I've been playing a lot of seriously old-school adventures lately, and decided it was time to look at a more current example of the genre as it survives in this millennium. Several years ago my wife bought me a copy of HER Interactive's Nancy Drew #8: The Haunted Carousel as a Christmas gift, and I finally sat down to give it a whirl.
I read a number of the Nancy Drew mysteries in my youth, after I exhausted the Hardy Boys books, and was happy to find that the companion Grossett & Dunlap series by "Carolyn Keene" contained more of the same. The books feature kid-friendly mysteries that skirt the darker aspects of human nature, and the series remains popular today, updated periodically for new generations of readers. But I've never been a big fan of mystery adventure games -- as much as I admire the internal consistency and descriptive detail of Infocom titles like The Witness and Suspect, I don't usually enjoy the ASK YELTSIN ABOUT GOOFY approach to gathering information, nor the Groundhog Day cycle of multiple plays, skulking around in an effort to understand what's really going on.
I should also note that my impression of contemporary adventure games from a distance has been that they've devolved into illustrated object hunts, with linear plots, little humor and few classic adventure elements. So I was pleasantly surprised to find The Haunted Carousel entertaining and engrossing; it didn't approach the "20+ Hours of Gameplay" promised on the box, even at the higher difficulty level, but I did have to work at it, and it felt like a proper adventure game in most respects.
In this episode, Nancy is up to her neck in mystery and vaguely-defined danger, per usual, as she investigates a stolen carousel horse, a rollercoaster incident and a purported haunting at Captain's Cove Amusement Park. As always, I urge interested readers to play the game for themselves before proceeding to read the details below. The Nancy Drew games are still in commercial distribution as individual titles and in bundled sets, and most games in the series, this one included, are conveniently available as digital downloads. You can visit the game's official page, but you can purchase the download for considerably less at Amazon.com (and support this blog, thanks!) via this affiliate link: Nancy Drew: The Haunted Carousel [Game Download].
I'm going to talk more about the style of this game than its substance, as I haven't played one of these before and the design has more unique characteristics than the plot does. All you really need to know is that there's a mystery at hand, and you as Nancy Drew need to investigate and solve the case. But there are still bound to be some...
**** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
The world of Nancy Drew has been updated since I was a kid -- Nancy now has a cell phone and a laptop, both of which come in handy during the investigation, though in the interest of simplicity she can only receive, not send, email, and she has no web browser available but must phone friends for research assistance. Most of the phone numbers discovered during the game can be called, although I ran into one that was non-functional. Nancy can also call the Hardy Boys and her traditional gal pals George and Bess for ideas and hints along the way.
The game features two difficulty levels -- Junior Detective and Senior Detective. I tackled it on the Senior level, and would recommend the Junior setting for younger players (age 10 and up per the publisher.) At the Senior level, several of the puzzles are quite involved and the To-Do List extensive as the story progresses.
The interface provides a couple of handy features that old-school adventure gamers may find debatable. There's a To-Do List that keeps track of all of the objectives Nancy has uncovered, checking them off as they are completed, and a Journal that automatically records facts and details along the way. I continued to make notes on paper the old-fashioned way, but the To-Do checklist came in very handy whenever I felt like I was at an impasse. No traditional mapping is required, as the game has a built-in map of the amusement park and we can jump from location to location at will.
The game is billed as a "3-D Adventure," but the graphics are all pre-rendered and designed to run on relatively low-spec hardware. The character models are simple and plastic-looking, with an off-the-shelf, generically attractive appearance; it's a good thing the game is presented in first-person and we never see "ourselves" as a mannequin. Still, the overall effect is workable -- good writing and voice acting helps a lot, and the characters gesture and lip-synch naturally, with line-specific performances built from a small set of poses. Facial expressions are limited, often blank, and the illusion breaks down whenever the characters are required to walk around, so the designers wisely keep most of them seated or standing in place.
My biggest complaint about the visual approach is that the 3-D navigation within locations is messy, especially in the carousel area. It's very easy to miss an opportunity to look up or down or maneuver around a corner, and it's sometimes hard to find the right "zoom-in" level to allow interaction -- too often we can see interesting items from a distance that we can't yet touch. And we can't always back out of an area the way we came in; the most vexing challenges I encountered were solved by revisiting an area and discovering a navigation option I hadn't spotted before. Low frame rates when turning around in a room don't help either; I found it hard to get my bearings in several areas, and some locations can't actually be explored completely, with intriguing details provided as background decoration only.
Like most adventure games, The Haunted Carousel has a fairly linear design -- while we are free to explore, research and make phone calls at will, key puzzles must ultimately be solved in a certain order, leading to bottlenecking of the plot whenever we have exhausted most of the available options. The To-Do List is helpful when this occurs, eliminating a lot of frustration, but it also emphasizes the artificial structure of the game -- important items and information tend to be nested, hidden as if anticipating Nancy's investigation. A bigger problem is that the mouse pointer only highlights areas of the screen where we can do something -- and everything that can be clicked on plays some role in the solution. There aren't many red herrings or just-for-fun elements, which robs the game world of richness to some degree; even the arcade games on the midway must be played to obtain important prize items.
Dialogue is handled using shallow conversation trees, with topics opening up as Nancy discovers facts about the case. Character reactions to the unfolding investigation are sometimes transparent, but to the game's credit there are situations where Nancy (and the player) can jump to the wrong conclusion and must later discover and rectify the mistake. I managed to seriously offend one character with a false insinuation based on incomplete information, to the point where he refused to speak to Nancy; I thought I was stuck and might have to start over, but he eventually relented. It's good, surprisingly mature interactive storytelling, and I really liked the game's use of critical thinking -- Nancy can fool herself with bad assumptions, and she doesn't think much of one character's tendency to blame everything on nutritional imbalances, nor does she put any stock in the "haunting" itself.
