Ghost In The Machine
It’s always a concern when a big-name ‘real world’ writer jumps into our world, but in truth authors have fared far better than Hollywood scriptwriters. Terry Pratchett’s Discworlds were a delight, Tom Clancy pretty much revolutionised Ubisoft’s entire output, and even the JK Rowling-powered Wonderbook on PS3 was a charming if underutilised effort at transporting her work into the videogame world.
Fantasy master Neil Gaiman’s touch isn’t enough to save The Wayward Manor, though. Instead, The Odd Gentlemen, the team behind the well received Misadventures Of PB Winterbottom, has crafted a spectacularly irritating and deathly tedious puzzle game, and Mr. Gaiman’s lyrical prose can do very little to save it.
You play, strangely enough, as the manor in question, or at least a spirit who has been locked within its walls. Your aim is to scare the daylights out of the inhabitants, eventually revealing the story of why you are stuck in the house, why you hate the people living there, and how you can get out.
The story starts in the middle and slowly unravels, revealing more about the inhabitants as you progress. It’s an intriguing concept. Many games let you take a detached viewpoint and control multiple things at once, but few actually let you play as a ghost.
What could be an interesting experiment in AI and interaction boils down to little more than frantic mouse clicking, trial and error, and utter tedium.
Each level features one of the story’s horridly drawn characters moving around a room, carrying out the most basic of AI patterns. Certain objects within the room glimmer with a green glow, meaning you can click on them and wait for a reaction. And that’s it.
The idea is to scare the room’s inhabitant five times, which will then let you press a button so everything in the room flies into the air and spins around.
To scare them, you might need to make a bottle drop on their head, or manipulate a rat to scuttle past their feet.When they’re scared, they stop still, and a cartoon skull appears from their mouth and floats to the stop of the screen.
Clicking on specific items in the room will always cause the same outcome, so through trial and error, you learn how to effectively move the character around and into the traps you’ve set up. Scare them five times, and you can move on.
You’re rewarded for scaring them in specific ways, but only in the form of extra stars on the end-of-level screen, which amount to precisely nothing. Matters do get slightly more interesting when multiple characters get thrown into the mix.
The mother of the house, for example, always visits the weird little dress stands (that are dotted around the room for no reason) when you click on them. The maid always cleans up cobwebs. Blend those two interactions and you can scare them both at the same time. And as they characters never learn or change their patterns, you can often rinse and repeat.
As Wayward Manor gets more complicated, it wants you to explore different combinations and figure out solutions. And it is reasonably successful in that respect – eventually, randomly clicking on everything isn’t enough to guarantee success – but you never feel clever, there’s no ingenuity. It’s just busy work. Execute enough scares, and the room will inexplicably fill itself up with more clutter, offering more frightening solutions to your problems. It’s all very messy.
By the end of the final chapter (of which there are five, with five levels in each), the difficulty has been ramped up to infuriating levels. The number of potential scares is reduced while the character count is upped, and you have to figure out the exact order to click everything in to make it all come together.
None of this is helped by the fact Wayward Manor has an exceptionally aggravating soundtrack. Every interaction is accompanied by its own sound effect, all of which make nails on the chalkboard sound like Sigur Ros.
These interrupt each other, so you’re treated to the aural equivalent of a drunken orchestra falling into one another, all while you solemnly try to move these boxy little characters around the map, wishing for the end. It is genuinely unpleasant. The Harry Potter OST played in reverse, or on a skipping CD.
Wayward Manor shares aesthetic qualities with point-and-click adventures – characters with expressive faces, a penchant for snappy non-sequiturs, and of course, mouse-driven interactivity. But it actually plays like a mobile game. Perhaps it would be a better fit for an iPad – a basic set of interactions that could appease Gaiman fans without ever troubling a classical gaming audience.
Yet you have to wonder exactly what Gaiman is getting out of this, he of grand sweeping fantasy and detailed, meticulous world building. When you think of Neil Gaiman, you think of something big, something all encompassing, or at least something with density and depth.
Wayward Manor is none of these things. Yes, the sentences are well written and help to elevate the very basic action to a level that feels somewhat important, but you can’t help but feel that those who obsess over all things Gaiman are going to be left cold by such an odd little game.
It’s hard to understand why the game exists. Did Gaiman desperately want to attach himself to an ugly, boring puzzle game? Did the Odd Gentleman really think this was the best way to display his work? It’s more of a mystery than the actual story of Wayward Manor itself.