by SealWyf, HSM editor
“Don’t be morbid,” my parents told me. They meant well, but they were doomed to failure.
You have to understand that this was decades before the invention of “emo”, either the word or the concept. “Morbid” was the only word they had to describe my conviction that the relentless simplicity of the 1950′s was a lie — and worse, a cheat, because it denied the depths and shadows of the human soul.
Fortunately, times changed. The world grew up, or at least rediscovered some of its complexities. The shadow side of human nature, the autumnal emotions, were once again acknowledged and celebrated. Well, celebrated by some, perhaps. For others, the dark side was still suspect, a temptation to be avoided. They lived in a world of light without shadow, not realizing that it is better to see things whole, and that shadow makes the light more poignant.
This year, nDreams’ October offerings edged closer to the shadow side of human nature. Most of Home’s previous Halloween content has looked horror in the face, then skittered off nervously toward either the comic or the sexual — shambling zombies and erotic witches. The dark side was mostly off-limits, except for content linked to horror-themed games, such as Silent Hill.
But this year nDreams didn’t take the easy route, and it probably cost them a lot of business. Because their Morbids costume line weren’t the amusing creatures we have come to expect. The Morbids were the stuff of nightmares, beings that implied horror rather than stating it — dark clowns, staring china dolls, crumbling scarecrows and the masked figure of the Plague Doctor, a commedia dell’arte trope gone sinister. They were brilliant designs, all of them, especially the featureless black silhouette versions. But I didn’t see many in Home this year, and most of my friends didn’t buy them.
The companion piece to the Morbids was Savage Manor, a personal estate that pushed the envelope for scary Home spaces. I put off writing this review until I had completed the embedded riddle mini-game, a task that takes at least twenty days and ended up taking considerably longer because of real-life delays. And, having finally completed it, I had to get my opinions combed out, so I could write the review.
Bottom line: I hate the space, but totally admire the intention. And I recognize that my ambivalence about this unique personal estate says much about the expectations and limits of Home.
As an apartment, Savage Manor is virtually unusable. But it was never intended to be a normal apartment. Unlike the Cutteridge Estate, a haunted house where you can play with interior decoration and hold parties, Savage Manor was never meant to be anything other than it is — the backdrop and embodiment of a short story.
The story is told the only way it could be, given the constraints of Home: as a series of short chapters, each of them a single compact paragraph. The owner of the space finds the first chapter in the foyer when they enter. Each subsequent text is unlocked by solving a “riddle fragment” — sometimes a traditional riddle that plays on our perception of common objects, and sometimes a question about the house. Many are easy, but a few sent me to the spoiler lists helpfully posted in the Forums. You simply can’t move ahead until you have entered what the game believes is the correct answer.
But the riddles, as entertaining and frustrating as they can be, are simply a side course and occasional commentary on the story itself. And, given the constraints of its format, the story is masterfully written.
Like most good horror tales, it is told by indirection. We never really know what the disturbed narrator was up to in the house — he speaks in hints and implications, though we find evidence of his activities in the few rooms we are allowed to visit. The texts form a memoir written to enlighten us, the expected visitor. Their mood ranges from assertive to gloating to repentant to fearful. The implication is that these were written over a span of time, and the author himself is changing.
Although the writer loves to talk about himself, we end up learning little about him. And much of what he says is probably unreliable. Other characters drop in and out and occasionally return, but there are really only two. One is the troubled narrator, with his inconsistent statements and distinctive errors of grammar — he seems totally unaware of the difference between “its” and “it’s”, for instance. It’s an interesting detail and one that I appreciate as a writer.
The second character is the house.
It is this gradual revelation, the ensoulment and apotheosis of the house, that is the true plot of the story. The narrator, horrific as his deeds have been (and we have ample evidence of them in the gut-wrenching kitchen) is simply a servant of the Manor itself. You suspect this will be the case the first time you enter the dining room and see the Thing that occupies one whole wall and much of the space’s memory budget. This house is a horror.
Just as the text speaks by hints, lapses, riddles and implications, the Manor speaks by inaccessibility. There are doors that are forever closed against our exploration. Other doors are left ajar, but are guarded by invisible walls against all but dedicated glitchers. And there is the intriguing perspective of the infinite library, warded by a fathomless pit. (You can sit at the library table to get a hint of what may lie at the bottom.)
Even the accessible parts of the house are defended by darkness. This is a space where judicious adjustment of the gamma setting is useful. And it pays to have a strong light source. I found the Teleport Beacon lamp from Juggernaut’s MiniBots game to be useful for illuminating dark corners. In the end, it was one of the few items I added, along with a few “burglarious tools”: small, slim objects, a set of teleport pads, and Juggernaut’s Essence of the Seven Winds. The results of my unauthorized explorations are documented in the screen shots that accompany this article.
