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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The The White Wolf of Icicle Creek 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 The White Wolf of Icicle Creek 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 The White Wolf of Icicle Creek that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This was another really uneven entry in the Nancy Drew series. The series seems to have hit kind of a rough patch lately if you ask me-- the game designers have figured out all the elements to make a good mystery adventure game by now, but they haven't been able to get all of them going at the same time since Curse of Blackmoor Manor. The White Wolf of Icicle Creek did a great job with its cast of characters, giving each of them a plausible enough motive with enough relationship to the plot that I couldn't guess whodunnit within five minutes of meeting them all. Also, though the plot was not particularly gripping, the writers kept me on my toes with several accidents that characters other than the villain had caused. On the downside, White Wolf failed to provide enough clues for the player to correctly deduce who the culprit was prior to the revelatory cutscene, depended heavily on completing mindless chores for no good reason, and completely dropped the intriguing moves towards interactivity its predecessor Danger By Design had made. Furthermore, despite an interface overhaul, the game failed to fix ANY of the serious interface problems plaguing this series (finicky navigation arrows, repetitive unskippable animations and dialogues, and annoying inventory screen) and actually created a few new ones (turning the background of the dialogue box transparent and shrinking the font size makes it a lot harder to read, and eliminating Nancy's cellphone added a lot of dull drudgery that the games had been better off without.

So all in all, this was a fun enough playthrough, but I'm hoping the Nancy Drew series gets over its midlife crisis sometime soon and gets back to getting the basics right. A good mystery game needs to provide more than one plausible suspect AND offer enough clues along the way for the player to have a chance of figuring it out. Curse of Blackmoor Manor, The Haunted Carousel, and Secret of the Scarlet Hand are good examples of Nancy Drew games that managed to do both at the same time. I'd like to play another one, someday. Preferably one free of sandwich assembly chores.

Plot Holes

Generally, the plot of White Wolf of Icicle Creek held together quite well, but there was one thing I found befuddling: how did Yanni get into the Needle? This was never explained, and it makes no sense-- he obviously did not have the four disks needed to open the needle. So how did he get in there? Fredonian magic? Or are we supposed to assume he solved the pyramid puzzle and took the magnetic key? If so, how could he have done this without Bill's help?

The White Wolf of Icicle Creek Game Advances

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

1) The "Second Chance" function has been retooled for this game, but its spirit remains intact, and is a great concept well-suited to the graphic adventure genre: basically it 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) 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 (Rapid Rabbit for solving puzzles especially quickly, Learned Lynx for doing a lot of research, 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 or affect the game epilogue as in Danger By Design, 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). So, what would have taken The White Wolf of Icicle Creek to the next level? Well, the most glaring thing is the time-wasting interface. I don't understand how the game designers could possibly justify making players spend their time adjusting to a new interface that does NOT solve any of the problems of the old one. It is still impossible to move from one screen to the next without pixel-hunting for a small movement hotspot that is located in a random, inconsistent, and often unintuitive place. It is still impossible to continue the game after using an inventory item without manually placing the item back into a box on the inventory screen. It is still impossible to skip animations, even boring movement animations that you have seen 25 times already, or spoken lines of dialogue, even audio files of Nancy reading aloud a letter that you've already read for yourself. Yes, a few minor fxes were made, such as streamlining the game saving and loading mechanism, which was welcome. But any convenience was more than offset by the annoying transparent background on the dialogue box, as well as what appeared to be a bug in which some of the text scrolled off the bottom of the box and could not be read during long monologue passages (the scroll bar on the side of the window can only be used during dialogues.) And what reason could they possibly have had for taking away Nancy's cellphone in the past two games? The cellphone was one of the most welcome interface advances of the Nancy Drew game series. Yet apparently it was too user-friendly for the ND game designers, who prefer forcing us to spend extra clicks walking over to the phone, opening up Nancy's phonebook, finding a number, and manually punching it in rather than just choosing a number from the cellphone directory. This was a baffling step backwards. I'm starting to get the unpleasant idea that the Nancy Drew design team is INTENTIONALLY keeping its user interface inconvenient and inefficient, just to make the artificially inflate the play time of each game. If that's true, they should ditch this strategy immediately, because making players take phone detours, repeat the same puzzles multiple times, and sit through unskippable animations of Nancy walking over and over does not make this game feel less short-- only less fun. Let us skip videos we don't want to see again and audio we don't want to hear again. Let Nancy make a phone call without all the interface rigmarole, the way she could in previous games. Let us put away an invetory item we're done with by right-clicking it, the way every other graphic adventure of the modern era does. Let Nancy move by clicking anywhere in the appropriate margin of the screen, not just some tiny little hotspot. And if you think the game is too short, then you need to add a new plot event or a few new puzzles to it, not try to fool people into thinking it's longer than it is by making them spend a few extra hours wrestling with the interface. (For what it's worth, I thought White Wolf's length would have been perfectly fine without any new additions, but if you feel the need to extend its play time by adding something, add something FUN, not something TEDIOUS.)

