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.


Like pretty much everything else Emily Short has done in the field of IF, Alabaster is an experiment. The idea here was to provide a number of testers/co-authors with the ability to extend the dialogue tree: suggestions made within the game were automatically recorded to a file, which they sent back to Short, who incorporated them in the next version that she sent out to the same authors for further suggestions. The game lists eleven authors (including Short herself), and boasts 18 distinct endings (including some obviously unsatisfactory ones).

The story is a revisionist take on Snow White, with the player in the decidedly weird role of the huntsman, commanded by the Queen to murder the heroine at the story’s beginning. In the original story, this is hardly a major character, or even an interesting one. I suppose that if you were to write a story about him, you could play up the emotional conflict, the fear of defying the Queen vs the obvious perfidy of killing a beautiful child, but that’s not a very interesting choice for IF. If you ask the player to make that kind of choice, they’ll usually just immediately choose good over evil. But Alabaster doesn’t make it that easy. This Snow White is creepy, and knowing, and, despite being your prisoner, gives a strong sense of being more in control of the situation than you are. She’s already made a bargain with you to spare her life and lead her to a haven among the dwarrows, but she does nothing to help you feel good about it. You naturally start to wonder if the Queen might have good reasons to want her dead. And so you talk to her — nearly all of the game is spent talking — and although you might be uncomfortable about trusting what she tells you, she’s pretty much your only source of information. Is she a witch? A vampire? A god, even? Possibilities suggest themselves, and are rejected in turn as too obvious.

I’ve seen (and participated in) IF collaborations before, and usually the seams where the authorial voice changes are pretty obvious, but the tone in Alabaster is surprisingly consistent. Short says she edited things “to improve continuity and conversation flow”, which explains this somewhat, but it’s not like the content was all hers. She also says that she was surprised at some of the turns that the plot took. Which, coupled with the consistency of style, makes me wonder: which turns were unexpected?

I’ve seen only a few of the endings so far, but one of the ones I’ve seen solves a mystery that I hadn’t even considered: what happened to the King? From a certain point of view, this ending might be the best one, because reaching that point explains nearly everything and brings the story to a definite resolution. But it isn’t entirely a happy ending. On the basis of what I’ve seen, I doubt there are any completely happy endings in the game.

City of Secrets: Spoilers

So, let’s talk story. You’ve got this nameless city, ruled with an iron fist by one Thomas Malik, who keeps the city in an illusion of perpetual daylight. To sustain his magics, he secretly abducts travellers and extracts their souls, rendering them insane. He earnestly believes that everything he does is for the best. Opposing him is a Gnostic sect led by one Evaine, who might possibly be heir to the dynasty of Queens who ruled the city long ago, although I never found any definitive confirmation of this, and strongly suspect that there is none to be found. Malik’s enforcers are hunting for Evaine on the grounds that she’s a rebel and a terrorist, but in the end you learn that the two of them have some personal history together, which makes it seem like the whole city is in the grip of some kind of twisted lover’s spat or something. In a way, it reminds me of Aeon Flux.

As with most heavily plot-based adventures, reaching the end is not difficult: if you just keep plowing ahead wherever the plot guides you, important events will keep occurring until you reach the last important event, which is the ending. But it’s striking that you don’t have to do it this way. Usually, “plot-based” means highly linear and skimpy on simulation, both of which stem from an author’s decision to give priority to their one preimagined storyline over player choices, but that is emphatically not the case here. For example, there’s a point in the story when Malik asks for the player’s help in finding Evaine. In my first play-through, I took him up on it. I suspected that Malik was the bad guy by then, but accepting missions is what you do in these games.  The option to refuse a mission is, in nearly all games, a fake choice; if you choose it, the game will either find an excuse to force the issue or just end. Playing from the beginning a second time, I tried putting up a sterner resistance to Malik in order to see what would happen, and was surprised that he let me go. If I didn’t want to help him, I could just walk away and try to cope with the mysteries of the city on my own. It did not break the plot, although the decision would certainly have consequences.

The only part where player agency really goes away is at the very end, which is a little ironic, because the solution to the final puzzle is precisely to assert your agency, to refuse to be railroaded into doing what the game tells you to do.

City of Secrets

City of Secrets is a text adventure by Emily Short, written on commission for a band that wanted it as an extra on their CDs (although this plan fell through for various reasons). It’s one of the few games on the stack that I did not, technically, buy.  It was never for sale; it’s freely downloadable from the Interactive Fiction Archive.  However, I did purchase the feelies, and that gives me the same sense of commitment-to-play as if I had paid for the game itself.

Feelies are tangible objects from the gameworld, a tradition dating back to Infocom and still indulged in from time to time. I purchased the CoS feelies back in 2003 because I enjoyed Emily Short’s previous works and wanted to do my part to support their production. Then I played the game for about fifteen minutes, got intimidated by how much information it was throwing at me, and didn’t get back to it until now.

I shouldn’t have been intimidated. Although the game possesses a great deal of depth of detal, it does a good job of keeping the player from getting lost in it. Plot-crucial information is often available from multiple sources, so it’s seldom if ever necessary to ransack a particular NPC’s entire dialogue tree or read every book on a shelf. This is contrary to adventuring habits, but once you’re used to it, it’s quite liberating.

As to the content: it’s set in a fantasy world with both magic and high technology, trains and robots and illusions.  The player character is a visitor to a big city who gets ensnared in a conflict between the city’s possibly fascist ruler and a mysterious rebel, both of whom are magicians. There are plots and counterplots. One of the first things that I learned was that I had been drugged, although the drug turned out to be an antidote for another drug.

I’ll say more when I’ve completed the game.  Despite the author’s estimation that it takes about three hours to play, I’m about five hours in now, probably because I spend so much time poking at inconsequential details, an activity which the game rewards.