Friday, 19 April 2019

Review: Visitors (Oldham Coliseum Theatre)

Thursday 18 April 2019
Oldham Coliseum

On Thursday, I was at the press night of Visitors at Oldham Coliseum, for North Manchester FM. You can hear my (slightly shorter) review of the play on Tuesday’s episode of A Helping of History, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Visitors is a new production of Barney Norris’s 2014 play by Oldham Coliseum Theatre. It’s a tender, moving and often very funny story about growing old. On a single set – the living room of an old, remote farmhouse – the play’s four characters sit, chat, drink tea, and face (or sometimes try to avoid) the challenges of dealing with dementia.

At the play’s heart are Edie and Arthur, a long-married couple who’ve spent their life in a cosy farmhouse together. Arthur still works the land, though he’s now struggling with the physical nature of the job and the prospect of having no one to take over once he’s unable to carry on. Edie is facing the onset of dementia – an illness that afflicted her mother – and the possibility of having to go into a care facility. While the couple are constantly forced to think about the future, they also reflect on the past (a result, in part, of Edie’s memory problems), and of the happy life they have shared.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

As well as Arthur and Edie, we meet their son Stephen, an insurance salesman who moved out of the farm as soon as he was able. Initially, Stephen seems rather brash and uncaring – keen to arrange professional care for his mother, and uncomfortable in his father’s company – but as the play unfolds we discover more about his character and what lies beneath the surface. The play’s fourth character is Kate, a blue-haired young girl who is taking part in a house-share programme (she stays at the farm rent-free, in return for helping Edie and Arthur with various chores). Like Stephen, Kate is a character who develops as the story unfolds: she begins as a something of a stereotype, a flaky young millennial hoping to ‘find herself’ by flitting from one thing to the next, but something deeper and more moving emerges as we learn more about her and see her relationship with the older couple blossom.

The treatment of dementia here is unusual – and that’s no bad thing at all. The play does make some comment on the illness’s inevitable and incurable progression, and there are some references to both physical and mental decline, this is not the central subject of the story. Visitors is a play about a person, not about an illness. Or rather, it’s a play about people. Arthur and Edie are a closely entwined couple with a shared past. Stephen is struggling to cope with the mess of the present-day. And Kate is unable – despite being told by others that she has ‘everything ahead of her’ – to imagine what shape her future will take.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

The subject matter of Visitors might sound fairly hard-hitting – depressing, even. But it’s really not that sort of play. Nor is it mawkish or sentimental. Norris’s excellent writing gives a story that is gentle, believable and sympathetic, without veering into maudlin clichés. It is, above all, a human story, which celebrates life (and love) in all its troublesome complexity. Interestingly, given that this is a play essentially about a woman’s decline after the onset of dementia, Visitors isn’t really a tear-jerker (though I will admit to welling up at the final dialogue). Instead, it’s marked by understatement, humour and a sense of authenticity that’s thoroughly engaging – and also rather heart-warming.

While much of this can be put down to Norris’s perfectly-pitched script, a lot of the charm comes from the performances. Kitty Douglas makes a great Kate, beautifully balancing the blue-haired cockiness of youth with fragility, uncertainty and even fear over the future. Ben Porter plays Stephen, and manages the difficult task of getting the audience on side with a character who – at first appearance – is set up to be the villain of the piece (of course, the play is more subtle than that). Arthur is played by Robin Herford, who gives us a moving and likable portrayal of a man unsure of what to do next, and – a product of his generation – unable to vocalize his fears and concerns.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Undoubtedly, though, the star of the show is Liz Crowther, whose performance as Edie is just excellent. Along with Norris’s writing, Crowther’s performance gives us a rare thing: a character with dementia who remains a character throughout. Edie’s memory losses and physical decline are presented with a light touch, allowing us to engage with the character as a human being throughout. Much of the play’s humour comes from Edie – from her wit and personality, not her diagnosis – and this is pleasantly surprising. And Crowther’s comic timing is spot-on.

Visitors isn’t exactly what you’d call an action-packed play. As I’ve said, the story unfolds on a single set (though expertly designed and detailed by Sammy Dowson), with an occasionally changing backdrop and minimal movement of props and costume. Nevertheless, Chris Lawson’s direction makes full use of this stage setting. Although all the ‘action’ takes place in a single room, the placing of characters around the stage at different points reveals the various separations and intimacies between them. Centre-stage is Edie’s comfortable old chair, around which the family (including Edie herself) moves.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

I’ll admit that Visitors confounded my expectations. While I knew I was going to see a ‘slice of life’ drama, I had expected the emotiveness of the subject to overwhelm. It really is rare to see a story about dementia presented with such a light touch and so little mawkishness. The adjective ‘tender’ seems to the most common descriptor used in reviews, and I think this is fair. ‘Warm’ also feels like an apt adjective.

Overall, Visitors is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. Superb writing, excellent performances (especially from Crowther), and careful and sympathetic treatment of an emotive subject – I highly recommend it.

Visitors is on at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 4th May.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Review: Kingdom (Agrupación Señor Serrano)

Wednesday 10 April 2019
HOME, Manchester (¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival)

This week, I was at HOME Manchester for the press night of Kingdom for North Manchester FM. A (slightly) shorter version of this review will be going out on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

This year marks the 25th birthday of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival at HOME. Headlining the festival this year are Barcelona-based theatre company Agrupación Señor Serrano with their multimedia theatre experience, Kingdom. Blending live music, multi-lingual performance, dance, video projection and models, Kingdom is an unusual exploration of the history of capitalism – or is it the history of bananas? – using the character of King Kong and footage from the various versions of the film.

Señor Serrano are pioneers of ‘cinema-in-real-time’, and Kingdom makes great use of this technique. Performers hold video cameras, filming scale models of plantations, an explorer in the jungle, a montage of newspaper covers and ephemera, and the footage is projected – in real time – onto the large screen behind them, changing the clutter of small objects on the stage into cinematic images and montages. Performers interact with plants, props and backdrops to create ‘live’ sequences, and models are used to conjure entire scenes. Additionally, through inventive use of green screens, the ‘real time’ footage melds seamlessly into edited clips from other sources: most notably, the King Kong films and a Chiquita banana advert.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

In lesser hands, this idiosyncratic style could become fragmented, but Señor Serrano have created a piece that is much more than the sum of its parts. The pace is frenetic, with only brief moments of calm reflection (and unsettling tableaus of masculinity that veer towards physical comedy) to break the relentless drive of the piece.