Another easy fix would have been eliminating the recurring problem of the completely unlikeable victim. In White Wolf of Icicle Creek, as in several previous Nancy Drew games, Nancy is hired to investigate a series of potentially life-threatening accidents by somebody whose livelihood is at stake. One would expect such an employer to at least be cooperative in the investigation, but instead she continually derails it by forcing Nancy to do unrelated chores for her first, yelling at her if she doesn't do them right, and angrily firing her if she gets injured on the job. (The nadir in this game was when Nancy called her to ask for a pair of snowshoes so she could investigate an assault that had just happened, and Chantal smugly replied "I could, but I won't, unless you do something for me first." Investigating the crimes IS doing something for Chantal!) This makes for a very unsatisfying feeling-- why, exactly, should I care whether Chantal's business fails or not? If not for the subplot with Isis (who the game succeeded in making me care about), I would have had no motivation to finish it. And here's the kicker-- it was all unnecessary. Chantal didn't need to hold the snowshoes hostage to make Nancy complete Tino's survey-- the game could simply have quietly have failed to progress until Nancy finished this task, the same way it did with the snow shoveling job. (Maybe the weather could been too cold to go back outside until after the survey was done, for example.) There was no need for Chantal to yell at and fire Nancy for sustaining injuries during the game-- these accidents could either have been fatal (people die in frozen lakes and snowmobile crashes every year) or else Nancy could have been heard calling Ned from the hospital in defeat, as she does in many other failure endings in the series. Or conversely, if the writers WANTED Chantal to be a totally unpleasant person (which is possible, since she was also depicted as greedy and self-centered), they should have offered some possible consequences for her annoying behavior. Minette in Danger By Design was an obnoxious character, but the player gets the chance to cathartically beat her up with kung fu, so it didn't leave a bad taste in my mouth. If Chantal is supposed to be a real jerk, then why not let Nancy discover something negative about her in the course of her investigation as well-- maybe she's been cooking the books to evade her taxes or something-- so that we can feel the satisfaction of bringing her to justice as well. Or better yet, have Nancy discover some negative information about Chantal and then let players decide for ourselves whether to make it public or not based on how annoying WE thought she was. It would have been cool if Nancy found proof that Chantal's father blackmailed Tilly to get the ranch away from her, for example. Keeping this quiet (on the theory that Chantal isn't responsible for her father's long-ago actions) would have resulted in the current ending in which Chantal's business flourishes, and calling the sheriff about it (on the theory that the lodge should rightfully be Bill's and Chantal treats everyone badly anyway) could result in a different ending in which Bill ends up in charge of the lodge and gives long-suffering Ollie a raise. Now that would have been fun!