So, day by day, you work through the puzzle of the space. And at last you have solved the riddles, and read the twenty chapters of the narrative. (You can always review them later, in the cumulative Journal in the library.) The game is over. And you look around the space, hoping something has been unlocked by your activity.
We have come to expect rewards in Home. The Cutteridge games unlock a whole new apartment. But Savage Manor gives no presents. The second-floor doors are still impenetrably closed, the “cold room” and fractured dining room wall still frustratingly half-open. The depths of the infinite library are still off-limits. Nothing has changed in the house, except perhaps our attitude toward it.
And one is left with a new riddle: what can you do with this space?
The normal answer would be, “furnish it, and use it for something.” Home spaces have a few definite uses: you can treat them as decorating opportunities, use them for entertaining friends, or simply hang out in them to experience a particular mood. But Savage Manor is good for none of these things. The four rooms don’t lend themselves to further decoration — they are already completely rendered, with a fair amount of burned-in furnishings and their own interactions and animations. And this is not a party space. It doesn’t even lend itself to private conversation. You don’t really want to hang out here.
I suppose one might drop in some of the Cutteridge demonic furniture. But the style is wrong. Those pieces are absurd and humorous, in the way that horror in Home often shifts to comedy, a “don’t be scared, we didn’t really mean it” sleight of hand, a way of keeping the place safe for the children. But there is nothing funny about Savage Manor. It is as serious as a dagger stabbed through your hand. And so you drift away — the game is over, and it’s time to close the door.
But its hard to walk away. This house has gotten under your skin. Your daily searches for the riddle fragments let you observe the details, things you might not have noticed if you weren’t intensely examining every surface for clues. The greasy way the moon shines behind the clouds. The hint of bloody footprints on the lawn. The spider-veils of light around the chandeliers. The sense of something subliminally awful in the banal landscape painting in the hall. The rustle of the dining room fireplace, and the way what burns there does not look like wood. The hooded figure that sometimes flits across the upper landing, too seldom and too quickly to let you frame a rational reaction. The first time I saw it, I nearly screamed. And I don’t scare easily.
You find you are telling yourself stories — hints and fragments, visions spawned by the house. In your imagination, you examine the skin that hangs in the kitchen, then shrug it on like a coat. You dismantle the antlered taxidermy heads, and find inside them skulls that never belonged to any deer. You descend in dreams through the gulf in the library floor, and find there a titanic, slowly-spinning fan, powered by glowing motors. You slip through the gap in the dining room wall into a tiny, rough-walled room, and discover that it imprisons three incomplete and not-quite-human skeletons. You pass through the pulsing warp in the wall into the belly of a spectral beast, and then onward, toward the distant, evil stars.
The house has you in its grip. You don’t want it any more. It’s not what you were expecting. It’s like pulling off the shiny wrapping paper to discover that your wished-for Christmas puppy is really a baby alligator. An interesting choice, perhaps, but what can you do with it? You wish you could expunge Savage Manor from your Navigator. You wish that you had never bought it.
Or, do you? Because for those of us who value the autumnal side of the human soul, the house is a treasure. During the long days of your explorations, it has carved out a space for itself in your memory and imagination, a reliquary of past emotions like the legacy of a well-written book. Because the gift of Savage Manor is not the obvious and intended — the riddle game, the unusable rooms, the cryptic text of the Journal or even the secrets revealed by glitching. It is the trace it leaves on your soul: a shiver of late autumn, the beat of crows’ wings, a drift of rain-slicked leaves beside a neglected trail, revealing what might be a branch, but might also be a gnarled, skeletal hand.
This is what nDreams has made, and it is a remarkable creation. Savage Manor is not for everyone. But for those of us with autumn in our souls, it’s a waking dream, a celebration of those things our concerned, well-meaning parents labeled “morbid”.
It is also a glorious space for those of us who like to break through walls, and examine how a space is put together. We at HomeStation don’t advocate glitching. But some of us indulge in it. As many of you do too, who are reading this, and possibly taking notes. It’s part of Home, and we love it.
Savage Manor may not have been a popular space. But Home is a large place. It can hold dark celebrations of the shadow, as well as party spaces. I applaud the vision and achievement. But I do wish it could have been somewhat different — an ongoing game, perhaps, like The Seventh Guest. Or something a little more conventionally usable. But it is what it is. And this dark, frustrating space will always be part of my cumulative memory of Home.