In theory, H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories would be perfect for adaptation into the video game medium. The tales contain everything needed to create a creeping atmosphere: old, decrepit buildings, sullen townsfolk untrusting of outsiders, and a mind-breakingly impossible horror lying just beneath the thin veneer of English countryside. In practice, however, few games manage to capture the otherworldly essence of Lovecraft’s monsters, ending up with depictions that range from underwhelming to even cute. The Terrible Old Man, by developer Cloak and Dagger Games, is a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story of the same name. The title features some appropriately unsettling graphics and decent point-and-click gameplay, but its brief length and technical problems prevent the game from living up to its full potential.
Czanek, Silva, and Ricci are three robbers celebrating their most recent heist at a pub. While ordering more drinks, Czanek overhears a conversation about a strange old man who lives at the edge of town. Once a renowned sea captain, the man is reported to spend his days pottering around admiring his bottle collection, and pays for his groceries with fistfuls of golden doubloons. Sensing an easy mark, the three men decide to pay this odd stranger a visit.
The player takes control of Czanek, a rude young man who ignores the more ominous tidings about the strange sea captain. The story progresses in the typical adventure game style, with Czanek talking to people, collecting objects, and using the right item at the right time to progress. A nice deviation from the original tale is Czanek wheedling the address of the old man from the other people at the bar, who distrust outsiders and will not give up the details easily.
On the other hand, the game stays too close to the original story when the trio go to visit the old man. Czanek stays behind as a lookout while the other two infiltrate the mansion. The game’s perspective stays with Czanek, so after he helps the others open the gate, the game is essentially over. This would have been a great opportunity to change to another character’s perspective, and to add more gameplay in to the mix; it would not need to be as puzzle-filled or complicated as something like Maniac Mansion, but not using such an interesting location seems like a waste. The bottles with humming pendulums inside, the approach of the terrible old man, Silva and Ricci’s inevitable demise, all of this would be more exciting shown on screen. As it is, The Terrible Old Man consists of two scenes and takes about 15 minutes to finish. The title was originally developed for a game jam, which makes the short length understandable, but the game currently feels a bit incomplete.
While the gameplay is rather abrupt, some time and care was clearly taken with the graphics. The inhabitants of Kingsport are appealingly ugly, all hand-drawn portraits with bulging noses and eyes. In Lovecraftian mythology, no one is trustworthy, with many disturbing creatures hiding beneath a facade of humanity. These hideous caricatures convey that inhuman quality perfectly. Sound design is simple but well handled, and the voiceover for the ending paragraph is suitably dry. The script needs another pass over—many little errors are littered throughout, and the contrast between new dialogue and passages taken from the story is unpleasantly stark. Lovecraft is not an easy style to imitate, but modern-sounding characters in the 1920s setting does not fit at all.
A frustrating element of The Terrible Old Man is its poor performance on modern systems. The title was created with Adventure Game Studio, which does not play nice with certain set ups. The game crashed at least 10 times during the review process, and needed to be restarted several times for the sound effects to work. The default settings leaves the player stuck on the title screen, with the mouse unable to move down far enough the click ‘new game’. Compounding the issue is problems with the Steam overlay, which left a muddled grey mess in the right-hand corner of the screen, ruining the screenshots I had taken for the article. A quick look at the Steam discussion board resolved the sound and mouse issues for me, but the crashing persisted throughout. Other players did not seem to have had as many issues as I did, so perhaps I was just unlucky, but be prepared to fiddle around with settings to make the game work.
The Terrible Old Man has strong art direction, and the small amount of gameplay on offer is executed well. I do wish it was longer, though, as such an interesting setting is dying to be explored, and a bit more bug testing would have eased my frustrations. If you wish to support the developer, Cloak and Dagger Games has also developed several paid games which can be found here.
Next week, we will be playing The Devil’s Womb, a horror adventure created in RPG Maker. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussions are happening in the Discord, or you can email me here.