This is not narrative theatre, but nor is it a documentary (though the show makes a nod to its expositional style in a rather slick bit of video projection and editing in the first half). If it is ‘story-telling’, then the story it tells is one of global and systemic socio-economics (and bananas). The closest Kingdom comes to a character – unless you count the increasingly dominant figure of King Kong – is the representation of Minor Cooper Keith, the American businessman who pioneered Central American banana plantations in the late nineteenth century. Even the brief portrayal of Keith, however, is more of a cipher than a character – the man, like the fruit, symbolizes something bigger.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

From Kingdom’s opening speech about the state of the world, which ends with the repeated refrain ‘Estamos bien’ [‘We are fine’], the show’s message of capitalism and catastrophism is writ large. Indeed, the examination of capitalism is fairly heavy-handed throughout. The surprise and innovation lie in the way this is tied to bananas (and, ultimately, to King Kong). Nevertheless, the show strikes a careful balance. This is not a documentary or lecture, and so the ‘banana story’ is sketched out, rather than explained in ponderous detail. Some aspects – the funding of Keith’s endeavours and his subsequent role in Costa Rican politics isn’t explicitly mentioned, and nor is the curious history of the Cavendish banana – but this is a sensible decision. As I’ve said, the banana serves as something of a cipher here, though it is a remarkably apt one.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

After the introductory speech, Kingdom moves us to its central thesis: the idea that the banana has fundamentally shaped the very world in which we live. That we are introduced to this idea through a high-octane, dual-language (Chinese and English), rap-infused musical number with interjections like ‘Sexy Latin!’ and ‘Nasty Bananas!’ tells you a lot about how Kingdom conveys its content. If this number doesn’t convince you, what follows is an entertaining and spectacular set of proofs for the thesis, which end up being really quite convincing.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

While capitalism, bananas and King Kong loom large here, Kingdom has another, less trumpeted, story to tell (though, by the end of the performance, this is no less subtle). The performance also addresses the relationship between capitalism and masculinity – or, rather, machismo. The five on-stage performers all strip to the waist at various points in the show, adopting ‘muscleman’ poses to the backdrop of Kong-on-the-rampage. On the whole, this works well, particularly in the context of the final video montage and dance performance.

However, at times, the physical comedy of these moments threatens to undermine any serious critique. Perhaps this is the point, though: the story we are being told is, while true, utterly ludicrous. The extended sequences of muscle flexing and macho posturing can sometimes seem overdone, but they aren’t out of place.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Performances by Diego Anido, Pablo Rosal, Wang Ping-Hsiang, David Muñiz and Nico Roig are excellent, and the use of the stage space is creative and inventive. Certain set pieces really stand out. The video projection sequence of the creation of a banana plantation is a real highlight – despite the fact that the audience can see the performers on stage manipulating tiny scale models, the images on screen could be mistaken for pre-edited animation. The show’s final speech (and the projected montage that precedes it) is an excellent crystallization of the ideas that underpin the show – entertaining, yes, but also a truly hard-edged commentary on the state of the late-capitalist world. Estamos bien.

This speech is not the end, however. Kingdom builds to a finale that is almost overwhelming in its intensity. In many ways, it is the final dance and music performance that really underlines the show’s message: in a capitalist system, the only way to go is bigger, louder, faster. Is this hope? Or hopelessness? Or is it an exhortation to eat more bananas and dance?

Phot credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Kingdom is a show that expertly combines a hard-hitting socio-political message with truly inventive stagecraft and performances. It’s loud, extravagant, dynamic and energetic – and above all, it’s completely bananas.

Kingdom is on at HOME in Manchester until Saturday 13th April, as part of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

My Year in Books 2019: March

Another post in my ongoing book review series. I read quite a few novels this month, though I must admit I was a bit disappointed by some of them. I apologize in advance for the overuse of the word 'Sigh' in my reviews. Still, there were some that I enjoyed, so it wasn't all bad.

(For the curious, here are the links to my reviews from January and February.)

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (2018)

Sigh. I feel like I’ve relapsed back into my old habit. Last month, I mentioned this blog post by Sophie Hannah, listing books with ‘twist endings’. I also said I’d be reading the six titles on the list that I’ve not already read. With one exception, these are all… domestic noir. And if you read my reviews from last year, you’ll know my feelings on this genre. The Woman in the Window is, sadly, not even a good example of domestic noir. Agoraphobic and alcoholic psychologist Anna Fox watches her neighbours from her window. One day, she believes she sees one neighbour (Jane Russell) being murdered… but Jane’s family insist that it hasn’t happened. Nobody believes Anna’s story, because she’s clearly an unreliable witness… but can she prove that she really saw what she thinks she saw? Blatantly derivative, the book blends plot elements from Hitchcock films (Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes being the most obvious) with ‘twists’ reminiscent of other domestic noir thrillers (especially The Girl on the Train and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I think one of my big problems with this genre is that I like unreliable narrators, but domestic noir thrives on narrators who are called unreliable, but actually are telling the absolute truth. Spoiler alert: what Anna thinks she saw is indeed exactly what happened. Sigh. The Woman in the Window is clichéd and poorly written (I can’t take another synonym for ‘drink’), and I don’t think the ‘twists’ were really twists.

The Wife Between Us by by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2018)

Right. That’s it. This is definitely the last one. I really can’t read any more domestic noir. Once again, I’ve fallen for the promise of MASSIVE TWISTS, and once again I am disappointed. The Wife Between Us is absolutely in the mould of The Girl on the Train. We’ve got an unreliable (possibly alcoholic) first-person female narrator, a horrible ex, and a new girlfriend that’s a source of… jealousy? But (and this obviously goes without saying) things are not what they seem. The first-person chapters are narrated by Vanessa, the ex-wife of a man named Richard, who appears to be obsessed with the man’s new fiancée. Interspersed with this are third-person chapters describing Nellie’s preparations for her upcoming marriage to Richard, and her concerns that someone is following her. The first twist comes at the end of Part 1, but I have to admit I saw it coming. Perhaps if the book’s blurb hadn’t been so insistent that, if you think Vanessa is a jealous ex obsessed with her replacement, ‘you will be wrong’, the ‘twist’ would have been more of a surprise. Following this, there are three (maybe four, depending on whether you’re surprised by the revelation that Richard isn’t very nice) additional twists, each more far-fetched than the last. The final reveal – in the book’s epilogue – is just silly. Sadly, this is not a recommendation from me, though I might be in a minority with this one. It feels like a paint-by-numbers domestic thriller, and it’s quite disappointing.

Innocent Blood by P.D. James (1980)

So, I decided to carry on with Sophie Hannah’s ‘twist list’. (I notice that some people on Goodreads have called it that, and that they’ve been just as completist as me – nice to know I’m not alone!) I couldn’t face any more of the domestic noir titles, so I went with the P.D. James novel on the list. Now, I read a few P.D. James novels last year, and I’m pretty sure I came to the conclusion that her books are not really my cup of tea. But I didn’t let that put me off. Reader, I should’ve let it put me off. Innocent Blood is not a pleasant read. It’s the story of a (unlikeable) young woman, Philippa Palfrey, who decides to trace her (unlikeable) birth parents, partly to spite her (unlikeable) adoptive parents. Philippa quickly locates her birth mother and decides to attempt a relationship with the woman… but are there secrets still to be discovered? In short: no, there aren’t. I think I know the reason the book was including on a list of ‘twists’, but the revelations in Innocent Blood are fairly obvious. I must’ve misread an earlier scene, as I thought the ‘big reveal’ had been described from the beginning. Added to this, the book has James’s usual judgemental tone that I find discomforting, and a shock revelation in the epilogue that just seems distasteful. Sadly, this month’s theme seems to be ‘books I didn’t enjoy very much’, which is a bit of a shame.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson (2008)

I’m not having much luck with this ‘twist list’, am I? But I’ve decided to press on with it… what’s the worst that can happen? Well, it turns out… not Before I Go to Sleep. This one was alright. I pretty much knew what I was getting into with this one. I like 50 First Dates. I like Memento. So I imagined I’d probably enjoy a mash-up of the two. Christine Lucas is a 47-year-old woman with a form of anterograde amnesia, meaning that she wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is or what has happened to her. Each morning when she wakes, her husband Ben eases her into the day and explains their life together and her condition (aww… sweet). The story begins on one such day, but after Ben leaves for work, Christine gets a message to meet a Dr Nash. He’s been treating her (secretly) for several weeks, and reveals that Christine has been keeping a journal each day to help with her recovery. When she opens the journal, she’s shocked to see the words ‘Remember Sammy Jankis’ ‘Don’t Trust Ben’ written on the front page. What is her loving husband hiding from her? And can she trust Dr Nash? Or herself? This was a very quick read (just a few hours), but an enjoyable one (albeit requiring some suspension of disbelief). I did guess the twist part way through. But do you know what? It was actually a twist this time. Finally!