Which leads me to the next thing that could have improved White Wolf of Icicle Creek: more interactivity. Ideally this would have taken the form of the player affecting the outcome of the game somehow-- Danger By Design took a small step in this direction by allowing the player to choose whether or not to keep a character's secret, for example, resulting in a different blurb about her in the game epilogue. It's too bad the same sort of option was not given when Nancy learns Lupe's secret in this game. My previous suggestion about alternate endings for Chantal would have been a great place to take this idea. But even the minimal interactivity of permitting players to figure out the identity of the criminal would have been a big improvement here. In The White Wolf of Icicle Creek, it is possible to deduce what happened about several of the "extra" accidents over the course of the game, but not the solution to the main plot. There are no clues implicating one character over another. Until the endgame sequence, Nancy has no idea who the villain is-- in fact she guesses wrong-- and the only way for the player to do any better is by removing the fourth wall (Yanni is the only NPC who was not responsible for any of the previous mishaps, so for him to have any relevance to the plot, he would have to be the main villain.) That's not a satisfying use of our deductive skills! The game would have been so much better if there were clues to be found implicating Yanni, so that the player could have gone into the endgame already suspicious of the truth if they were careful enough investigators. Perhaps Nancy could even have had to choose whether or not to trust Yanni in her final conversation with him. It wouldn't have had to affect the final outcome of the game in order to be meaningful-- just give the player a chance to affect the story SOMEhow, even temporarily.

And then there was the timing of this game, which was simply atrocious. White Wolf is very linear overall, which I don't mind per se, but many of the quests require Nancy to go outside, which she can only do between the hours of 7 AM and 5 PM-- plus she has to be cooking from 7-8 and from 12-1. So her outdoors exploration time is extremely limited, and there is usually very little to be done inside. It's a lot of hurry up and wait, and every time you wait, it means more boring cooking. At one point in my game, I emerged from cooking lunch at around 1 PM, called Chantal on the phone, and was given Tino's survey to complete-- which included feeding the guests paprika. Since Chantal had blocked me from tracking the wolf until I finished the survey, and I couldn't feed the guests paprika till dinner time, and I couldn't go outside after dinner, this meant I was stuck inside the lodge until 8 AM the next morning... with two extra meals to serve before I could get back to the plot. Ugh! If the outdoors exploration is going to be time-limited-- which does make sense from a setting perspective-- then there should at least be a better balance of things to do inside and outside the lodge so that the plot can continue progressing while Nancy is trapped inside, and her limited exploration window should not be broken in half by a stupid cooking chore. And if Nancy has to kill time to get to the next interesting phase in the game, she should be able to set her clock and just assume she automatically makes breakfast that morning, seriously. There's no need to waste our time on the same puzzle over and over again even when it really is a puzzle. When it's just "read each order and build the right omelet," forcing a player to do it more than once is downright rude.

Ah well. Hopefully this series will get its mojo back one of these days.

Best Puzzle: Solving the code in Trapper Dan's journal. It was a very easy code, but at least it was organic (unlike, say, having a Minesweeper game pop up at you while you're shoveling the snow.)
Lamest Puzzle: The pipes puzzle in the sauna. The allotted time on this puzzle was FAR too short, both from a game design perspective (it's impossible to legitimately solve the puzzle on the first try because there is not enough time to logically determine how the pipes affect each other, so the only way to beat it is to die at least once and start over) and from a common-sense perspective (anyone could stay in a sauna for longer than two minutes without overheating and passing out!)
Best Plot Twist: All the minor characters' plot twists were good contributions to the story, but the main twist about Isis being tame was probably the best.
Lamest Plot Twist: There was nothing in this plot that annoyed me, actually, unless you count Yanni being from Fredonia instead of a real country (what on earth were they thinking there?)
High Point: Reading McQuade's journal was an unexpectedly moving experience. Isis' first appearance during the avalanche was well-done and really made me jump, too.
Low Point: Having to keep running back to the kitchen to make those stupid meals. The Nancy Drew food combination jobs are dull enough already; having to keep doing it over and over and over again just plain sucked. :P

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the White Wolf of Icicle Creek plot and characters.

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