The Haunted Mansion Hints The Haunted Mansion Walkthrough The Haunted Mansion Cheats The Haunted Mansion Spoilers

The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion 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 Message in a Haunted Mansion 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 Message in a Haunted Mansion that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

These Nancy Drew titles don't quite hit any of the niches I was hoping they'd hit. They're E-rated, but the controls are too hard for my young sons to work themselves (including timed sequences, instant-death scenarios, and fussy navigation arrows.) They've got puzzles, but most of them are too easy for adult gamers. And they've got interesting, funny characters, but the game design generally gives away the entire plot. (When you find a fire extinguisher with a hotspot on it in the first ten minutes of exploration, for example, you can feel pretty confident that someone will be trying to burn the house down shortly, you know? And there's never any question as to who that someone is--Rose's fire insurance policy would have been a great red herring in a Nancy Drew novel, but in a graphic adventure game, being as how insurance scams don't involve figuring out how to open any elaborate secret doors, it's not much of a fake-out.) And to add insult to injury, these games frequently cannot be solved unless you take an action that is downright stupid if you've already figured out who the culprit is. In this installment, the game will NOT progress until you ask Louis what "gum bo fu" means--even though you probably already know he wouldn't tell the truth anyway and have a legitimate reason not to want to tip him off that you're onto him. It's frustrating for savvy gamers to be herded by the plot into taking actions we'd bypass if we had any say in the matter.

So I don't think I would have bought these games for myself, but I still had a pretty good time playing them together with my kids due to their bug-free, violence-free gameplay. These 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.

Plot Holes

Haunted Mansion has a very good plot that holds together quite well, but a couple of loose ends did stand out:

1) Who runs out of the basement as you head up the stairs? The game never seems to come back to it.

2) What did the papers that were burned in the fire say? There is no way to piece the burned scraps together into anything legible. One of the scraps on top seemed to be a remnant of the letter Hue sent to Rose (which you could see in the desk drawer earlier in the game.) What was this doing in the box? Did Louis want to destroy it? If so, why? I went back to a previous game to re-read it, and it contained no valuable or incriminating information at all.

3) Did the book about chess moves ever have any bearing on anything, or was that just an especially boring red herring?

Message in a Haunted Mansion Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Message in a Haunted Mansion:

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 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 lantern.

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 Message in a Haunted Mansion 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. The movement interface, in particular, appears to be unchanged from the one in the origiinal Myst. Its frustrating datedness is definitely keeping at least some kids from playing these games, because my sons were unable to get it to work for them. Pixel-hunting around for the one tiny little spot that will give you a movement arrow is never any fun, lines of dialogue should ALWAYS be easily skippable, and saving a game should be a one or two-click affair. In a game with so few rooms (10 not counting the secret areas,) it's inexplicable to me why there wasn't some kind of clickable map or movement shortcut pulldown-menu--it's nothing but an annoyance spending dozens of clicks walking Nancy up the stairs to her room and back every time you need to change the game clock. The inventory in Message in a Haunted Mansion could also have been improved; the viewscreen was too small and frequently cluttered with useless objects. Then there's the telephone--for some unknown reason, though this game is set in the modern era Nancy does not have a cellphone, so every time you want or need to make a call you have to walk her all the way over to the parlor, zoom in on the phone, and then manually dial the 11-digit telephone number. Simply making this a drop-down menu from a cellphone would have saved a lot of tedium in and of itself.

But to be a really GOOD game, Message in a Haunted Mansion would have needed better game design. There's really no sense of affecting anything in this game. The plot chugs stoically along from Point A to Point B to Point C, and the player's job is just to walk back and forth across the mansion talking to people and occasionally advancing the game clock until something new happens. There's no way to be proactive in any of these games--no way to use any information you learn or deductions you make to change anything within the game. It doesn't actually matter at all whether you figure out the backstory between Diego and Lizzie; it doesn't matter whether you figure out Abby was behind the 'hauntings' or not, or whether you are able to exonerate Charlie of blame in the fire. These things aren't even mentioned in the game's final wrap-up. It would have been nice if the decisions you make, or the thoroughness with which you explore, could have made a difference in the eventual outcome--if proving Charlie innocent of the fire and convincing him to fess up to Rose could result in her hiring him as the building manager, for example. It would have been even better if you had a chance to decide whether to trust Louis or not somewhere within the game itself--it is seriously annoying to spend your time uncovering information implicating a suspect, catch him in a lie, and then still have your character act shocked that he's the villain. It wouldn't have been that hard to record the actress saying both "*gasp* L--Louis???" and "Oooooh, I knew it was you!" and deliver the line that matched the player's previous investigations. Better still, right before the final endgame, the player could have to CHOOSE who they thought the villain was, and then find out if they were right or not. That would have lent some drama and excitement to the exercise even if the outcome was largely the same no matter what they chose. Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion was a basic, par-for-the-course graphic adventure game, but to be more than that, it would have needed to involve the player a lot more.

Ah well. My kids got a five-pack of these games as a present, and they can't play them alone, so I suppose I'll see if any of the other titles in this series achieve that goal.

Best Puzzle: The Chinese characters puzzle was too easy, but at least relatively interesting and educational--my kids came out of it recognizing a few hanzi, which is more than they usually get from an adventure game puzzle.
Lamest Puzzle: The maze on Louis' computer was particularly annoying, and nonsensical to boot--what kind of idiot would truly let anyone who can solve a simple maze bypass the password on his laptop??? Is he only trying to keep out spatially challenged thieves?
Best Plot Twist: The identity of "E. Valdez."
Lamest Plot Twist: There weren't any really awful ones, but I'm starting to get bored of Nancy being knocked unconscious by the bad guy every game. Time for her to invest in a helmet (not to mention a pocket flashlight.)
High Point: The spooky effects in the mansion were very well-done (catching the ghostly image of the woman in the mirror out of the corner of my eye as I walked past was especially creepy), and being able to sleuth out how each one was done was additionally satisfying.
Low Point: Being railroaded into spilling the beans to Louis. It really sucked that I wasn't able to make my own decision whether to trust him or not (despite having already found pretty good evidence against him.)

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Message in a Haunted Mansion plot and characters.

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