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris (2016)

Last book on the ‘twist list’ – the completist in me rejoices. Sadly, I think I saved the worst for last though. Behind Closed Doors isn’t an enjoyable read. And it certainly doesn’t have a twist. It does exactly what it says on the tin (well, the blurb anyway). To outsiders, Jack and Grace have the perfect relationship. But ‘behind closed doors’, Jack is an abusive psychopath who keeps his wife imprisoned and punishes her for any transgressions. This was not a pleasant book to read. It’s pretty offensive to survivors of domestic abuse – or ‘battered wives’, as the book repeatedly calls them – and utterly unrealistic about the mechanisms of abuse or the patterns of coercive control that result in people staying with abusive spouses. It’s also very demeaning of people with Down’s Syndrome: Grace has a sister with Down’s Syndrome (Millie) who is slated to be Jack’s next victim, and the representation here is highly problematic. Jack threatens to throw Grace’s (almost adult) sister ‘into an asylum’ if she doesn’t comply with his bizarre abuse fantasy – and at no point is it noted that this… just isn’t a thing. The storyline doesn’t go any further than this, and there are certainly no twists. I know that domestic noir thrives on bad husbands, but at least there’s usually some semblance of confusion or doubt thrown in. There’s very little suspense or intrigue here, leaving this as simply a book that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sadly, one to avoid.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh (2016)

This next book is one I found on a charity book sale shelf at my local supermarket. I’d not heard of this one, but it promised a ‘Gothic mystery’ so I thought it was probably worth a go. And I’m happy to say this was the right decision. McHugh’s novel is a compelling Southern Gothic tale about a young woman haunted by the past. Arden Arrowood returns to her home town of Keokuk, after her father dies and she inherits the (crumbling) family home. Arden and her parents left Keokuk around sixteen years previously, after the mysterious disappearance of Arden’s twin sisters. Despite an extensive search, no trace was ever found of the two toddlers, and this past tragedy casts a long shadow over Arden (and her family). Returning to Arrowood, Arden is forced to confront this unsolved mystery, especially as a writer is determined to interview her for a book he’s writing about the case. Arrowood’s mystery isn’t particularly original, but I was definitely gripped by the way it developed. More than this though, I loved the descriptions of Keokuk and its various run-down historic houses. The town takes on a character all of its own, and I’d have been quite happy to defer the revelation of what happened to the twins in order to spend more time in this faded, jaded place. If you fancy a Southern Gothic mystery with some evocative descriptions, cleverly placed clues, and a compelling central puzzle, then this one is a definite recommendation.

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2009)

Another one from the supermarket charity book sale. This one looked pretty cool: it’s a detective story where the central character is a forensic archaeologist. Ruth Galloway (the archaeologist investigator) is called in when bones are discovered at a construction site. A child’s body is found buried underneath an old house that’s being pulled down on the site. It’s quickly revealed that the house was once a Catholic children’s home, and that – several decades earlier – two children disappeared from the home. When the cause of death is revealed, Ruth is drawn into the murder investigation with DCI Harry Nelson (and some help from her Druid friend Cathbad and fellow archaeologist Max Grey). This was an okay read, but it didn’t completely grab me. It’s quite clear from the start that this is the second book in a series (I haven’t read the first one), and that the relationships between the characters were established in the first instalment. Normally, this doesn’t matter too much in crime series. However, I felt like these relationships dominated the story too much. The balance between the investigators’ private lives and the actual investigation wasn’t quite right – if you isolate the ‘case’, it’s really quite light on story and intrigue. And, sadly, the murder mystery itself is pretty obvious – I think I worked out every single one of the reveals. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the characters of Ruth, Harry and Cathbad, but I would’ve rather had a more intriguing puzzle to draw me in.

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Endless Night Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 11th January 2015
Platform: PC

Another game review for me – and another instalment in the Phantasmat series. I’ve been really impressed with these ones, though it’s making me wonder how I’ve managed to miss this series up until now. The third title in the series is Phantasmat: The Endless Night, and it saw another change of developer. The original Phantasmat game was developed by Codeminion back in 2011 (see my review here). The sequel, which had a similar narrative but a different setting and characters, was developed by ERS G-Studio in 2012 (see my review here). There were no new Phantasmat titles until early 2015, when the series development mantle passed to Eipix Entertainment.

I’ve played quite a few games by Eipix – and they have got form for picking up series and reimagining/developing them – so I was curious to see how much they’d changed the format of the games. Also, having really enjoyed the first two Phantasmat games, I had high hopes for The Endless Night. And I wasn’t disappointed on either front – this one is a definite recommendation from me.

The game begins with the standard HOPA intro sequence… you’re driving your car down the road at night (this time, taking your daughter Aimee to her prom), when something happens and you’re forced off the road. Just before the crash, you’d been talking to Aimee about the devastating accident that killed a load of people at Prom 1965, so it comes as little surprise to discover that this history forms the background to the mystery in the game. That’s right: the ‘Endless Night’ in question is, in fact, Prom Night. Your car accident has left you apparently stranded in 1965 and the aftermath of the horrific accident. Oh, and your daughter’s been abducted – it wouldn’t be a HOPA if your daughter wasn’t in some sort of peril.

I loved the prom storyline that opened The Endless Night. I’ll say something about the game’s design below, but I loved the way the devastation of the accident was evoked and the introduction of the underlying mystery. Several hints early on suggest a sort of Carrie vibe, as the first non-player character you meet is a bullied ‘nerd’ who may or may not have been responsible for killing everyone. (Unlike in some other instalments of the series, there is absolutely no doubt that the NPCs you’re interacting with are ghosts. These are definitely manifestations of people who died in 1965, though they don’t know that.) However, not long into the game, the Carrie-esque story gives way to something more like My Bloody Valentine (if you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what I mean) and a quite different story starts to unfold. By about halfway through, you’ve pretty much left the prom behind, and your exploration of the town is much more focused on the underlying cause of the killer accident.

As this is a HOPA, there are some minor narrative issues and inconsistencies. I’m not sure how old my player-character was supposed to be – and I certainly couldn’t work out how old my PC’s dad was supposed to be – and there was a little bit of suspension of disbelief required. But this is expected of HOPAs, and in some ways it’s part of the charm. Overall, The Endless Night has a really strong and compelling storyline. I liked the swerve away from prom to something different, and I enjoyed the ‘twist’ at the end – although I did guess what was coming, I thought the ‘clues’ were very well-done. So, in terms of story, The Endless Night is way above average for me.