There are a couple of amusing anachronisms in the game that I took to be knowing nods to vintage Drew. The Hardy Boys seem to be stuck in a time warp -- on the phone, Frank and Joe comment that she's calling "long distance," a reference to land-line technology. And the room service menu in Nancy's hotel room offers soft drinks for... 65 cents??? The hotel room has an ironing board, but conspicuously lacks a shower and toilet, because, I suppose, characters didn't do that sort of thing once upon a time; it wasn't mentioned in the books, and didn't need to be, obviously, but the visible omission seems odd.
The "arcade games" on the midway aren't particularly sophisticated -- there's a two-wave Breakout clone called Barnacle Blaster, which is controlled with the keyboard and isn't very difficult; there's also a sliding tile game with the unappetizing title Swimmer's Itch, and the bizarre Squid Toss, which is more of a puzzle than a game. The flag matching game on Nancy's laptop is purely for amusement, and not much of that.
I was impressed by the game's sense of history, as gradually revealed by printed materials and other artifacts; the recreated styles ring true, with interesting, well-researched detail. Old posters and newspaper articles depict the amusement park's early years; the storied Night Rocket is now nowhere to be seen, and photos document the conversion of the Galaxy Ballroom into a haunted house during the 1960's as public tastes changed. The vintage band organ has been maintained, and now has a switch allowing it to run from CD or paper rolls. The designers clearly did research on vintage carousels, and the related puzzles are detailed and well-executed. The only quibble I have is that what Nancy describes as a broken take-up spool in the band organ actually gets used as the feed spool after we fix it and mount a music roll.
I was also impressed that the game includes fatalities and other game-ending scenarios, where Nancy is summarily taken off the case by the park's owner. I managed to burn down the Captain's Quarters hotel by leaving the iron on, and electrocuted Nancy by forgetting to turn off the power before rewiring a circuit, putting her in the hospital and ending the adventure. Near the game's climax, Nancy actually CAN get killed, or subjected to some fate worse than death after the fade-out, when the game's carousel horse-forging villain discovers her snooping around in his hidden workshop. Fortunately, the game includes a forgiving Second Chance feature, which returns Nancy to the point right before her fatal mistake; I took frequent advantage of this, and I think it's a good design choice for modern audiences, as a compromise between boring, risk-free design and annoying, frustrating replays.
What I most enjoyed were the game's detailed puzzles, requiring in-game research and a grasp of some fairly sophisticated real-world concepts. We have to read a circuit diagram and learn how transistor color-coding works, distinguish the 10-ohm resistor from the 30-ohm resistor, then use a soldering iron to put the circuit together correctly. We also have to modify an arcade game's code to accommodate a hardware upgrade; measure and lathe a wooden rod to replace a broken component of the band organ; and learn basic stenographic shorthand to translate an old park document:
Most of these puzzles would not have worked in a text adventure, and they are slyly educational without seeming awkward or contrived. There's no magical way to solve these puzzles, no translation glasses or USE LATHE shortcuts -- we actually have to do some homework and figure them out. I did run into some problems figuring out how the game's combination locks work -- unlike the real ones with which I'm familiar, instead of turning the dial in different directions to "set" each number, we click a button above the dial.
Having said all that, realism is not always paramount here. One character's late father left her a robot which can understand human speech, but it was clearly created in the 1970's -- its dialogue is sprinkled with phrases like "Lay it on me!" and "Sock it to me!" But the device works well as an adventure game plot device, allowing the character to deal with unresolved grief over the loss of her parents in gradual stages, as Nancy helps her solve the robot's cryptic riddles. This subplot lends some emotional depth to the story that is otherwise lacking.
The old graphic adventure "something significant is about to happen, because the CD is spinning up" issue rears its head here, but the design's not centered around shock value so it's not a big problem. The only real giveaway I noticed was that Nancy's email inbox displays a conspicuous hole in it where the "Steno Info" note from George and Bess later shows up, tipping me off that I should probably call someone to stimulate a bit of correspondence.
Audiowise, the game's music is ambient in style -- sometimes a little overdramatic, but unobtrusive and appropriate for the most part. I ran into a couple of amusing false notes in the dialogue where standard responses don't quite fit as intended. One mismatch happens when Nancy talks to a local police detective on the phone -- when he has nothing new to offer, her standard signoff sounds sarcastic: "Thanks, Detective. You've been a BIG help." The second occurs while Nancy is being chased by the villain at the climax -- if we try to call for help on the cell phone, the game recognizes that another character is nearby, and she whispers, "It would be rude to use my phone now." Etiquette seems an awfully minor concern under the circumstances.
Disposing of the villain requires hasty navigation and switch-hitting to knock him through a conveniently-located trapdoor within a fairly tight timeframe. But victory is finally ours, though I feel a bit odd being called a Sassy Detective, as that was not the variety of switch-hitting I had in mind:
The game may award several certificates based on the player's style and thoroughness; I earned the Avid Reader award, indicating I had found and perused all of the game's printed material, but clearly I did not use the phone or talk to people as much as I could have. The design supports a variety of approaches, and we need not do EVERYTHING to finish the case successfully.
Nancy Drew #8: The Haunted Carousel was a lot more fun and challenging than I expected it to be. Its find-this-and-talk-to-him-or-her structure is a bit limiting, but the unfolding mystery is well-developed and the game's world worth exploring. I'm not planning to play through the entire Nancy Drew game series any time soon, or in release order -- I've started with number 8, as it happens, and HER Interactive has now published more than twenty such games -- but this won't be my last foray into Nancy Drew's interactive world.