In 2006 when Scratches came out I couldn’t be more uninterested in it. The simple, reddish cover art, the cliched premise of a haunted house (no twists on the theme apparent), and in-game screenshots showing interiors devoid of any living soul – made me ignore it completely. I don’t think I even paid any attention to the reviews. It feels strangely appropriate then, that after having played the game I consider it an experience that under no circumstances should be missed. And not only by the likes of me or you, dear adventure games fan – it should be a required play in particular for horror genre authors – game designers or otherwise. There’s something primal within Scratches – a lesson in delivering an elusive, but essential aspect of horror, that storytellers rarely have the opportunity to test the full impact of.

The Familiar and The Silence

You see the game world through the eyes of Michael Arthrate – a horror novel writer living in the UK in the 80s. Arthrete has been on the lookout for an inspiring setting to write his next book at, and finally, through the help of a friend, he purchases a large, stylish Victorian house in the country. As our hero starts settling in, he discovers the house has a history – a dark, ambiguous history, small bits of which are scattered all around it. Investigating them will soon become his main interest, or perhaps even obsession.

Sounds familiar? The story Scratches tells is indeed a traditional horror story. But don’t be fooled, in a game the plot is only part of the equation, and Scratches takes great advantage of its interactivity to develop events quite differently than what you might be used to. The greatest achievement of this approach – the atmosphere remains incredibly tense and affecting all throughout despite avoiding the most overused horror genre’s tricks found in movies and other games. What I mean by that is that in Scratches events, threats and discoveries do not jump at you suddenly from behind, trying to force a cheap scare out of you. Instead the actual things you’ll gradually start to suspect and dread are almost never shown directly, in their entirety, and are rarely easy to interpret conclusively. And there are other things that work this well too…

When at the beginning of the game you arrive at your new property, you actually have to carry your luggage up the stairs, find a room to sleep in, unpack, and worry about the living conditions in the house. There’s very little hand-holding as to what need to be done – you do a lot of free exploring and proceed driven by what makes the most sense to you at the moment. The pacing is rather cerebral – resembling that of a book more than any other storytelling medium. And the passage of time has an important role within the in-game proceedings as well – all events are spread across 3 days and divided into hourly timeblocks. You can feel the gears of time turning particularly while on the first floor where a tall grandfather clock ticks loudly, punctuating both passing seconds, as well as the silence in the house.

Scratches, rats and other sounds

What Scratches is doing to you methodically is that it makes you start to feel like everything is happening in real time and you’re actually living through Michael Arthrate’s stay  in the house. You come upon bits of notes and diaries and newspaper articles. Among these there’s Blackwood’s very disturbing recollection from a trip to Africa where he witnessed someone behave in an unspeakable, inhuman manner. You’ll also find doctor Milton’s worried, introvert notes about his declining sanity. Everything hints at the Blackwood family covering some very real and sad tragedy. After learning a few of these things you start to fear ever so slightly what you might find behind each door you open – especially in certain areas of the house. The worst thing is you don’t have a clear idea what do you expect to bump onto. And finally, your first night in the house… After living through to see the morning with each passing hour of day 2 you’ll dread more and more the coming of the following one. Something to do with “scratches”.

Scratches is an independent work of only three people – the designer/coder, the graphic artist and the musician (who’s credited as The Cellar of Rats!). It’s a fairly low-budget production too. The game’s presentation is polished, but comes with certain limitations in what it can show. What you see actually are panoramic prerendered images with full 360 degree panning (1st person perspective), but with very few environmental (or any other kind of) animations. Clouds move when you’re outdoors, doors open when entering rooms and rain falls behind the windows during a long, stormy segment of the game, but that’s the majority of movement you’ll see throughout the game. Which is fitting of course, as except for some rumored rats no people or animals live in the house. Supposedly. One has to admit this kind of stillness and suppressed tension is used very effectively to get the imagination working. Finally, there’s the music. Scratches has an outstanding soundtrack that no movie would be ashamed of, and which already by itself makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Puzzles

The puzzles are usually a variety of inventory combinations and a lot of exploration, but the most effective ones are probably the research-based ones. The solutions are never too far-fetched and have reasonable complexity, but often rely on the player’s observational skills – so be wary of details! Usually they fit perfectly within the story and setting, even if there might be a slight overabundance of locks and lost keys hindering your quests. There are also a few slightly annoying situations – mostly pixel-hunting kind. Such occasions are a few, but the one that got me particularly nastily stuck I blame on the pointer not changing enough from the default mode.