The earlier Phantasmat games were beautifully designed, but I think Eipix have really brought it up a notch with this one. Scenes are detailed, evocative and stylish, with some items and objects being particularly well-illustrated. The prom debris scattered across several of the scenes is a nice touch, and it adds to the general feeling of care and attention to detail. Probably the biggest change of design with this game comes with the use of live actors for cutscenes and dialogue interactions. Live actors in HOPAs are a bit of a divisive issue, but I feel they’re done well in The Endless Night and the animation style makes the transitions between static animated scenes and live action as close to seamless as you’ll find in a HOPA. (The voice acting is all good too.)

On the whole, I’d say that, design-wise, this is the best instalment of the series so far. The only aspect that doesn’t stand out particularly is the music. It’s a perfectly appropriate soundtrack, which doesn’t loop too much and (mostly) mirrors the game in its tonal shifts. But it’s not especially memorable and wouldn’t have been out of place in any number of HOPAs.

While this is a HOPA, so there’s plenty of moving around scenes, hunting through junk piles and finding inventory objects to use, there are some distinct touches. Eipix have also introduced a few features of gameplay that, while familiar from other games by this designer, weren’t included in the earlier Phantasmat titles. There’s now a Custom difficulty option (yay!) and a jump map (meh). The HOGs are more varied – so there are lists, morphing objects, silhouettes and word clues, and some HOGs combine two or more of these. There are also hidden collectible eye symbols (thankfully not morphing) on each screen. It’s not all change though: there’s still the option to switch between HOGs and Match-3 if you fancy it.

That said, my biggest criticism of The Endless Night is to do with gameplay. The game starts off pretty intuitive and logical, with clear objectives and tasks. However, once you leave the school building (and the prom) to investigate the accident, things get a little less intuitive. Objectives are still clearly stated, but there’s quite a bit of back-and-forth, and there isn’t always any logic or common sense behind this. I found myself using Hint and the jump map quite a bit during the second half of the game, as I was losing a clear sense of the what and why of my progression through the game. Coupled with this, inventory items aren’t always used logically. A pet peeve of mine is using coins as screwdrivers – and this is extra frustrating when there’s clearly a coin slot nearby. If you’ve got a magnet and a coin, and there’s a gumball dispenser (with a coin slot) nearby, it’s totally annoying to discover that you have to use the magnet, not the coin, on the dispenser. I really don’t like having to use Hint to discover how to use my inventory items.

So far, characters have been a big part of the Phantasmat series. Despite not being a huge fan of NPCs in HOPAs, I enjoyed the way they were used in the first two games. In many ways, The Endless Night makes similar use of NPCs, though there are substantially more of them. As I’ve said above, this game uses live actors to enhance cutscenes and interactions, but there’s also the addition of a daughter-in-peril character and a stranger who seems to be in the same boat as you. This is a distinctly well-populated game, but it still gets round the problem of inactive NPCs (the ones who set you a task but refuse to actually help you complete it) through the fact that everyone is trapped (and unaware of what is really going on).

A number of the characters share a bit of backstory with you when you first meet them – this is usually a little bit of explanation about what they were doing at the time of the accident, or about some unresolved business they still have. A lot of this is simply set up for a task (e.g. finding an object that will serve to conclude the unresolved business), but some of the NPCs present you with backstory that’s unexpectedly moving. This is usually in the form of some misguided guilt about the fatal accident. In some cases (especially the ghostly fire crew), this is truly sad and adds a sympathetic dimension to the game that’s rather unusual.

I played the CE version of The Endless Night, so there was a bit of bonus content. Firstly, there was a bonus chapter, which was a prologue rather than an epilogue (as in the first two instalments). I’m not sure this prologue added very much to the story though. You play as one of the NPCs from the main game, and the primary objective seems to be to discover more about your own backstory. Gameplay here is even more confusing than in the latter part of the main game, and I really struggled to keep track of the what and why. This was an extra bit of gameplay, which is always nice, but it didn’t really add to the main narrative.

Other bonus features include concept art and soundtrack, achievements, a Souvenir Room (a chance to go back to each screen and look for an additional hidden object) and a Match-3 game. There are also replays on each of the HOGs (with an additional achievement for getting stars on the replays) and a chance to find any eyes you missed during gameplay.

In case it’s not clear – and setting aside minor niggles – I really liked this one! Stylish design and gameplay that’s just difficult enough (challenging, not frustrating) – but it’s the story and characterization that really won me over. I’m definitely going to be checking out the next title in the Phantasmat series.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Poirot Project: The Further Adventures of Mr Satterthwaite

This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Chocolate Box’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

When I was coming up to reviewing ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, I decided to make this blog project even more completist by considering Miss Lemon’s appearances in other, non-Poirot stories. I called that post ‘The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon’, and I said at the time that my plan was to write about the ‘further adventures’ of all the other characters who crop up in both Poirot and non-Poirot stories.

Well, it’s time for another ‘further adventures’ post… This time, it’s Mr Satterthwaite who takes centre-stage.

What do you mean, who’s Mr Satterthwaite? Oh dear.

Actually, you might (just) be forgiven for needing to be reminded about Mr Satterthwaite. The poor chap gets short shrift when it comes to Christie adaptations. And by that I mean, Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen in a Christie adaptation. He was (I think) used as the central character in a ‘modern day drama interpretation’ app produced as a ‘multimedia stream with social functionality’ by Agatha Christie Productions in 2015. I’d never heard of the Mr Quin app before today, but I see from the publicity that Mr Satterthwaite was played by Gethin Anthony, making Anthony perhaps the only person to ever perform as (a version of) Christie’s rather unassuming character.

One adaptation where you certainly won’t see Mr Satterthwaite is ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although Christie included the character in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy, the character was removed/replaced in the TV versions. So, you might ask, given that this is a blog about the ITV show, why on earth have I devoted an entire post to a minor character who appears very briefly in a couple of stories and is dropped entirely from the adaptations?

It’s simple really. I wanted an excuse to talk about Harley Quin.

Not you.

In the mid- to late-1920s, Christie wrote a series of short stories for various magazines (including Grand Magazine and The Story-Teller, featuring a certain Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend Harley Quin.

NOT YOU. Go on, clear off.

Twelve of the stories were published in 1930 as a collection entitled The Mysterious Mr Quin, and two further stories ‘The Love Detectives’ (first published as ‘At the Crossroads’ in The Story-Teller, but not included in the earlier collection) and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ were included in later collections of Christie stories. All the short stories, along with ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy were collected into The Complete Quin and Satterthwaite: Love Detectives and published by HarperCollins.

I know the stories from my 1965 Fontana Books edition of The Mysterious Mr Quin (which I apparently bought for 19p when I was working at the Oxfam shop in the late 90s) and the 2010 HarperCollins eBook edition of Problem at Pollensa Bay (a collection first published in 1991, which includes ‘The Love Detectives’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’).

