Will the real H.P. Lovecraft please stand up? One of the following three descriptions is from an H. P. Lovecraft story. The only thing changed in that sentence was the tense so that it would read in the present tense, just like descriptions in a game. The other two are from Lovecraft Country: Arkham By Night, a text-based game--a multi-user experience, if you will--available on the Skotos Network as part of a package of games. The package may be the best monthly expenditure on entertainment this side of Netflix. But that is a decision you'll have to make at a later point. Right now, you have to decide which is vintage Lovecraft and which is web-age Lovecraft. Is it a, b or c?
a) Obscured in twilight, innumerable slate slabs protrude at oddly jutting angles in the Old Arkham Graveyard. The uneven ground, full of holes, is treacherous.
b) An octagonal room stands at the ground level of a gloomy stair tower, beyond which a massive, black-lacquered desk stands before an open archway.
c) Collapsing huddles of gambrel roofs form a jagged and fantastic skyline above which rises the ghoulish, decapitated steeple of an ancient church.
We'll provide the answer a little further down the page. Right now, let's just say that the designers of Lovecraft Country: Arkham by Night did not slavishly imitate the master of horror who provided their inspiration. Rather, they have achieved a sense of place within the shadowy, foreboding environs of the "mythos." Indeed, though some of the locales seem eerily familiar for readers of the Lovecraftian canon, Arkham by Night is tamer than what most would experience in a face-to-face Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. The design philosophy seems to be to offer a mixture of MUD, RPG, and theater of the mind. What, at first blush, appeared to be an ordinary text adventure in which other poor souls were also struggling to retain their sanity became a mesmerizing sinkhole in which time ceased to have meaning.(And I mean that in the best possible sense. And if you haven't guessed by now, the answer to the quiz was c.)
Student Enrollment (Character Generation)
Arkham by Night is not your grandfather's Adventure. There are several clever ideas that seem quite different from the typical text adventure. First, as in a role-playing game, you create a character. Instead of assigning numerical statistics to your character, however, you create your character by filling out an application to Miskatonic University. Within this application, you describe yourself physically (creating the description with which others will encounter you during the game) and delineate your background. Then, you choose the three courses you will be studying during the semester. No, don't run away. You don't actually have to attend classes in Arkham by Night, but the courses in which you are "enrolled" will help determine what skills you develop.
So, your initial introduction to Arkham by Night is quite refreshing. You aren't forced to read a strange description and immediately start typing N, S, E or W. In fact, even when you do enter Arkham itself (starting from your assigned dormitory room), you don't have to type N. S, E or W. In addition to the familiar text description and command line at the center of the screen, you have two additional navigational options. There is a column of pull-down command menus on the right-hand side of the screen. Although they are not always consistent, the design team has attempted to create a tool where you can choose to examine an object and any objects in that location would be available to examine. You can know everything in your proximity by using the pull-down command menu.
In addition, each screen has a mini-map in the bottom right-hand corner. This map shows your location in relation to other locales in downtown Arkham. Better yet, there are arrows on this map which show all possible directions which you could go. Active exits are shown with normal arrows and impassable directions are faded out (not quite gray). You can navigate all the way around the map and inside buildings by clicking on the active arrows.
Course Work (Game Play)
As with any other multiplayer experience, one can be as involved or uninvolved with the story in Arkham by Night as would be desired. Frankly, the design team has done a great job of integrating community tools such as bulletin boards with the fictional environment. If your character sees a bulletin board on the wall of his/her dormitory and examines it, the program takes you right to a community forum that is divided up into subject areas that are totally in character with the Arkham situation.
The designers also tend to reward the players who are truly involved with story points. And, like experience points in a role-playing campaign, the story points can be used to help your characters get more privileges and accomplish more. Story points can be earned by writing fiction based on the game or participating in various contests. Since the "school" regularly sponsors expeditions (stories limited to a certain number of participants and lasting only a limited time), you will want to move up in the story point category to help guarantee a place in some of these special events. Further, the use of story points allows you to assume nicknames, titles and extra designations to describe your character.
As noted above, you can easily navigate the vicinity of Arkham and investigate the contents therein. Yet, the problem comes with the parser. There is limited consistency in the way it allows you to examine objects. As illustrated in the screenshot below, there are numerous occasions where the description gives an adjective and noun and the pull-down command menu gives an adjective and noun, but the parser (essentially the game's engine) doesn't accept it. Sometimes, you can get around it by simply using examine plus the noun. Sometimes, you can work around the parser by typing examine plus (first, second, third, fourth, etc.) noun. Even then, you are likely to experience the horrible phenomena with which game players have wrestled since the earliest days of text adventures: You can see it but the parser can't.
The strongest part of the game is its emphasis on chat. It is definitely worthwhile to engage in conversation with other characters where possible. Most players are friendly and quite enthusiastic about the 1930s portrayed in the theme.
But the best Lovecraftian experience comes when you encounter the unknown. At such point the descriptors appear in red and you are permitted to type @verb to deal with these mysterious visitors from the supernatural. Something as simple as a cloud formation or as innocuous looking as a Native American artifact in a museum can suddenly offer a threat or a promise.
Mid-Term Grades (Ratings)
To be honest, I have not logged enough hours in Arkham by Night to give it a final grade. It's good enough that I'll continue to play it after finishing this review. It's good enough that I have a lot of "What if?" questions. It's good enough that I'd like to play in an upcoming expedition. Considering that it is part of a package, the price-to-performance ratio is outstanding. If it were not for the parser bugs, I would be tempted to move the grade up a few points. Fortunately, Skotos (www.skotos.net/games) will allow you to try their games for a month before they even insist on capturing your credit card. As it is, Arkham by Night is in no danger of flunking and it may well be that it could be on the honor roll by the end of the semester.
Reviewer's Snapshot: 6 (on scale of 10)
Accuracy 7 (not vintage Lovecraft, but nice)
Graphics 6 (a few surprises here)
Parser 4 (too many glitches)
Pacing 5 (can spend too much time with little happening)
Price/Performance 8 (as part of a package of 11 basic games, hard to beat)
Reviewer's Bias: 5 (didn't expect very much)