Friday, April 24, 2015

Uninvited - The Absorbing Atmosphere of Desolation
I may not have been a welcome guest in Crowley's haunted house of horrors, but it was nevertheless one of my favorite weekend hangouts.

While it worked out that I eventually found greater appreciation for Deja Vu and its film-noirish take on the point-and-click-style adventure, I couldn't say that Ace Harding's world of crime and punishment--of realism and mundanity--was a backdrop compelling enough to evoke from me the feelings of awe and wonderment I expected to derive from this kind of game. I enjoyed immersing myself in its sparsely populated, quietly dangerous 1940s setting, sure, but all the while I wishing that it was instead the spiritual successor to Shadowgate--an adventure game that boasted a richly haunting mythos, an engrossing world of magic and monsters, and the powerful aesthetics to match. 

What I was seeking was exactly the game depicted on the fifth page of Nintendo Power Volume 20's Pak Watch section. Its title was Uninvited, and it had my attention from the moment my eyes caught hint of that familiar-looking Shadowgate-style menu system as I was flipping over to page 96. I immediately began poring over the intriguing screenshots of an old mansion and its ghostly inhabitants, thrilled that we were seeing the return of this type of subject-matter! I was also delighted to learn that Kemco-Seika wasn't yet finished porting its PC-adventure-game classics over to the NES. "If the PC is home to more games created in that Shadowgate mold," I thought to myself, excited by the prospect, "then bring 'em all over!"

For now it was Uninvited, which I'd never before heard or read about. The preview was pretty vague, offering only a basic plot summary (a pair of siblings are separated after their car crashes in the middle of nowhere, and the recovering brother enters a nearby mansion in search of his missing sister) and nothing specific about the time-period in which the game was supposed to take place (the screenshots gave me mid-20th-century vibe, which was preferable). However, the described setting made Uninvited instantly appealing to me: A creepy old mansion stuffed with monsters and mysteries! I'd always had an odd fascination with monsters, but I was also a fan of books and movies set in large mansions whose silently unsettling ambiance carried with it mystical overtones, and it didn't matter to me if the manor in question belonged to a seriously toned Dracula film or even a comedy like Clue or Murder By Death.

Uninvited represented my best chance to thoroughly explore and investigate a haunted mansion and do so at my leisure, and the promise of such made ICOM's latest a sure purchase.

So I bought Uninvited in the summer of 1991, somewhere close to its release, and wasted no time digging right into it, eager to begin unraveling new mysteries where I'd sadly exhausted all such opportunities in Shadowgate. Unreasonable or not, I'd heaped a lot of pressure onto Uninvited, which I was counting on to carry Shadowgate's torch and provide a sense of continuance--to inspire recollections of a time and place when there was nothing I'd rather do than spend a few hours a day enthusiastically bouncing between the seemingly impenetrable walls of Castle Shadowgate, hoping that each newly unlocked space would tickle my imagination as did others before them. Also, I was determined to finish this adventure on my own, without the help of Nintendo Power or any meddling family members, which is why I planned to avoid even mentioning the game to my brother before completing it. Oh, he would have been sure to purposely spoil puzzle solutions for me, the jerk.

It's more a statement about the magnitude of Shadowgate's resonance when I reveal that Uninvited couldn't quite match its level of impact--that my memories of the game are less chronological and more scattered. There were fewer moments, yes, but a lot of them significant: I remember, for instance, my first encounter with "Scarlett O'Hara," whose horrifying response was spoiled by Nintendo Power but still registered with me as something worth experiencing for myself. Knowing in advance that it was a murderous skeleton hiding behind that umbrella didn't at all ruin the effect. Indeed, the elements came together to create an unforgettable scene: A closeup of the frighteningly detailed skull whose endlessly vacant eye sockets provided a window into the horror of death; the gloved hand that grasped at the camera, advertising its intent to tear the player to shreds; and the desperate, distressing death blare that solidified the hopelessness of the situation.

If anything, this defining sequence was a firm reminder of how twisted and menacing these games could be and how death could be lurking around any corner, your end coming unexpectedly, decisively and to the accompaniment of a gruesome, disturbing description that might entail being torn to pieces, slowly dissolved by acid, or otherwise reduced to a bloody heap.