To put these stories in context of Christie’s other detective fiction… the first Harley Quin story was published in March 1924. By this point, Christie had written two Poirot novels and a series of short stories for the Sketch. She was also in the process of wrapping up a second series of Sketch stories (known as ‘The Man who was No. 4’), which finished the same month as the first Harley Quin story appeared. Tommy and Tuppence had appeared in one novel (The Secret Adversary) by this time, but it would be three years before Miss Marple’s first outing (‘The Tuesday Night Club’, 1927) and eight years before we’d meet Parker Pyne (‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, 1932).

According to Christie’s autobiography, the Harley Quin stories were her favourite stories (or, perhaps, her favourite out of the two short story collections she published between 1929-1932 – her statement is a tad ambiguous!), and ‘Little Mr Satterthwaite’ was one of her favourite characters. Is it strange, then, that he has drifted into obscurity? Or is it somehow weirdly appropriate?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Harley Quin/Mr Satterthwaite stories, allow me to introduce you to them. You’re in for a treat.

Our introduction to the characters – and to the type of story in which they will feature – comes in the first published story ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’. Our hero (as it were) is described thus:
‘Mr Satterthwaite was sixty-two* - a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people’s lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, with old age holding him in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded now something a little out of the common.’
The story takes place on New Year’s Eve, at a house party at Royston. Mr Satterthwaite is among the guests, as are Richard Conway, a couple called Portal and ‘six or seven young people whose names Mr Satterthwaite had not grasped’. The hosts are Tom and Laura Evesham.

As midnight strikes, Mr Satterthwaite finds himself intrigued by Eleanor Portal, and by what he perceives to be the strange effect she has on her husband. The party toast to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and a rather melancholy mood comes over them. In typical NYE fashion, they begin to get a little maudlin, remembering the death of Derek Capel (the previous owner of the house), some years earlier. (Except the ‘serious political’ Laura Evesham, that is. She’s just hoping the New Year will be happier: ‘But the political situation seems to me to be fraught with grave uncertainty.’ Bloody Brexit.)

Up to this point, ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ reads like a fairly standard Golden Age country house mystery, albeit one with a curious central character. As midnight chimes, though, a somewhat different atmosphere descends. There’s talk of Royston being haunted, of an old case that has never been fully explained, and a wild wind begins to blow outside. Laura Evesham (in a somewhat less ‘serious political’ vein) talks of an old superstition: ‘it must be a dark man who first steps over the door step on New Year’s Day’. And Alex Portal is unsettled by the weather:
‘“A good night for ghosts to walk,” said Portal with a reckless laugh. “All the devils in Hell are abroad to-night.”
“According to Lady Laura, even the blackest of them would bring us luck,” observed Conway, with a laugh.’
It should come as absolutely no surprise that, at this point, the men’s laughter is interrupted by the heavy sound of three loud knocks on the door.

Is it a dark man come to cross the threshold and bring good luck? Is it a ghost? Is it a devil?
‘Framed in the doorway stood a man’s figure, tall and slender. To Mr Satterthwaite, watching, he appeared by some curious effect of the stained glass above the door, to be dressed in every colour of the rainbow. Then, as he stepped forward, he showed himself to be a thin dark man dressed in motoring clothes.’
This is Mr Harley Quin. And he is most definitely not a consulting detective.

Before I come on to what – exactly – Mr Quin is, I want to say something about the type of cases he solves with Mr Satterthwaite. I guess the modern way of describing them would be ‘cold cases’ – these stories feature puzzles from the past, where there are no clues or opportunities for re-investigation. Harley Quin has no interest in different types of cigarette ash or footprints in the flowerbed, but rather he is concerned with the details of an event deeply hidden in the memories of those present. In ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he gently encourages the house party to think back to the death of Derek Capel and piece together the seemingly unrelated scraps they all recall.

This use of memory – the idea that the truth can be obtained by a group of people sharing what they remember of an event – is something Christie would come back to in later Poirot stories. Both Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember have this idea as a central conceit, for instance. As with these later novels, this act of remembering is coupled with a detective character who observes the participants as they remember, in order to put together a plausible theory of what must have occurred. While it is Mr Quin who nudges the memories in ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, it is Mr Satterthwaite who is able to divine the significances.

This is the general pattern of the subsequent Harley Quin stories as well. While there are two stories in which Satterthwaite is able to prevent an impending murder (‘The Face of Helen’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ – arguably ‘The Voice in the Dark’ could be counted here as well, though it’s not completely clear what ‘Clayton’ plans to do to Margery after killing her mother) and one where Satterthwaite is himself present at the time of the murder (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), the stories tend to focus on cases that have happened elsewhere and, usually, at some point in the past. Few of the stories actually end with an arrest, and there is very little mention of the police.

What does get more of a mention in the Harley Quin stories is suicide. In a number of stories, Mr Satterthwaite is able to discern suicidal intent in a chance acquaintance and, almost always, avert this by solving the problem at the root of their desperation. ‘The Man from the Sea’ is probably the clearest example of this, but there are a number of other stories featuring characters brought low by a crippling melancholia quite unlike anything found elsewhere in Christie’s fiction. These are stories about, above all, sadness.

While I guess it’s tempting to imagine reasons why Christie might, in the mid- to late-1920s, have written a series of short stories with sadness as the overriding theme, I don’t want to do that here. What I’m interested about is her choice of ‘detective’ for these stories – what’s the deal with Harley Quin?

What – exactly – is Harley Quin?

‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ gives a few possibilities… he’s a ghost, he’s a devil, he’s a good luck charm. Elsewhere in the stories, he takes on more explicitly supernatural qualities. He appears where he should not be – sometimes apparently willed there by Satterthwaite himself (e.g. ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’) – and disappears in equally baffling ways (e.g. he seems to walk off a cliff at the end of ‘The Man from the Sea’). On one occasion (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), he appears to send Satterthwaite a summons from afar via table-turning.

Of course, it should go without saying that Harley Quin is also directly associated with… well… Harlequin. There’s the name (obvs), and the fact that he’s often described as appearing to be dressed in multi-coloured clothes or motley, though this is often simply a trick of the light. At the end of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he cheekily suggests Mr Satterthwaite checks out the Harlequinade at the theatre: ‘It is dying out nowadays – but it repays attention.’ In subsequent stories, Satterthwaite runs into Quin at a fancy restaurant named Arlecchino and a country pub called the Bells and Motley. In ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’, the H-word is used repeatedly to describe the eponymous multi-coloured tea service, and then there’s ‘Harlequin’s Lane’… but no… you’re not ready for that one yet.

Now, I drafted a whole long section about Harlequin that I was going to include here. About his appearance in the Italian Commedia dell’arte as a comedic zanni (servant) character. About the theories that this zanni Harlequin is a development of earlier mischievous ‘devil’ characters in medieval drama, explaining Harlequin’s common role as a trickster. About the English Harlequinade and pantomime, and the importing of Harlequin as a key character. About the development of the English Harlequin into the sophisticated romantic lead, to be contrasted with the chaos and brutishness of Clown. I had a whole big thing about Joseph Grimaldi and the Payne Brothers, the relationship to Punch and Judy, the significance of ‘motley’ and its jester heritage.

