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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Curse of Blackmoor Manor 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 Curse of Blackmoor Manor 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 Curse of Blackmoor Manor that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Of the first 15 Nancy Drew games (all we've played so far,) Curse of Blackmoor Manor was definitely the best. It wasn't as scary or graphically evocative as Secret of the Scarlet Hand (the other really stand-out game in this series), but Curse of Blackmoor Manor had by far the most interesting puzzles, its plot was the cleverest, and it was the only one that really had me fooled as to the identity of the villain. In fact, the solution to this game was truly surprising from a game-design perspective-- if this were a novel I probably would have suspected that a bored and lonely little girl might think up a weird and implausible plot to try and scare her stepmother away, but in this genre of graphic-adventure game, solutions that don't involve a climactic showdown with a criminal can usually be dismissed out of hand. After the motives for Leticia and Nigel were done away with, that left only Ethel, who definitely might have tried to sacrifice Nancy for violating some culty taboo or whatever. But slyly enough, this game turned the cult into an enormous red herring and presented us with the realistic solution instead... and a completely different endgame challenge, to save the kid from some more trouble she'd gotten herself into. Very well-played.

My only complaint was the blithe assumption at the end that Nancy would like the cult, and even protect them from scrutiny, just because they didn't try to kill her. Ok, maybe some players might feel that way, but in my book they were a bunch of creepy megalomaniacal fanatics who isolate and brainwash children and put them through potentially deadly trials by fire. Even after all she'd done, I felt for Jane-- sure, she's a manipulative brat and very spoiled, but all she wants to do is play games like a normal kid and instead she's forced to spend hours a day memorizing the history of her cult by a weird hypnotic Barbie-doll looking chick who's not even trained as a teacher. Would she ever have attacked her stepmother this way if she hadn't been yanked out of school and deposited in this bizarre cult, a move her own father agreed was traumatic for her? Who knows, but I wasn't even slightly motivated to cover for them when it was all said and done. I would have liked the option to tell Nigel everything, frankly, and help him expose the whole sordid mess. One ending where Nancy thinks the cult is just swell and Jane becomes the next initiate and her father joins it too, and a second ending where Nancy thinks the cult is bad and exposes it and Jane goes back to school and her father vows to teach her the history and pride of her family in a positive and open way instead. Would that have been too much to ask?

Plot Holes

Curse of Blackmoor Manor has a very good plot that holds together quite well (as long as you're willing to suspend your disbelief about the magic hair growth lotion,) but a couple of major holes did stand out:

1) What on earth was the point of the guinea pig subplot? I googled it afterwards and some people seem to believe it died because Jane was using it to test Linda's hair growth lotion on. That makes sense insofar as Jane seems to feel guilty and upset about its death. However, if you ask Hugh about the guinea pig on the telephone, that would have been impossible-- Jane owned the guinea pig in the United States, and it died long before they ever moved back to Blackmoor. So it couldn't possibly have been part of her scheme to chase Linda out of the manor. (Nor, as I originally suspected, could it have been an animal sacrifice to her cult.) The only thing I can guess is that the letter about the guinea pig is supposed to be a clue about Jane's dishonesty... in other words, she tricked her uncle into giving her medicine for a guinea pig that had died long ago, kind of the 10-year-old equivalent of skipping an exam to attend the 'funeral' of a grandmother who died years ago.

2) Who sent Jane and Nancy those threatening notes? I guess it must have been Jane, but she didn't confess to it at the end, and it just doesn't make sense for her to send a threatening note to herself anyway (it's not as if she was trying to trick Nancy into blaming Linda for it or anything.) This part just seemed out of place.

Curse of Blackmoor Manor Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Curse of Blackmoor Manor:

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) As usual in these Nancy Drew games, though there are only four NPC's (and a few extras you can call on the phone), the characters are well-written and compelling and the voice acting is excellent. This is a good area not to skimp on if you're designing a graphic adventure and particularly a mystery adventure. Once an NPC is infused with even a tiny bit of depth, you start wondering about them more, and that makes it a lot easier to keep up a mysterious atmosphere.