But there were also those silly moments that were memorable for how they belied the game's tense atmosphere and made me laugh quizzically. I'm talking specifically about my introduction to and frequent meetings with the diminutive, horned critter who would suddenly appear in certain rooms, spinning and dancing his way across the screen in rhythm to his own personal entrance theme--a rockin' tune that I found quite catchy even if it was entirely out of place in a game like this. The little fellow was also a big hit with my friends, who would laugh along with me whenever the music would kick in and the critter would hilariously boogie his way across the Game Room, and predictably found itself incorporated into our competing activities like the "Master Criminals" newspaper series and my monster-based "Masters of Evil" projects (along with the game's other enemies). We affectionately dubbed it "The Cookie Monster" due to its particular taste in confection, and it became customary for us to allow its theme to play for a minute or two in following so we could exaggeratedly bop along to the hot beat.

I mean, you gotta dig the beat, man.

Now, Uninvited wasn't the most spectacular-looking game; its imagery seemed somehow more compressed than what I'd seen in previous Kemco releases, and its cramped renderings often contradicted the lavish descriptions that defined them to be "grand," "glamorous" and "oppressive." It was instead the game's thought-provoking literate and general sense of atmosphere that stoked my imagination and inspired me to wonder about how the mansion would look in reality. The subtlety haunting music, whether quietly inquisitive or hurriedly prodding, did well to fill in the gaps, conveying to me that the surrounding emptiness and placidity were merely an illusion--that unseen forces were definitely at work here; as I'd move from room to room, the music would jump from mysteriously calm to suddenly urgent, its tone growing in pitch and intensity whenever such a threat would finally manifest in the form of a ghost or a potential deathtrap. 

Basically, the music would let me know when it was a bad idea to stick around an unoccupied prison cell or a cursed bedroom for longer than necessary, and I was sure to react by hastily retreating to one of those rooms whose softer tunes were more accommodating to my reflection and observation. 

Uninvited did well to capture much of Shadowgate's adventurous spirit, and I'd quickly become absorbed in its silently foreboding world, but there were some notable deterrents to my continued enjoyment. For one, I didn't like how it doled out its spells, providing me four out of the six up front; I thought doing so detracted from the system of discovery and reward. Its puzzles were constructed in a way that made the game feel less intricate than its predecessors; there were, for instance, only two keys, one of which had to be used three separate times to open locks to rather-dissimilar receptacles (like a bureau and an embedded animal cage). There were few instances where I'd come across a firmly sealed obstruction and spend days wondering about what secrets might lay beyond it; there were few places I couldn't go from the outset.

The biggest issue--what became a constant source of annoyance to me--was the game's oddly implemented, seemingly arbitrary time-limit. Following every fifteen clicks, my progression would be interrupted by the sudden appearance of a red skull whose presence served as warning that the evil air that pervaded the mansion was "invading my being," the language escalating in seriousness each time. That would have been bad enough had the game not simply ended after its fourth appearance--just like that, with no obvious recourse and no apparent means for extending my life for a few clicks. Oh, I was allowed to continue from right about where I died, but then cycle would start anew, the red skull continuing to abrasively interrupt my adventure until its fatal fourth appearance. It didn't kill the game for me, but it made me shake my head as I wondered what the designers were thinking when the decided to introduce a core mechanic that required having to inconveniently reload my game from the title screen every few minutes. 

"Could this an ill-conceived answer to Shadowgate's torch-lighting mechanic?" I considered. "If so, what a terrible way to replicate something that was already irritating enough."

It took me around two years to realize that the game featured no such mechanic and that I was actually being killed by a curse as inflicted by the ruby found in the black dresser of the mansion's northwest bedroom. And here I'd thought the designers were embellishing the worst part of Shadowgate just to be jerks. Once I figured out that you could dump the ruby--or, better yet, never pick it up--Uninvited really opened up for me, and I could now happily enjoy moving about the mansion at my own pace without feeling the pressure to finish as quickly as possible.