But the thing is… that’s not what Harley Quin is. Harley Quin is something that derives from – to quote Max Mallowan – ‘Agatha’s peculiar imagination’. He isn’t a mischievous trickster, or a romantic lead. He isn’t a jester or a comedic servant. He is an immortal death deity – a psychopomp.

I imagine you think I’ve lost the plot now, don’t you?

But I totally stand by this claim. Agatha Christie’s series detectives are: a Belgian refugee, a married couple who dabble in secret service work, an elderly spinster, a life coach and an immortal psychopomp. Fact.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a trip down ‘Harlequin’s Lane’, shall we?

In this story, Mr Satterthwaite is visiting a couple called Denman. John Denman is a solid Englishman ‘devoid of imagination’, and Mrs Denman is a Russian who escaped the revolution as a refugee. The Denmans live close to an old-fashioned ‘rural lane’ named Harlequin’s Lane, and Mr Satterthwaite is unsurprised to find his old friend hanging out on said street.

What follows is probably the trippiest, most disturbing story of the lot.

In a nutshell: the Denmans are planning to stage a little entertainment for their friends. They’re putting on a ballet performance of ‘Harlequin and Columbine’, and they have some exciting dancers arriving to take part. Turns out, Mrs Denman trained as a dancer in Russia. Talk turns to the tragedy of Kharsanova, Russia’s greatest ever dancer (apparently), who was killed during the revolution. People arrive and there’s hints of intrigue (Does John Denman fancy Molly Stanwell? Does Mrs Denman have a history with Prince Oranoff?). But then a car accident prevents the arrival of the professional dancers… Mrs Denman decides to dance the part of Columbine herself, with Oranoff playing Harlequin.

Plot twist: Mrs Denman is Kharsanova!

I’ll gloss over the reasons for Anna Kharsanova’s decision to disappear to England and change her name (just for info, not saying it’s relevant, but the story was published just five months after Christie disappeared and was found staying in Harrogate under a false name). What matters is the resolution to the story. Despite Mrs Denman/Kharsanova’s implication that she is now going to leave her husband to be with Oranoff (‘For ten years I have lived with the man I love […] Now I am going to the man who for ten years has loved me.’), the story quickly reveals that her words mean something else entirely. She explains to Satterthwaite:
‘“Always one looks for one thing – the lover, the perfect, the eternal lover… It is the music of Harlequin one hears. No lover ever satisfies one, for all lovers are mortal. And Harlequin is only a myth, an invisible presence… unless –”
“Yes,” said Mr Satterthwaite. “Yes?”
“Unless – his name is – Death!”’

Shortly afterwards, Satterthwaite sees Kharsanova being led down Harlequin’s Lane by his old (at this point, terrifying) friend. Her maid, however, saw her walking down the lane alone.

They all hurry to the end of the lane and find Anna Kharsanova… lying dead on a rubbish heap.

Seriously, WTF??

Satterthwaite – quite understandably – asks Mr Quin what the hell is going on:
‘“What is this place?” he whispered. “What is this place?”
“I told you earlier to-day. It is My lane.”
[…] “And at the end of it – what do they find?”
“The house of their dreams – or a rubbish heap – who shall say?”’
And with that, Mr Quin literally vanishes into thin air.

Mr Satterthwaite better hope his friend is a psychopomp. The alternative is that he’s a psychopath, gleefully offing Russian ballet dancers and chucking their bodies onto his homemade murder tip.

Anyway, I’ve looked everywhere for some academic source for this association of Harlequin with death. There’s nothing. Harlequin-as-psychopomp really does seem to be Christie’s own unique take. It’s easy enough to find information about Christie’s fascination with the characters of the Commedia dell’arte (or more accurately the Harlequinade): in her autobiography, for instance, she writes about some of her early poems, which drew on stories of Harlequin and Columbine, and breezily suggests that Harley Quin was simply a ‘kind of carry-over’ from these. Her first Poirot short story (‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ featured characters dressed as figures from the Commedia, supposedly inspired by a set of china ornaments she’d had as a child. But none of this explains why she repeatedly associates Harlequin with death.

I don’t have an answer to this. And I’ve just remembered that I’m supposed to be talking about Mr Satterthwaite, and not Harley Quin. Oops.

To return to where I began: Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen. In fact, the Harley Quin stories themselves have barely been adapted. Nevertheless, there is an interesting story about the only (loose) film adaptation to tackle the tales – or, rather, one of the tales.

In 1928, a silent film version of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ was made. It was the first British film adaptation of a work by Christie, predating Alibi by three years. The film was called The Passing of Mr Quin, and, like Alibi, it was directed by Leslie S. Hiscott. The film took… erm… quite serious liberties with the plot and characterization, to the point of revealing at the end that it was Mr Quin himself who carried out the murder. Mr Satterthwaite – poor Mr Satterthwaite – is removed from the story entirely.

I have not seen The Passing of Mr Quin. The film was a ‘quota quickie’, and it has since been lost. However, the studio decided to publish a novelization of the film shortly after its release. Agatha Christie was reportedly horrified by this, not realizing that the film rights she had sold gave permission to the studio to use her characters in this way (and suffice to say future contracts were worded quite differently). The novelization only had a single print run, but it did survive.

In 2017, HarperCollins republished The Passing of Mr Quinn (note the spelling of the character’s name), with a fantastic introduction by Mark Aldridge that outlines the history of the film and the novelization, as well as the publication history of Christie’s own stories. It’s well worth a read.

So what have we learnt?

Mr Satterthwaite is one of Christie’s more overlooked creations, despite being one of her favourites. He’s an unassuming gent of good taste and sociable habits, who enjoys the arts. After many years of simply observing life’s drama, he has decided to make more of an intervention, and this leads him to offer comfort, explanation and resolution to the troubled people he encounters. The stories in which he features are characterized by deep sadness, with suicide being a common theme.

Mr Satterthwaite hooks up with a possibly malevolent, and almost definitely immortal, psychopomp, who may or may not be Harlequin. Among his more human acquaintances is Hercule Poirot, who he chums up with in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ (briefly) and Three Act Tragedy.

We’ve also learnt that you, dear reader, will put up with me rambling on for 3500 words about characters that aren’t even in the ITV Poirot series.

Shall I get back on track? The next episode is ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, which doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. But it’s an adaptation of a short story that does include Mr Satterthwaite. Of course, that short story is an expansion of an earlier story that doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. You know what? Let’s just move on to ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’

* I believe that Christie made some changes between the original magazine publication and the 1930 book publication of the story. One of these changes was to shift Mr Satterthwaite’s age forward from 57 to 62.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Crucible Peak Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: ERS G-Studio
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 6th December 2012
Platform: PC

Hot on the heels of playing the first Phantasmat game, I jumped straight into the next one in the series. I really enjoyed the first one, and the rest of the series (or at least the earlier instalments) all seem to have quite high ratings. It would be quite nice to have a new series that I can rely on (the closest I’ve come since Mystery Case Files is PuppetShow, and these are a bit hit-and-miss). So let’s see how the Phantasmat series shapes up…

The second game in the series is Phantasmat: Crucible Peak, and there’s been a change of developer. This one was developed by ERC G-Studio (now Amax Interactive) in 2012.