5) The later Nancy Drew games include the interesting feature of awarding the player a special nickname at the end of the game based on his or her playstyle (the ones in this game are Latin-themed: Amica Superba for playing extra games with Jane, Puzzlius Magnificus for solving puzzles especially quickly, and so on.) 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.

6) Curse of Blackmoor Manor gets special kudos for actually including a serious headfake in it. Most of the mysteries in these games are very easy to guess the solution to-- the red herrings and suspicious-seeming non-villains are glaringly recognizable as such, either because they're not very well written or because their alleged motives would be incompatible with the gameplay. But Ethel and her cult were legitimately dangerous-seeming (in the book the game was based on they actually were dangerous), and the idea that they might have been manipulating Linda out of some occult desire to turn her into the Beast of Blackmoor was a believable one. This is the only Nancy Drew game I've played that genuinely tricked me into suspecting the wrong person, and I appreciated that.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Curse of Blackmoor Manor a 6.5 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? The most obvious place to start would have been improving the interface. A smoothly functioning interface is always a plus for any adventure game, but the Nancy Drew games would benefit even more than most, since it would make the game more viable for younger kids or kids with short attention spans. My kids could have played this game without my help if moving around a room hadn't involved so much pixel-hunting for movement arrows (the least rewarding kind of pixel-hunting, if anyone in the gaming industry is listening.) And being unable to cut a line of dialogue short with the "escape" key is unforgiveable in any graphic adventure game heavy on the narration, but doubly so when one of the characters you have to listen to is a COMPLETELY ANNOYING PARROT WHO NEVER SHUTS UP. Really, once I've glanced at the subtitle for two seconds and seen that the parrot is about to say "What's the magic word? Won't tell you the password without the magic word. A deal's a deal! A deal's a deal! Loulou wants magic word magic word magic word magic word braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!" I do not need to listen to the whole thing.

But to really improve itself, Curse of Blackmoor Manor would have needed to work more interactivity into the game design. I enjoyed playing it, but the fact is the results of Nancy's investigations have no effect on anything at all. There's only one ending (and as I mentioned above, it doesn't allow for the possibility that players might not trust Ethel and her cult any further than we could throw them.) If you read the werewolf book and call Paliki, you can figure out what's going on in Linda's head, but there's nothing you can do about it. (Telling her you've figured out how to break the curse with the ELINOR runes would have been an obvious thing to try, for example.) It doesn't matter how well or badly you question anybody, or in most cases, whether you bother at all. When you hear strange noises at night, it doesn't matter whether you investigate or not. If you did figure out that Jane must be responsible, you still couldn't do anything about it. The only thing that matters is if you can get into the forge and make the key-- something that's not even relevant to Linda's illness-- in which case Jane will show up and exposit everything to you. It's a fun journey, but it would have been nice to affect something along the way.

Best Puzzle: There were a lot of really good ones in this game. Even the slider was an interesting variant I'd never seen before. But I think the best puzzle was the moving rooms. Yes, I got frustrated by constantly going in circles at first too, but once I looked at the map disk and realized what was happening, the place made sense, and I could navigate it freely and easily (with less than ten clicks between forge and entrance.) MUCH better than a run-of-the-mill hedge maze would have been.
Lamest Puzzle: Setting the mold for the key at the end. It was a real pain navigating around the main hall examining each of the coats of arms one after the other, and the clue was kind of stupid anyway.
Best Plot Twist: The cult I'd spent most of the game investigating turning out to have nothing to do with Linda's ailment at all. Boy, was I suckered!
Lamest Plot Twist: The threatening notes didn't make much sense.
High Point: Probably the unexpected confrontation with Ethel at the bottom of the slide. That woman must be the scariest non-villain I've met in a computer game!
Low Point: Loulou the parrot. I wanted to claw my eyes out every time I had to interact with it or walk by its cage and hear it 'singing' or yelling annoying things.

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Curse of Blackmoor Manor plot and characters.

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