If I say to you, “France,” what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? It’s probably something like nice wine, fine food, or possibly Gérard Depardieu’s nose. It’s unlikely that you’d associate adventure games with the hexagonal republic. Au contraire, mes amis, as it’s thanks to Infogrames, France’s most famous computer game designer, that the world has been able to enjoy, in my opinion, the greatest horror adventure game ever created. For it was in 1993 that Infogrames revealed to the world the lurking horror within the Shadow of the Comet.
Shadow’s full title is Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet, and is based on the works of H.P.Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. Although not a direct adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s books, Shadow sticks closely to the themes and characters created by Lovecraft, and contains elements familiar to people who’ve read The Shadow over Innsmouth, Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror. The game is set in 1910 in the small village of Illsmouth. You play John Parker, a journalist who requests to be sent to Illsmouth for the passing of Halley’s Comet. The comet passes over Illsmouth so clearly that it is visible to the naked eye. Parker, however, has an ulterior motive, for the last time someone went to investigate the passing of the comet at Illsmouth--a man named Lord Boleskine--he came back a raving lunatic and subsequently died in a mental institution.
Upon arrival at Illsmouth, Parker soon realises that things are not as they seem in the idyllic New England setting. Something ancient lurks beneath the town, waiting to be reawakened. The story that unfolds is a gripping tale of mystic Lovecraftian cults, old grudges, unspeakable horrors, and some of the freakiest NPCs ever seen in an adventure game.
I remember Shadow from when it first came out (I was only 11). I kid you not when I tell you I was scared stiff playing this game. Words can’t describe how terrified I was walking the woods surrounding Illsmouth in the dark. Yet despite being absolutely petrified of the opening introduction alone (the image of Boleskine laughing maniacally and frothing at the mouth from the window in his cell still sticks in my mind even after another 11 years), I still felt myself needing to play this game to discover what was happening in this bizarre village. From the moment you arrive at Illsmouth, you know you’re in for a scary ride--the music is just as unsettling now as it was then, and creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that would make even the hardest horror fan uneasy.
The narrative of the game is split into three days. The first day is spent finding out about the weird events that occur in Illsmouth. Many revelations happen on this day and automatically captivate the player into wanting to press on and discover their meaning. By the second day, Parker’s in well over his head and spends most of the day dying in some of the most horrific ways imaginable, or finding that he really should have stayed in bed that morning. Finally by the third day, everything has come to a head and Parker finds himself having to confront four of Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones”: Nyarlathotep, Dagon, Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth.
Shadow is a traditional adventure game in the sense that the puzzles are inventory-based and you progress by talking to as many people as possible, but there are some significant differences between this and its contemporaries. First, the interface is similar to that used by LucasArts in Grim Fandango, but a lot more rudimentary and in a 2D environment. You control Parker with the arrow keys on your keyboard, and interact with the environment using certain hotkeys (for example; g = grab, l = look etc.) The player is made aware of something to pick up by a dotted line appearing between Parker’s eye and the object, as if it’s in his eyesight.
The problem with this system is that only objects you can pick up create this line of sight, and not things Parker can open or simply look at, leaving you to miss an awful lot of potentially vital information because you didn’t know it was there. Infogrames later tried to address this problem by including mouse support for their CD-ROM re-release. The newer version allows you to use the mouse to move Parker, but not in your typical ‘click the ground and he’ll move to it’ kind of way. Instead, you move the cursor in the direction you want Parker to move, and then hold the mouse button down whilst he walks. It doesn’t really solve anything, as it just complicates moving Parker, plus it still doesn’t highlight parts of rooms that Parker can interact with rather than pick up.
As well as the problem with the interface, there are a few other flaws and design decisions that could prove to be turn-offs for some people. First, the graphics are not breathtaking. There’s nothing strictly wrong with them, but when you compare them to what other developers were doing at the time, you’ll see they could be better. The houses and shops around Illsmouth are colourful and especially spooky when seen at night, and the same can be said for the woods. However, the sprites--specifically Parker--do not look as good as they could. The faces are just amorphous blobs with a line across the centre to denote eyes. When seen head-on, Parker seems to resemble Gork from The Day the Earth Stood Still rather than a human being. Also, the developers haven’t included many in-game animations, so Parker will regularly just walk to a chair and then miraculously be sitting down. Infogrames compensated for this by including some specifically important animations that appear as close ups. For example, if you exchange an important item with someone, you’ll get a close up of Parker’s hands exchanging the object.Continued on the next page...