Free from restraint, I could take all the time I needed to better appreciated the game's setting. I'd go to each room and examine every possible object, trying to get a sense of the mansion's history and what was going on in this place before my arrival. I'd move out onto the mansion's backyard deck and take in the view, using the moment to imagine how the landscape's enveloping atmosphere could look and feel: I pictured it as being around noon hour on a mid-autumn day, the air calm and still with only the hint of a lingering summer breeze. The sky is blanketed in an endlessly woven string of gray clouds that promise not to allow even the faintest glow of sunlight. The only sounds to be heard are the skittering of dead leaves and the occasional light thunder. Darkened trees stand silently in the distance, their barren branches a series of gloomy brushstrokes against an already-ominous skyline. There are no neighboring houses to be seen, and no other human life exists outside of what is currently in focus.

The mansion was filled with descriptive touches that further embellished the mental imagery I'd prepared. Simple window views spoke of the increasingly eerie skies, the grim-looking scenerey, and the estate's general sense of desolation and decay. As I continued playing, I'd wonder about what was going on all around me in spaces both tangible and imperceptible. There was surely an unseen menace gauging my every movement, I felt. There had to be. I mean, who was it that locked up those animals in the maze? Who was feeding those dogs? Who was paying to keep the utilities in operation? And what was its relationship to the green-robed gentleman and Dracan? Above all, Uninvited dared me to wonder, and I enthusiastically took up its challenge.

That Uninvited could evoke from me so many feelings of wonderment was the best counterweight for my disappointment with its difficulty-level. Compared to the previous games, that is, its puzzles were much easier to deduce. The writing in its scrolls lacked the expected ambiguity, often spelling out puzzle solutions for me, and there were times when the game didn't trust that I could make logical connections; a gypsy doll, for instance, encouraged me to talk to its "pious" brother, but the authors probably sensed that people from my age-group might have too limited a vocabulary to draw any inference, so they flatly labeled the intended marble bust as "pious," removing any mystery. I spent a lot of time trying to find my way through the complex maze and learning how to dispose of Dracan, sure, but there was nothing here that was as complicated as, say, the multi-part construction of the Staff of Ages or the calculated destruction of incriminating evidence. The biggest letdown was that the final boss could be taken out with a simple item, dispatched as if it were some second-tier grunt. They could have least let me combine two items!

Weirdly, the part that stumped me the most was the one least crucial to my ultimate success. For years, that is, I couldn't figure out how to get rid of the mansion's pesky "servant," who'd always block me from getting hold of the book behind the painting. This was the only time I had to turn to Nintendo Power, which only years later revealed that the ghostly servant suffered from arachnophobia and that I could banish him by "throwing a spider in his direction." Now how in the hell was I, or anyone else, supposed to know that you could do that? I was completely on board with the idea that Uninvited could have used more ambiguity, but throwing unconscious spiders around wasn't what I had in mind.

Still, Uninvited had plenty to offer me in terms of atmosphere and inspiration, and that's why I played through it as many times as I did. I revisit it even today for the same reasons, my actions an emphatic objection to people who say that there's no reason to return to point-and-click puzzlers once you've solved their every mystery. I say that you continue to play Uninivited, and those of its ilk, to soak in its ambiance and wonder about the nature of its world. To read all of the descriptions and appreciate how it uses language--its insightfully descriptive, sometimes-poetic literature providing character to the mansion's many spaces and every perceivable object down to the most basic frying pan with its "heat-dispersing handle."

I'm glad that I took the time to read up on the mansion's history and become more invested in its backstory, which I found fascinating when all of the separate parts converged and I put it all together. I was surprised to learn that the game was actually set in the 1980s and that the mansion's spiritual and demonic leftovers were resultant from the bizarre and arcane activities that occurred thirty years before. I originally preferred that my tales of mansions and castles take place in older time-periods, but Uninvited showed me that a more-modern setting made plenty of sense--particularly the 80s, when it was conceivable that you could become hopelessly confined to a haunted manor without the convenience of a cell phone, a texting device or GPS. There'd be no one around for miles, the mansion your faraway playground. 

I could think of no game I'd rather play on a rainy weekend afternoon when I was home alone and an eerie silence permeated the air.