You’re a skier in this one (not sure if you’re supposed to be playing as the same person as in Phantasmat), and the game begins with you looking forward to a dream ski trip in the Alps. But shock! horror! a terrifying avalanche puts paid to your plans. You find yourself trapped in a little town called Alpion, which appears to be abandoned. As with the first game, your primary objective is to find a way to get out of the town and on your way. However – again, as with the first game – you are intercepted by one of the few residents of the town, who tells you that something wrong is happening. Naturally, your secondary objective is to find out what on earth’s wrong with Alpion.

The town has been deserted since another catastrophic avalanche many years earlier. The local resort is apparently still open, but there’s no one staying except a young man called Otto, who you meet earlier on. The resort owner offers to help you, and so you start to travel around the area, meeting a couple of other residents along the way. Gradually, the true mystery of Alpion is revealed… or, at least, it would be if you haven’t played the first game. Somewhat disappointingly, the storyline and mystery has almost exactly the same structure as the first Phantasmat game. While it’s quite possible that you guessed the ‘twist’ in Phantasmat, there’s no need to guess at all in the second game – it’s just the same twist. This is a bit of a shame, but it didn’t completely ruin my enjoyment of the game.

The game’s design is stylish and well-done. The frozen backdrops are beautifully rendered, and the character illustrations are also great. As before, the non-player characters are illustrated but not fully animated. The dialogue animation is okay – though there are some occasionally clumsy movements – and the voice acting is great (except in one case, which I’ll come back to). The HOGs are well-designed here. They are undoubtedly quite dark, but the difficulty level is just right for me. (And although I didn’t play them much, the Match-3 games are just beautiful.) Soundtrack and cutscenes are well-done, though these aren’t quite as stylish as those in the first game. Or maybe the novelty value was higher for the first one – Crucible Peak is an enjoyable game, but there’s an undeniable feeling that it’s treading the same ground as Phantasmat.

The gameplay doesn’t hold much surprise for HOPA fans: it’s move-around-and-find-stuff as usual. There are three difficulty levels, but no Custom option. I played on Advanced (the middle level), meaning I had slow recharge on Hint and Skip and some misclick penalty. Advanced is also meant to limit the number of black bar hints that appear during the game, but, while it does do that, the mini-games annoyingly have instructions displayed as default so there’s no setting that will remove these. There’s also no jump map in this one, but you can switch between HOGs and Match-3 should you choose. In my review of the first game, I praised the intuitive and logical gameplay, as well as the way HOGs are integrated into the gameplay. Crucible Peak began in a similar vein – it was pretty clear what you had to do and why you had to do it, and inventory items were used in a common-sense way. However, as the game progressed, I found myself using Hint a lot more. The back-and-forth began to get a bit much, and I sometimes forgot what task I was meant to be completing. Inventory items were mostly common sense, but there were a couple of things that I had to use in an unexpected way.

I don’t want to keep reflecting back on my previous review, but Crucible Peak is in many ways so close to Phantasmat that I can’t really avoid it. And so… once again, in my review of the first game I commented on the use of NPCs. I liked the way NPCs worked in the first game, and so was happy enough for them to be used in a similar way in Crucible Peak. Yes – they have that HOPA habit of telling you to help with something and then standing back while you struggle through the task alone, but that makes sense in the context of the storyline.

There was a feature of the NPCs in Phantasmat that I couldn’t say too much about without giving spoilers. Well, Crucible Peak does the same thing (and I still don’t want to give any spoilers). And, on reflection, I think it’s even better second time round! The NPCs are given more detail in Crucible Peak – they’re given names, for instance, and a slightly more developed backstory. My favourite of these was Schultz, whose story went from vaguely HOPA-creepy to incredibly moving in just one cutscene. Nevertheless, there are some slightly odd moments – the development of Otto’s accent is just strange, and I don’t think the voice acting is at its best here. I can’t pretend that the motivations of all the NPCs makes sense, but a lot less suspension of disbelief is required than with some games.

As I played the CE for this one, there was some bonus content. The main attraction is, as ever, a bonus chapter. But this turned out to be a disappointing. As with Phantasmat, the bonus game is an epilogue chapter that feels a little bit tagged on. It adds nothing new or different to the story, and simply gives you another half an hour of gameplay. Other bonus features include concept art, soundtrack and achievements. There are also replays on HOGs, Match-3s and mini-games, as well as achievements. The game does offer one unusual bonus feature – character profiles for each of the NPCs. These profiles flesh out some of the backstory you discover in the game, as well as offering some little extra details. This quirky little feature adds to the overall feeling that Crucible Peak is developing its NPCs in a bit more detail than Phantasmat.

So, overall, I did enjoy this one, and I spent a happy 5 hours or so completing it. I feel like I enjoyed Phantasmat more, but I wonder if that’s because it had a real novelty value to it. Perhaps I would have like Crucible Peak more if I hadn’t been constantly comparing it to the first game! Nevertheless, I’m definitely liking this series, and I think it’s quite likely I’ll be playing the third Phantasmat title before too long.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Codeminion
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 6th January 2011
Platform: PC

I had a couple of game credits and a bit of spare time, so I thought I’d try out a game series I’ve not played before: Phantasmat. I saw the most recent title (Remains of Buried Memories) listed on Big Fish Games, but it seemed to have mixed reviews. I know this sounds weird, but it was the negative reviews of Remains of Buried Memories that convinced me to try the series. Bear with me on this… A number of the bad reviews of Remains of Buried Memories were from people who were comparing the new game (unfavourably) to earlier instalments of the series. These reviews were so effusive about the early titles, they convinced me to give them a try. I’ve been looking for a new series to replace Mystery Case Files in my affections, after all.

So I started with the first game, Phantasmat, which was developed by Codeminion (later titles were developed by other companies). And I’ll say up front, this is going to be a positive review. I really liked this one!

The game begins – like so many others – with your character driving down a dark and rainy road. And would you believe it? You crash your car and end up in a strangely deserted town. This is fairly typical HOPA stuff, but it’s done very well here. You’re quickly introduced to one of the non-player characters (more on these characters shortly), who directs you to the local hotel – which is ominously named The Drowned Dead Hotel. You’re advised to ask for help and use the phone only – apparently this is not a good place to stay the night. However, when you enter the Drowned Dead, the hotel’s owner (another NPC) tells you the power’s down, the phone’s not working, and you’re going to have to help fix things.

And so the story unfolds… your overall objective is pretty straightforward. You just want to leave. Each step of the game is supposed to move you closer to this goal, but every time you solve one puzzle, you’re thwarted in the next step. This forces you into a secondary objective, which is to solve the mystery of the abandoned town and its curious remaining inhabitants. Again, this is fairly standard HOPA (one might almost say clichéd), but the storytelling in this one is really good. It’s a compellingly creepy story, which unfolds through some interesting techniques.

The game’s design is pure Gothic-y HOPA. It’s dark and creepy, with some detailed settings and scenes. The colour palette is dark, but not too dark to find hidden objects in the HOGs or inventory items scattered around the scenes. NPCs are illustrated, though not fully animated, but there’s nothing cartoonish about them (there’s also a kind of cool aspect to the illustration of these characters, but I can’t tell you what it is without spoilers!). There are also a number of cutscenes – again, illustrated but not fully animated – that are really well-integrated into the gameplay. The game makes interesting use of the cutscenes, so although there are a fair number of these scenes (and also breaks for dialogue with NPCs), they’re not unwelcome interruptions.

