With Summer upon us, it’s time to draw the shades, shun the light, and scare yourself silly. Join Jason as he begins his Summer of Scares, playing horror games new and old in addition to a wide range of terror-themed articles.
Scratches is not a good game. There, I said it. Phew…that feels better.
Still with me? Good.
Thing is, you should still play it. Resident Evil was a terrible game, but that didn’t stop it from becoming important. It was downright AWFUL to play at times, with puzzles that didn’t always make sense, controls that were more akin to a WW2 tank simulator, and a crank that just wouldn’t quit. Yet despite this, people loved that game. It brought us zombies, the first of many nonsensical Capcom plots, and was the genesis of my deathly phobia of walking near windows. For all the problems Resident Evil had, it made up for them with atmosphere and character in spades. It would prove to be essential in bolstering the then unknown “survival horror” genre so that we could get amazing series like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame down the line.
Scratches is not Resident Evil. Developers will not be sitting in a coffee shop ten years from now, wistfully remembering the first time they clicked on yet another static image of a door, or when they went into the basement of Blackmoor Manor for the first time. It’s a far more subtle experience than that, one that rarely even goes so far as to cause a ripple on its unnervingly smooth surface. It’s a game in the loosest sense of the word, as if somebody tossed a bunch of CG images and some text into a salad shaker and went to town. It doesn’t taste bad perse, but it doesn’t exactly taste good. It just…tastes.
At its core, Scratches is a point and click exploration game in the same vein as Myst. That’s right folks, if you haven’t been paying attention, people still make those games. It’s been nearly 20 years and we’re still hunting for objects in static images. Things have improved a bit, with the ability to rotate in nearly 360 degrees while pixel hunting. You shop at the same fanny pack store as other video game characters, with a bottomless inventory that can somehow hold both a shovel and an old school oil lamp at the same time. Expect to walk around picking things up, combining them, and putting them down in new and exciting places.
Yes, the puzzles. Dear god, the puzzles. As is common with these kinds of games, the actual business of determining how to get light from one side of the room to the other, or how to turn on the water so the key will float out of the grate, or even getting the mustang key so you can open the rabbit door and get the spade key isn’t all that bad. If you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. Where Scratches struggles is in ensuring you have any clue where to actually GO in the game. Without the use of a guide, you’ll find yourself wandering around aimlessly hoping to stumble upon some “trigger” action that lets you move the story forward. A good example is an early task where you have to find a hidden picture showing a key, look at the wall where the key once hung, and then hunt down a missing pot that the key had fallen into…instead of just grabbing the key when you first looked in that pot when you came into the room.
Oftentimes you’ll find yourself the brand new owner of some random trinket you spent the last ten minutes obtaining only to have absolutely no clue what to do with it. Sometimes the answer is, literally, just to go to sleep. When the solution to your puzzle is an ambiguous shrug towards the bedroom, you know you’ve got some problems.
Again, it’s a pretty terrible game. Bear with me here.
The thing about these games is that they lend themselves to a more methodical and plodding pace, which is exactly what Scratches is going for. You play Michael Arthate, who is pretty much every single Stephen King protagonist since The Shining. A somewhat notable horror writer, he’s given the keys to Blackmoor Manor for a long weekend of inspirational terror in hopes that he’ll finish his latest work. With typewriter in tow, Michael arrives with a curiosity befitting a drunk teen working at Camp Crystal Lake.
With the help of your buddy Jerry, your new secretary Barbara, and the fine folks over at GameFAQS (let’s not kid ourselves here) you’ll unravel the mystery behind the previous owners of the estate, the strange scratching noises that echo through its halls, and the strange collection of African art that is scattered about the place. It doesn’t hide its inspiration from authors like H.P. Lovecraft, including some choice titles in the library. Beyond that, it draws heavily on the basic tropes of Lovecraft, such as cryptic letters about veiled evils and bizarre rituals. If there was some racism towards Eskimos and some half-breed monsters this’d practically be Cthulhu branded.
It’s here where the game finds its stride despite its mechanics. From your first moments in the house, everything seems just slightly wrong and unsettling. Some of the most disturbing moments in the game come during your first sweep of the premises as you uncover disturbing paintings and rambling journal entries suggesting that something very awful happened there years ago. Tension is the name of the game as layers of the mystery are slowly peeled back. The plodding speed of the game adds to this, as you’re forced to move at the pace of the game instead of your own. While this can be infuriating at times, especially when moving from one side of the manor to the other, often it serves to slow the game down and reinforce the fact that you’re no athlete. If something came spiraling out of the void at you, no amount of bunny-hopping or serpentine dodging is going to save you. The game uses the classic Resident Evil style “door-opening-as-transition” animation to great effect, as you’re never quite sure if there will be something waiting for you on the other side.
This pace allows Scratches to build something that most horror games severely lack these days: dread. Unease takes time and energy to cultivate compared to the brief terror of jump scares. There are a few outright scary moments in Scratches, mostly at the hands of a jumpy strings section. For the most part it’s restrained entirely to your imagination. It’s not about what’s actually in the room, but instead what you think will be in the room. The music in the game does a wonderful job supplementing this, with a certain maddeningly tense song driving one scene from mundane to outright terrifying:
That lingering tickle at the back of your skull that makes you look for your cat because holy hell that was a strange noise is where the game is successful. It’s admirable to see a game actually pull this off, even if it’s cased in a shell of awful mechanics and frankly irresponsible puzzling. This alone makes it worth your time if you’re decently interested in horror gaming and don’t mind a little aimless wandering or tabbing over to check a guide every now and then.
What Scratches represents to me, more than anything else, is hope. Hope that, given access to better resources and tools, the team behind it can pull together something more like Amnesia, except without the frenetic terror. Give us something like the first hour of the most recent Call of Cthulhu game, one dripping with dread and mystery. With horror, less is always more, never forget that. The people behind Scratches didn’t and hopefully their newer project, Aslyum, can deliver where Scratches failed.
You can buy Scratches: Director’s Cut on Steam for $9.99.