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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake 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 Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake 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 Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

To tell the truth, I was disappointed with this game. Like others in the Nancy Drew series, Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake had excellent graphics and voice acting and some aggravating game design flaws, but Ghost Dogs had a worse plot than previous Nancy Drew games. There's no crime, just a Scooby-Doo-like request from a friend to find out what's up with the 'ghosts' who are haunting her house. There's a hidden treasure to discover, but unlike previous Nancy Drew games with hidden treasures, there's no reason for Nancy to go looking for it other than "because it's there." Finding the treasure accomplishes nothing-- no one needs it for anything, it doesn't belong to anyone, it wouldn't have hurt anyone if the antagonist had found it, and it's never mentioned what even happens to the treasure after Nancy finds it. I was left with an unpleasant taste of pointlessness in my mouth, even more so than the other highly linear games in this series.

So I don't think I would have bought this game for myself, but I still had a pretty good time playing it together with my kids due to its bug-free, violence-free gameplay. These Nancy Drew games would make good games for a 10-14 year old--they reminded me pleasantly of some of the old Infocom games I used to play in that age range, only (unfortunately) a good bit more simplistic.

Plot Holes

This plot didn't really hold together as well as some of the Nancy Drew games. In particular:

1) Why did Em need to get rid of Sally in the first place? She already knew about the underground passages and how to get into them. I can't imagine any way in which Sally could have been obstructing her attempts to get through that door.

2) If she wanted to keep Nancy from exploring the underground passages so badly, why did she sell her flashlight batteries? Couldn't she just have pretended to be out of batteries?

3) Why was Em trapped in the treasure room at the end of the game? Nancy had just exited that room through the drain, so why couldn't Em do the same? Is she just supposed to be so greedy that she wouldn't leave the gold behind? There's no way she could have carried more than one gold bar at a time anyway.

4) What happened to all that gold anyway? After all that fuss, the topic was just dropped like a hot rock. :P

5) What did the police even arrest Em for? Other than trying to kill Nancy (which Nancy didn't have any proof of), she hadn't really DONE anything. Letting her dogs bark at Sally would have been a misdemeanor at best, probably just a warning, and since the gold didn't actually belong to anybody, she wasn't really stealing it any more than Nancy was.

Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from the Nancy Drew games:

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) The implementation wasn't great, but for a game aimed at beginning players (which this one is), calling Bess and George and the Hardy Boys on the phone was a good idea for an innovative in-game optional hint system.

3) 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.

4) 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.)

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake a 6 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. Pixel-hunting for movement arrows is soooooooooooo 1990's (and it wasn't any fun then, either.) The long animation of the motorboat crossing the lake every time Nancy needs to talk to Akers or Em should have been skippable with the escape key; so, for that matter, should dialogue passages. And the repetition in these games is tooth-grinding, but in Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake more than most. It's LONG past time for the Nancy Drew games to start using a clickable map. Once Nancy has found her way through the hedge maze in the woods once, she should be able to return to the cemetary on the other side automatically, not have to go through the maze four more times. (The last time, when the batteries in Nancy's flashlight suddenly died and she had to go back to town to buy more and then back through the maze again, seemed almost to be rubbing the player's nose in it.) There are two puzzles that have to be solved a second time because when you get through them the first time, you have to go back to the other side to fetch something else and the puzzle resets. Tiresome chores like these are poor game design; they interrupt the action and detract from the fun of playing. There are also a few gameplay glitches-- it's difficult to solve the timed challenge of the burning building unless you were prescient enough to pump some water in advance and leave it sitting by the pump, which Nancy would have no reason to do. Two possible character deaths are very much set up as "traps"-- there's no way a normal inquisitive adventurer would refrain from stepping on the rotten board or trying to open the door to the filled well, other than trying it and reloading.

Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake also suffers from a few serious plot problems, of the sort that any mystery game would do well to avoid. Chief among these is the fact that there's, well, no mystery about whodunnit. For too long a time, there's no dunnit to who, and once a crime is finally committed (attempted murder against Nancy), the motives ascribed to the two innocent suspects are incompatible with the crime itself -- a fire would have ruined both Akers' plans and Red's, so they're utterly unbelievable as suspects. Almost as serious a flaw is how irrelevant the action is. There's no setup, no tension. The goal of the game appears to be to stop some lady from taking some buried treasure that nobody else cares about anyway and doesn't belong to anyone. Why does Nancy care? Why would Sally have cared, or even noticed? Even in the post-game wrap-up, nothing meaningful happens other than Sally adopting the dogs-- there's no mention of what happens to the treasure, and nothing changes for Akers and Red (their conclusions are so trivial as to be insulting to the intelligence.) The whole game feels like wasted energy. If Em hadn't trained those dogs to bark at Sally, then she wouldn't have called Nancy, Em would have found the gold and become rich, and no one would have cared. That's not exactly compelling fiction. And nothing the player does affects the story in any way, so it's even less compelling as a game.

There should have been SOME dramatic tension set up-- some reason why Nancy would want to keep the gold out of Em's hands. Maybe she could have discovered a letter or diary (anonymous, if one wanted to keep up the pretense that the player doesn't know who did it from the word go) saying that the gold was going to be used for some nefarious purpose. Or maybe it could have been stated that if Nancy found the gold, it could be used for something good-- maybe the park could have been in danger of being closed due to budget cuts, or Sally's house was going to be foreclosed on. Or the treasure could have been something artistic that Nancy would not have wanted to see melted down for profit-- gold statuettes of Malone's four dogs seems the obvious solution! In the end, they could have been displayed in the park museum, an assistant ranger could have been assigned to the station (pleasing Akers, who I actually liked, and also pleasing Sally and Red, because the assistant was more easygoing and easier for them to work with.) For a mystery plot to engage either a reader or a player, there needs to be something substantial to figure out, and there has to be a reason to care enough to do it.

And frankly, the setting didn't help. Previous Nancy Drew games have been set in locations that gripped your imagination: a museum full of Mayan artifacts, a creepy theater once owned by Harry Houdini, a tower in which Marie Antoinette was imprisoned. This game was set in a plain looking cabin in some ordinary woods and full of mundane camping tasks like "collect worms for fish bait" or "take photos of birds" or "pick up some batteries at the local convenience store." Yawn.

But at least my children liked the spooky dogs.

Best Puzzle: Mapping the dogs' locations out on the mosaic was a really good idea and fairly well executed.
Lamest Puzzle: It sort of offends my sensibilities to call stupid tasks like clicking on bugs quickly before they can wiggle away a "puzzle," so I'm going to go with the silly Rube Goldberg contraption in the burning building.
Best Plot Twist: There were no plot twists in this game. I enjoyed the backstory about Akers' grandfather, though.
Lamest Plot Twist: There were none, really.
High Point: The cutscene movie of the dogs attacking the house. That was a great way to start off the game; it's too bad the rest of the game couldn't live up to that level of drama.
Low Point: Opening the secret passageway beneath the tombstone, running out of batteries, and realizing I was going to have to go twice more through the forest maze and twice more through the motorboat animation just to pick up more batteries and artificially extend the play time. I can only imagine the frustration I would have felt if I had just gone through the exact same rigmarole to get the tombstone password (I was lucky enough to happen onto it by accident just playing around with the letters.)

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake plot and characters.

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