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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Secret of the Old Clock Review

This is the addendum to my Nancy Drew Game Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Secret of the Old Clock yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe the Nancy Drew design team'll read this page and be inspired to put a few more twists and turns in their next title. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Secret of the Old Clock that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Boy, was this game a drag. It's almost as though the game designers read all my previous reviews and said "Hey, let's make a game in which we put every single thing that annoyed her from previous games, and none of the things she liked! Bet you five dollars we can make her stop playing before the end!" Well, they probably could have, except I play this series with my children, who weren't about to let me make that decision for them. So I got to see all its faults up close and personal: dull minigames, artificial puzzles, unskippable repeated animations, lots of tedious errands to run, a mystery that isn't much of one, an inability to do anything about it till the pre-scripted endgame if you figure out who the villain is, and screens and screens worth of boring dialogue that you can't page past once you've read it because the interface won't let you move on until the audio has finished playing, culminating in a 6-minute recording of a boring radio show that you MUST sit there and listen all the way through to get a clue. Who thought of THAT clunker?

Here's a piece of free advice: if you're writing a game, and you're making the heroine perform a series of tasks that are so frustratingly boring, menial and time-wasting that you find yourself writing lines for the heroine herself about how annoying it is, the player is probably going to feel the same way.

I probably would have cut this game a lot more slack if it wasn't a Nancy Drew game. It does still have a controllable interface, bug-free gameplay, nice graphics, some decent puzzles, and a theme with good kid appeal. But twelve games into this series, the designers really should have found their sea legs by now. They know who their audience is; they should have figured out by now that preteen kids have even less patience for sitting still and being narrated for 1/3 of the game at than cranky middle-aged game reviewers do. Kids want to go make things HAPPEN in a game, not listen to people making inane small talk and asking you to run to the store and buy things for them. Kids quickly become frustrated with filling your car up with gas every time you go around the block, and badly designed golf mini-games make them whine for their parents' help.

So no, it's not a terrible game, but darn it, they should have known better. :P "The Old Clock" felt like going back in time, not to the '30's, but to 1998 and the first game in the Nancy Drew series. And I don't think that was exactly what they were aiming for.

Plot Holes

Secret of the Old Clock is loosely based on two different Nancy Drew books from the 1930's: The Secret of the Old Clock, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn. By that I mean that the subplot about a forged will came from one book, and the subplot about stolen jewelry and identity theft came from the other. If you were wondering about why there are two villains whose crimes don't seem to have anything to do with each other at all except for the amazing coincidence that the only piece of evidence about the jewelry theft happens to be locked in with the will for no intelligible reason... that's why. It was originally two completely different cases.

Other than the question of why Jane's picture would ever have been in Josiah's vault in the first place, the hybrid plot that resulted is way too simple to have any holes or loose ends. This is a game with a heavy reliance on coincidence and particularly unbelievable puzzle mechanisms (there's no way Josiah's mini-golf course could have known how many strokes it took you to sink the ball unless it was manned by ghosts, and so on,) but if you're willing to suspend that much disbelief, nothing else in the game was confusing.

Secret of the Old Clock Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Secret of the Old Clock:

1) First and foremost is the excellent "Second Chance" function, which allows a gamer to automatically reload the game from a point just before making a fatal error. Any adventure game that includes instant-death scenarios and/or timed challenges ought to have a feature similar to this one--it saves time and frustration and allows gamers to concentrate on the game better, maybe even to appreciate being sucker-punched now and again.

2) Nancy Drew really makes a great graphic adventure heroine in general. Too many adventure games hand you characters who either act so inept it's hard to believe they'd be on an adventure in the first place, or else act so blase about it that it's hard to believe they haven't already got a knife in their inventory. Nancy Drew is a character who's both experienced enough with mysteries that you buy her plunging into trouble as soon as she notices some, but at the same time young enough to be a little wide-eyed at each new scenario and still have to go pixel-hunting around for a flashlight.

3) One nice feature of the Nancy Drew games is an epilogue video at the end which not only reviews the crime and its solution, but tells what happens to the NPC's in the game after Nancy solves the crime. Since the characters in these games are generally well-written and many of them have a subplot Nancy has had the chance to learn more about, it is satisfying to see some resolution for them at the end. (It woiuld be even more satisfying if the player's choices affected these resolutions at all, but one can't have everything.)

