Over the weekend I played Mudlarks, a freeware full-length adventure game by little-known enthusiast collective Cloak And Dagger Games. This is basically one that Shaun Aitcheson, along with co-writer Laurie Michel-Hutteau, knocked out seemingly just because they felt like it. Read that again. It’s full-length. And it’s freeware.
And what’s impressive about that is that it’s not just your run-of-the-mill “LOL I MADE A GAME IN AGS CHK THS OUT GUYZ” style adventure. Shaun and Laurie really went out of their way to make a game experience that you could’ve picked up as a commercial product back in the mid 90’s. A lot of work has gone into researching background for the story, creating a suitably spooky audio atmosphere, and creating a story-driven game where the puzzles (for the most part) serve as the driving force of the story, not as roadblocks in its way.
I say “for the most part,” because of course there’s bound to be one or two puzzles that seem either contrived (feeding a mean cat beer so you can bring it with you to scare off a dog) or just overly convenient (just the protagonist’s luck that there should be an abandoned ambulance at the park, just when he needs a doctor’s outfit!). But those are few and far between, and for the most part you have a very clear goal and the puzzles resist delving into moon logic.
It’s clear that story is the main driving force here. The game is split into “days” (adventure game analogy for “chapters”) and the protagonist, Winston, will frequently recap what has happened and what he thinks needs to be done, usually at the start and end of chapters, and when visiting new locations for the first time.
It also makes for a very linear game experience — and not just because you’re locked in to having to complete a certain amount of steps in certain order to make the days advance. Often you’ll find yourself confined to a very small number of screens (two or three) where Winston will refuse to leave until you solve whatever puzzle needs to be solved there. It helps make the narrative very cohesive, like an interactive novel, but your mileage may vary whether you consider this good gameplay or not. Personally, I didn’t mind, because it eliminated a lot of unnecessary backtracking and the designers were careful about not leaving you in unwinnable states because you forgot to pick something up earlier on.
The graphics are a pretty surreal mish-mash of hi-res digitized graphics and stylized animation. The backgrounds are photographic but have this weird vertical interlaced filter on them, which make your eyes wobble if you stare at them too close. The characters are digitized actors, but they’re animated as if their limbs were stitched together like cardboard cutouts, almost South Park-style. It gives the whole game a very uneasy feeling; like you’re in a dream world where everything looks real, but really isn’t.
So, what’s the story, then? Well, it’s a ghost story. And it’s a pretty well-written one, in terms of its historical detail and characters. Winston and his friend are mudlarks — people who regularly scavenge the muddy banks of the river Themes, looking for treasure. They come across an ancient locket, and suddenly Winston’s friend goes missing. His friends report him acting strange before his disappearance, and before you know it, strange things start happening to Winston as well.
The dialogue is very British, meaning it has a certain amount of levity — Winston in particular has a very dry wit about him, especially when he’s sizing up a new character with his inner monologue. Even as he thinks he’s going mad, he tries to keep a level head and keep reminding himself what he believes and doesn’t believe.
All in all, the game was a rewarding experience. A few pixel hunts and some deviously under-explained puzzles near the end notwithstanding, the game primarily focuses on telling a compelling story with some colorful, bizarre characters and … well, you know, ghosts. Gotta love a good ghost story. And this is one.
You can get the game for free here. It was made in AGS, so you can play it on your Windows pc or even on your Android phone. Oh, and drop Shaun a tweet to let him know you’ve played it — he seems to like that.