On another note, some players may find it annoying Micheal doesn’t disclose his imminent goals despite running a detailed journal where he comments on all his discoveries, as well as on his state of mind. Personally I found it compelling that for once I’m not being completely hand-held in a modern day adventure. And the journal is actually very aptly written – achieving a helpful remembrance of most found clues without spelling out the logical next steps for Michael. Nevertheless there’s one sudden change of Micheal’s interests that really baffled me. Namely, at one very specific point in time you need to fix the car. It feels completely random to do it then – it doesn’t help accomplish any task at hand, and earlier on Michael would decline attempting it as something of no immediate consequence.

On the surface there are quite a few aspects of Scratches that bring to my mind Barrow Hill – another first person indie horror game I played in recent years. But when compared closer the 2 games are worlds apart and their similarities only make you more appreciate the choices that Scratches made. The key differences lie in the quality of storytelling, suspense building and puzzle design. Where Barrow Hill turns repeatedly ridiculous and tedious, Scratches plays with the player’s mind masterfully. Where Barrow Hill tends to be literal to the point of completely ruining the tension, Scratches knows exactly how to build up it another notch with a new subtle revelation.

About The Epilogue and The Epilogue

A word about the Director’s Cut additions. Besides the graphics resolution and gameplay improvements, Scratches DC offers an alternate ending and a bonus “epilogue” chapter titled The Last Visit (it is started separately in the main menu). Now, the alternate ending is a bit of a secret bonus – you can’t consciously choose triggering it, unless you’ve read on the Internet exactly what to do. It may be for the best since it doesn’t tie up the plot as neatly as the original, but again – it’s an interesting one and I don’t want to spoil what the “alternate” quality of it really means.

When it comes to The Last Visit, it starts in an intriguing fashion. It takes place in the same setting, but many years after the events of the main game and features a different player character. This time you play as a lazy, sarcastic reporter – a completely different personality to Michael Arthrate. As you wander around you witness the changes that time has done to the house. It all seems rather peaceful and finished at this point, but nightmares have a way of coming back… Ultimately I didn’t think this add-on was very fitting after the perfect ending of the main game. First of all, it’s mostly a very slow scavenger hunt for inventory items in places you already know and don’t want to search again. Secondly, storywise it doesn’t really add anything of great value, only bluntly spells out what was so evocatively, but indirectly told through several discoveries in the main game. For some players The Last Visit may even weaken the impact of the original because it tries to to be so literal about certain things the original left you to wonder about. Consequently, I recommend to wait a few days after experiencing the main game before returning to play this bonus bit.

I wouldn’t go as far as to call Scratches brilliant or visionary. It’s definitely not nearly as artistic and unique as – the perhaps most classic horror game of them all – The Dark Eye. Despite the amazing soundtrack, the game’s indie roots show through in the limited animations. It’s also built almost entirely on vintage horror tropes – something that may be a strength or a flaw depending on what you want. Nevertheless, it’s a genuine, complex and long adventure game which pushes the envelope in terms of showing what pure suggestion can do to the mind of the player of a horror title. As such it offers a rare level of scares, tension building and amazing atmosphere in general. Actually, in my opinion it’s much better at it than the recent indie horror hit Amnesia, which despite its technological advantages relies too much on repetitive special effects instead of seeking ways of affecting the player’s imagination on a deeper level. So as I was saying, I wouldn’t go as far as to call Scratches brilliant or visionary, but it’s a damn great game that I’d even call “a journey” rather than just something to play.

Igor’s Score: 5 of 5 starks


Note1: You can buy the digital version of Scratches: DC at the Adventure Shop and Steam.

Note2: Scratches’ designer Agustin Cordes is in advanced stages of work on his next horror game title – Asylum. May it spare us a bit of sanity at the end!