4) One thing the later Nancy Drew games do that I really appreciate is awarding the player a special award at the end of the game based on his or her playstyle ("Puzzle Pro" for someone who solved puzzles rapidly, "Penny Saved, Penny Earned" for ending the game with more money than you started with, etc.) This is a nice way of recognizing the player's contribution to the story... not quite as nice as being able to guess the identity of the villain correctly or incorrectly in Stay Tuned For Danger, which I'd like to see the series use more often, but still a welcome addition.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave the Nancy Drew games an overall 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good); Secret of the Old Clock would have scored only a 5.5 out of 10 on its own. So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, for starters, the plot and puzzles could have been up to the standards Her Interactive set for themselves with the other games in this series. Nancy Drew games usually do an excellent job of injecting suspense into the gameplay-- my heart is often racing during even a fairly silly deathtrap scenario (like the Rube Goldberg contraption to put the fire out in Ghost Dogs) just because the danger arrived unexpectedly or the ambience is menacing. In Secret of the Old Clock, there is no danger. The only suspense in the entire game was trying to get the cat to shut up before it gave Nancy's snooping away. It's not really the same. The evocative settings of games past-- creepy mansions, condemned theaters, Mayan ruins, secret cults-- have been replaced by an uninteresting town you push your little car around. The puzzles in this game are the most artificial and pointless ones since Secrets Can Kill, and the plot is simply a careless combination of crimes from two completely unrelated Nancy Drew novels. One of them--the theft of Emily's jewelry--is poorly done from a mystery standpoint (you can't even find any evidence till the endgame-- even if you've guessed what's going on!) The other boils down to "Some annoying old jerk told a poor family he'd give them a lot of money but only if they could solve enough puzzles, and they couldn't, so now Emily will be poor forever unless Nancy can do it for her." Come on people, that's only a step and a half up from "Nancy got a new job playtesting puzzle games, so she has to solve these if she wants a raise." In previous games we've had to solve puzzles to find ancient treasures hidden from tomb robbers or long-dead villains; we've had to solve puzzles to sneak into cult compounds and secret rooms used by stage magicians. In this game, the puzzles are there just 'cause some guy thought it would be fun to make up some puzzles. Seriously. There's no there there.

Secret of the Old Clock would also be a better game if it addressed some of the gameplay flaws common to Nancy Drew games in general, in particular ALLOWING THE PLAYER TO SKIP OUT OF ANY ANIMATION OR LINE OF DIALOGUE BY PRESSING THE ESCAPE KEY. For crying out loud, this would be the easiest thing in the world to program, it's standard operating procedure in 90% of graphic adventure games on the market today, and it would single-handedly eliminate half the frustration involved in playing one of these games. It's bad enough having to drive back and forth to the stupid gas station every five minutes of driving (Nancy's car must have single-handedly caused global warming,) but it wouldn't have made me grind my teeth if I didn't have to sit there paralyzed listening to the gas station attendant prattle the same pointless small talk at me every single time. This one tiny fix would have made some of the game's flaws more bearable.

But to really improve itself, Secret of the Old Clock would have needed to work more interactivity into the game design. The lack of alternate endings is even more glaring in this game than in other Nancy Drew games, because there are two crimes to solve, yet there is no conclusion sequence if you find the will but not the jewelry! The game still acts as if you have completely lost (despite the fact that Josiah's estate is more than a million dollars and failing to recover the jewelry would just make Emily a little sad.) There should have been a second ending in which, say, the banker said "Thanks for finding that will Nancy! Now the inn and the bank will be solvent even in these tough times. Shame that imposter got away with all Emily's jewelry though. Poor young lady." and Nancy could have said in her thinking voice "If only I could do that over again. I know I could have caught her!" Better still, there could have been some way to search for evidence against Jane/Marion if you figure out there's something fishy about her (after the incident with the dress, for example, and/or after reading Jane's letter to Emily's mother.) I suspected her, but had no way of doing anything about it. There was no evidence in the entire game. You just had to sit and wait for it to jump out at you by total coincidence at the end of the game.

Ah well. Can't win 'em all. It's too bad the excellent Curse of Blackmoor Manor had to be followed by this mediocre offering; I think it would have bugged me less if I hadn't been expecting something better.

Best Puzzle: The "chutes and ladders" game at the end was rather interesting. It made us think and do some math, and it was different than the usual bevy of sliders and rotating-letter puzzles.
Lamest Puzzle: The one that necessitated listening for audio cues in a 6-minute recording of a bad radio melodrama.
Best Plot Twist: When Jane said she couldn't make a dress for me. It's really too bad the game doesn't let you follow up on this; it immediately raised my suspicions that she wasn't who she said she was, but there was no way to check!
Lamest Plot Twist: Josiah being the lady in the portrait on the banker's wall. I saw it coming, but it was really dumb.
High Point: Unlike most of the Nancy Drew games, this one never had any truly magic moments. It was pretty forgettable by and large. The wrap-up at the end was pretty satisfying.
Low Point: Doing that ridiculous, annoying string of errands for everyone in town in order to get the trivet. And having to hear not only my two children whine about how boring it was, but Nancy, too. If the protagonist is that bored then the writers need to LISTEN TO HER!

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Secret of the Old Clock plot and characters.

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