There were a few other reasons I returned to Uninvited so often: I enjoyed the game's sense of humor, which ranged from referential (Indiana Jones, MacBeth, Twilight Zone) to bitingly sarcastic to aggressively sardonic. One of its funniest moments is born from the game's desperate attempt to stop you from dropping down into the cavern beneath the church's altar. Every time you try to move in that direction, the game's narrator interrupts with a warning ("You really don't want to go down there. There's a spider down there that's bigger than a bread box.") until your heedless persistence breaks the cycle and brings you face to face with the advertised threat, at which point the narrator quips, "Well, what do you know. It's a giant spider."

Also, Uninvited has some memorable easter eggs, the most easily discovered being the Game Room's gramophone that plays part of the Shadowgate theme before conking out. What amazed me the most and instantly added an additional layer of wonder to the game's already rich lore was what I found in the stone maze. I thoroughly explored the maze, so I knew that there were two gravestones alleging to house the remains of Ace Harding and Talimar (Shadowgate's Warlock Lord), respectively. I also knew that you could hit their graves, as you could others, and invoke the typically seen zombie habitants. But I was absolutely floored when I learned that you could actually talk to the zombies, who offered some confirming words. "Is Uninvited's mansion built where Castle Shadowgate used to stand?!" I'd wonder. "And if so, what is Ace Harding's corpse doing in Europe?"

Really, Ace Harding's response might be one of the saddest lines I've ever read in a game. 

In the more recent years, I've been actively seeking out the PC versions of Uninvited, which are significantly different in terms of content and presentation. I've so far played through the Amiga and Windows versions, and they compare pretty well to their NES counterpart: They boast superior graphics, their depictions darker and creepier. 

They have sound effects that augment your actions and provide appropriately unsettling aural depth (doors creak, floors buckle under your weight, thunder rumbers, and monsters scream in agony upon defeat). The writing is superior--smarter, more descriptive, and better at conveying a sense of foreboding (like how it predicts an oncoming storm and communicates how the estate's evil air is affecting you). 

And they feature a highly convenient menu system that allows you to drag and drop items into and out of your inventory box, eliminating the need to (a) shuffle through several pages worth of items and (b) head to specially designated rooms to discard unwanted articles.

Though, they lack music (save for ill-fitting victory themes), which robs them of atmosphere. Their spell system can be a bit confusing, since it requires that you memorize several magic words and find the permutations necessary to "speak" to intended targets. And there's a little matter of a strict time-limit that wrecks your ability to meticulously explore the mansion; the previously discussed blood-red skull returns to harass you every ten minutes or so until you're dead, and this time there's no way to escape from it. You essentially have to learn to speedrun the game if you hope to ever see the ending (for some reason, you're rescuing your "brother" in these alternate versions).

The NES port is clearly based on the Amiga version, which is graphically similar but cleaner and more detailed (I love its title-screen image, which captures the essence of the mental imagery that comes to mind when I think about Uninvited) but has considerable load times for most every action. In contrast, the Windows version is re-imagined and moves at a much smoother pace. I'd say the perfect version of Uninvited exists somewhere between the NES and Windows versions. 

I look forward to sampling the other computer versions (Commodore 64, Atari ST, and the Macintosh original) and discussing them on this blog.

I was most surprised to learn that Uninvited was in fact the first of the MacVenture games. Until then, I assumed that the honor instead went to Shadowgate, which seemed more like a prototype, Wolfenstein 3D to Uninvited's Doom. Yet I can't help but remember Uninvited as a culmination--the capper to a thoroughly engrossing adventure-game series that transported me from one amazing locale to the next, Crowley's haunted mansion the final stop on a long journey that began in a basement in Brooklyn. Sure--I was disappointed that Kemco and friends never did bring more of those point-and-click classics over to the NES (it was probably too late in the system's life to consider it), but the three they delivered to me were enough to color a lifetime's-worth of imagination.

Uninvited was my portal into a world of desolation and wonder. Of awe and mystery. And of sinister cabal of undead nightmares that hoped to indoctrinate me. 

And, frankly, I was happy to welcome my new masters.

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