpse-style. The organizers provided the bones of a plot and setting (one Naomi Cragne searching for her lost husband Peter in the fictional town of Backwater, Vermont), and negotiated with each writer how their room fit into the map and the game’s puzzle structure. Some, for example, were told “Your room contains a book which is one of many that needs to be returned to the public library for a puzzle. Here’s the specifics of how to implement a library book for this game.” Some others were told “Your room should have a puzzle that uses an object from another room to obtain an object used in a different other room, and we need to coordinate on what those objects are.”

The result is, as expected, incoherent. It reminds me a little of Deadly Premonition. Near the beginning of Deadly Premonition, before you even get to the town where the murder you’re supposed to be investigating took place, you fight your way through a zombie outbreak. The moment you reach town, the existence of zombies is forgotten about. That’s what Cragne Manor is like. Individual rooms confront you with horrors beyond imagining, scientific marvels, and dire revelations about the Cragne family that are only acknowledged in that room. One author, tasked with making a bridge, decided to make it a rope bridge in a cavern, even though both ends of the bridge are ordinary streets in the town of Backwater. And yet, it’s somehow surprisingly coherent for such an incoherent work. Each room is basically its own independent reality, but they sometimes sync up in fortuitous ways. Multiple rooms contain mirrors that act as portals to the past, something that their authors thought up independently, creating a sense of a general mechanism. The aforementioned bridge room features the colossal skeleton of some extinct monster; shortly after crossing it, you come across a paleontological dig. Seeing the strange bones uncovered there, your mind automatically draws a connection to the ones under the bridge, even though they seemed to be in a completely different game.

Also, a few of the more ambitious writers created things to give a sense of cross-room connection beyond the organizers’ plans. Lucian Smith made a puzzle that follows you around and interacts with those library books I mentioned. Emily Short’s room, otherwise one of the simpler ones, contains a creepy pull-string doll that comments on random objects in your current room by scanning their descriptions for words that she guessed other people would be using. (This is useful in some places for identifying objects you failed to notice.) Nonetheless, most rooms are self-contained or almost self-contained. One of the game’s big challenges is getting used to the degree to which you should ignore stuff from other rooms. One of its big design problems is that several authors decided to make “obtain a cutting implement” puzzles, whose cutting implements can’t be used on each others’ cuttable items.

Mainly, though, the style and mood is wildly variable in a very fun way. Not every contributor was familiar with Anchorhead; not everyone who was familiar with it chose to imitate it. Some rooms are brimming with Lovecraft mythos references (something that Anchorhead itself notably did without, despite clearly bearing Lovecraft’s influence), and one or two even imitate his prose style. Others are ghost stories, or observations of small-town life, or surrealist, or comic, or gross. Adjacent rooms are often jarring juxtapositions. (Chris Jones’ meat packing plant bathroom — just the name of the room is full of promise! — is especially notable for pulling off a number of these weird juxtapositions within itself, as if reflecting the game as a whole.) There are crypts and tentacles and dark rituals and monstrous fungal blooms. And there’s lots and lots of books. Everyone knew that there was a puzzle track involving library books, and many people seemed to take this as permission to throw in journals and histories of their own. It’s been merrily pointed out that Backwater has more libraries than bathrooms.

The game is large. Just having more than eighty rooms makes it a large game in that sense, and some of the rooms are large individually, containing enough prose or puzzle content that they could have been released separately. Hanon Ondricek’s church scene, for example, is essentially a novella, and Andrew Plotkin’s workroom is a miniature Hadean Lands/Myst mashup, teaching the player a remixable system of magic words that can transport you to other worlds. (As with nearly everything in the game, those magic words only work in the room they were designed for.) On playing the full game, it was easy to feel like my own contribution was unusually slight, but I think that’s an illusion created by the fact that the larger rooms dominate the play experience.

Largely as a result of those large rooms, the last few rooms feel anticlimactic, as you use your hard-won inventory to perform a relatively simple ritual and wind up in a relatively simple and utterly disconnected endgame that doesn’t address anything that happened before. This is perhaps inevitable. A work in this genre should end in the protagonist coming to a realization that ties all their bizarre experiences together, and how could you possibly do that exquisite-corpse-style? For my money, the real climax of the game comes slightly before the ending, in a room that directly confronts Naomi with the fractured and mutable nature of her reality and identity, which she’s been oblivious to and which the player has been struggling to ignore through the entire game.

I highly recommend playing the game, although it’s probably best done with a group. Not necessarily as a group play session, but as a bunch of people who are discovering the game independently but in tandem, who can help each other through the more obtuse puzzles (some of which are pretty obtuse), laugh together at the more ridiculous things, congratulate each other on beating the larger rooms.

Kudos to Jenni and Ryan for tackling the unexpectedly mammoth task of integrating everyone’s disparate contributions into something playable. Communication is always the most difficult part of any large project, and actually making it against the rules didn’t help matters. One notable innovation they added is a divination device, discoverable within the first few rooms, in the form of a coffee cup — a subtle Anchorhead reference; some Anchorhead players carried a discarded coffee cup from the first few rooms with them for the entire game for no reason, so this time there’s a reason. Once you learn how to read it, the cup tells you whether you’ve solved all a room’s puzzles or not, and, if not, whether you have everything you need. During testing, I played the game for a while before this device was added, and found that it drastically improved the experience of the game. I wouldn’t necessarily want such a thing in a game produced under a single unified vision, but in Cragne Manor, it was immensely useful in clarifying the ever-shifting authorial intent.

The King of Shreds and Patches

January, 1603. Queen Bess is on the throne, Shakespeare is on the stage, and the black death casts its shadow over London. And, of course, in his house in R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming, as he has for eons. Based (with permission) on a scenario for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, The King of Shreds and Patches throws all of these things together into a single story. Which is kind of like writing a modern-day Cthulhu story about Barack Obama, Pixar, and swine flu, but that’s period drama for you.

Any substantial work of Lovecraft-based IF invites comparison to Anchorhead, the classic of of the genre, but playing this game really reminds me more of playing Call of Cthulhu. And not for obvious reasons — it doesn’t have what I normally think of as RPG elements, such as upgradable stats or skill checks or randomized combat. Rather, the structure so far is more what I associate with the live CoC sessions I’ve tried: you’re presented with lots of leads to follow up on, but not enough time to follow up on them all before bad things start happening. The game has a day/night cycle, and unless I’m misinterpreting things, it seems to be linked to the number of turns taken, rather than (as in Anchorhead) linking days to progress in the story.

Also reminding me of CoC is the way it throws lots of recognizable Cthulhu Mythos stuff at the player from early on. Anchorhead didn’t use any established Mythos material at all; the fact that the Lovecraft inspiration was clearly recognizable despite this is a sign of how well it achieved its aims. But also, using entirely new stuff preserved a sense of mystery. In TKoSaP, when I find the Yellow Sign depicted in one of the game’s rare uses of graphics, I immediately recognize it as the Yellow Sign. The character I’m playing doesn’t know what “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” means, but I do, and it’s going to affect how I play that character.

But then, given the decidedly non-Lovecraftian setting, would it be recognizable as a Cthulhu Mythos story without these touches? Even in the game as it is, an episode of supernatural disruption of a performance at the Globe put me more in mind of a certain Doctor Who episode than anything else.