Another aspect of the design I enjoyed was the soundtrack. While it doesn’t quite hit the dizzy heights of the Ravenhearst music (what does?), it’s really good, with a number of distinct, atmospheric themes that vary throughout the gameplay and don’t loop too frequently.

So, on to the gameplay itself… this is also well-done. Phantasmat is absolutely a HOPA, so there are no surprises with gameplay. It’s point-and-click, move between scenes, pick stuff up, use stuff from your inventory, play HOGs and mini-games. However, this is a great example of how less is most definitely more in these games. There are no morphing objects, no collectibles, no jump map and no ‘plus items’ – all of which can be a tad distracting if you’re trying to immerse yourself in the story. The gameplay here is also intuitive and logical – you look for objects that are directly related to your overall objectives, and use items from your inventory in common-sense ways (often, though not always, shortly after finding them).

One detail of gameplay that I enjoyed was the way HOGs were integrated into the overall story. There are three difficulty levels in this one (but no Custom option, sadly), and I played Advanced (slow recharge on Hint and Skip, misclick penalties, limited black bar tips). I had assumed that this difficulty option would not include sparkle indicators on HOGs, so was initially disappointed to see the ol’ sparkles appear almost immediately. However, I came to really like the sparkle indicators in this one – and I’ll try and explain why. Quite often, the sparkles appear after you’ve entered the scene, sometimes even after you’ve interacted with other items/NPCs within the scene. So, for instance, you talk to someone, and then realize that you’re going to need a screwdriver. Suddenly, there’s a sparkle to your left, and you click to have a rummage through a pile of stuff. Sure enough, you find a screwdriver. It’s as though you’ve spotted something out of the corner of your eye and gone to take a closer look. This is a great touch, which integrates the HOGs into the very intuitive gameplay and keeps you fully immersed in the storyline. While the HOGs are junk piles, they do make sense in context.

However, if you really don’t want to play all the HOGs – and the game is heavier on these than on mini-games (of which there are only a few) – then you can switch to a Match-3 game instead. I tried this a couple of times, and while they were beautifully designed, they seemed to take a lot longer to complete than the HOG itself. And, of course, they do draw you out of the story a bit.

Now, if you’ve read any of my other HOPA reviews this year, you’ll know I can sometimes have strong feelings about NPCs in these games. So, it might come as a bit of a surprise that I was more than happy with the fact that Phantasmat involved sustained and repeated interactions with three NPCs. In fact the story is essentially about your interactions with these characters.

The first you meet is a young woman, who instructs you to go to the hotel but tells you it’s a dodgy place. As I’ve said about some of the other features here, this is fairly standard fare. But there’s something quite sophisticated and stylish about the way you interact with the NPCs in Phantasmat (there’s two more after the young woman – the creepy hotel owner and a weird old woman who lives in one of the rooms). Yes, they do have that HOPA habit of telling you that something needs to be fixed, and then standing back while you do all the work. But there’s a reason behind this, which becomes clear as the game progresses. There are some really nice touches in the way the interactions work in Phantasmat. Although the dialogue scenes are standard – though nicely done, with no irritating voices – the effects of the interactions are… interesting. (It would be unfair of me to say too much more, as I don’t want to spoiler any of the game’s little surprises.)

I played the CE on this one, so there were a few extras. There’s a bonus chapter, which is an immediate epilogue to the story. I wasn’t blown away by this, as it doesn’t really add anything to the story (and, in some ways, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense given the main game’s ending). But it’s a little bit of extra gameplay (about half an hour’s worth), which is nice.

The game also has achievements, replays on HOGs and mini-games, and a chance to have another go/a first go at the Match-3 games. This last feature could easily suck you in for a few hours!

I’m trying to put my finger on what I enjoyed so much about Phantasmat. It’s certainly stylish and atmospheric, but no more so than some other titles. The gameplay is straightforward and intuitive - though there's a bit of back-and-forth throughout - and just the right level of diffculty for me (I hardly used Hint at all, but I didn't find things too easy). But it really is a story-driven game, and that story is developed using some neat techniques that I haven’t seen before. Ultimately, I play HOPAs to immerse myself and switch off from everything else – Phantasmat was definitely one to lose yourself in, and I’m looking forward to exploring the other titles in the series. I wouldn’t say it’s replaced Mystery Case Files in my affections, but to be honest I don’t think anything ever will.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

My Year in Books 2019: February

I've decided to carry this little blog series on for another month, keeping track of all the books I've read for pleasure in short 250-word reviews. I didn't get chance to read a huge amount this month - mostly because I had a lot of essays to mark, and a few books to read for work and radio projects. But still... here are my reviews for February...

(In case you're curious, here are the books I read this January.)

Perfect by Rachel Joyce (2013)

I picked this one up from a book sale shelf at the College of the Third Age when I was there to give a talk. Once again, it was an intriguing blurb that got me. I’m not familiar with Rachel Joyce’s other books, though I think I must have seen The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry advertised or reviewed, as the name rings a bell. Perfect tells the dual stories of Byron Hemmings, an eleven-year-old boy at private school in 1972, and Jim, an older man with OCD in the present day. Byron’s story begins with the boy’s concern at learning that two seconds are going to be added to ‘time’ (really, the atomic clock) in order to compensate for the leap year. Byron is so discomforted by the thought of the extra seconds, he accidentally sets in motion a chain of events. While the story unfolds slowly – and the events in the chain are pretty mundane on the whole – there is an ominous atmosphere that suggests we’re heading to a bad place. Byron and his best friend James come up with the idea of Operation Perfect, a plan to get things back on track and to save Byron’s troubled and fragile mother Diana from impending catastrophe. I enjoyed this one a lot, though I sometimes struggled to engage with the characters. The novel is peopled with ever-so-slightly larger-than-life creations, and some motivations and behaviours are a little arch. Overall, though, Perfect is a rather captivating – if somewhat sad – novel.

The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah (2016)

In my ongoing (frequently thwarted) quest to find the ultimate literary twist, I stumbled upon this blog post by Sophie Hannah, written as publicity for The Narrow Bed back in 2016. I very much like Hannah’s definition of a twist here, as it’s close to my own feelings about the difference between a ‘reveal’ and a ‘twist’. I’ve read nine of the books on the list already, and am planning to read the other six. But it seemed polite to begin with Hannah’s own book! The Narrow Bed is the tenth book in Hannah’s Spilling CID series – I read the second book in the series last month, but haven’t read any of the rest yet. The set-up of this one was very intriguing: a serial killer is targeting pairs of best friends, leaving little white books with the victims as a calling card. But when comedian Kim Tribbeck – a woman with no friends, let alone a BFF – gets one of the books, it looks like the police might be wrong about the pattern. Admittedly, this is a book with a ‘reveal’ and not a ‘twist’, but that’s not a problem for crime fiction. And I enjoyed everything about The Narrow Bed (especially the character of Kim)… except the reveal. There were plenty of clues, which I picked up on, but no way of working the mystery out, as the reveal is so incredibly complicated and far-fetched, the reader has no chance. Great writing – but a disappointing resolution to the mystery.