Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
Release Date: March 8, 2006
If it's action you want, Scratches is not for you. If it's over-the-top creatures you want, Scratches is not for you. If you hate subdued, carefully planned storytelling, Scratches is not for you. If you don't like H.P. Lovecraft-style horror stories, Scratches is absolutely not for you. If you enjoy Myst, H.P. Lovecraft, and beautiful game craftsmanship – or at least the first two – then Scratches is absolutely for you, on the order of "must buy." This game is brilliant, but it takes a very certain type of gamer to appreciate its brilliance. You have to be willing to look beyond its surface, let your enjoyment of action settle down to nothing, turn off the lights, and tune your environment a little.
Scratches sets you as Michael Arthate, a successful horror novelist who is about to step into a world straight out of the pages of H.P. Lovecraft. He has purchased a Victorian mansion and estate that has been abandoned for 40 years in the wake of a murder. Its owner fell off the face of the earth, and it hasn't been occupied since the early 1960s. The man's diaries mention a rather strange African tribe and his own descent into madness. It's implicit that he murdered his wife, but what happened after that is up to you to find out. I already feel I've spoiled too much, even though you can find this out in the first two or three minutes of play, if you're quick.
This title is presented in stills, sounds, and your own thoughts. The only motion shown is the opening of doors and a few well-placed FMVs, and the opening video is a grainy, black-and-white affair, giving off an "arthouse" vibe. This comes across as incredibly spooky, similar to when you first set foot on that island in Myst. No one is around. It's just you and your own imagination as you explore the mansion and grounds, including the obligatory church, crypt and freaky-looking tree. There is not one polygon in sight, either; the entire work is hand-painted-style stills or 360-degree panoramas, fading from one to another. A first-person shooter fan might call this lazy, but someone with an eye for brilliance would call this creepy. The fact that you never see your character's face not only inserts you into the story, but gives you a ghostly effect. You are a witness to the events more than a participant. This one-off immersion is endemic of a well-written horror novel or film, which is exactly what this game feels like.
Scratches's audio deserves a special mention. This game is optimized for a 5.1 sound system, but even on a mere two speakers, it is absolutely beautiful. When the phone rings, you hear the direction it's ringing from. The ticks of a clock, the well-placed bits of music,and the plod of your footsteps each time you move – they all come together beautifully and greatly heighten the feel of a horror novel or film. The sound is mastered at a quality better than I have heard from any video game in a long time.
Play-wise, things are as simple as can be. You need exactly one keyboard key – Escape – and a two-button mouse, and you are set to play. Move the mouse to move your hand, which switches to appropriate functions as needed. Left click to act, right click to access your inventory. F1 enables some rather hilarious hints ("I had a gut feeling I should click the RIGHT BUTTON to access my inventory"or something similarly campy) and a few other buttons adjust settings, but you don't need to mess with them at all though. Just set one hand on the mouse, leave the other open for some notes, and prepare for some creeping out. Don't worry, you don't need to memorize any phone numbers.
Being a Myst-ly adventure game, half of the fun is in solving the puzzles. Puzzles in Scratches tend to mostly be about exploring and finding things to interact with; like any puzzle game, you never know when one of the things you saw earlier will be vital at a later point. You will sometimes combine inventory items, while other times, a clue is found by simply looking at the item more closely. The hints will help, but observation is critical. The puzzles have a feeling of accomplishment and planning attached. As a non spoiler-y example, to fix the lights, you need to get to the power box in the basement, which requires you find the key, which, according to photos, may have fallen into one of the vases the cleaning ladies took into a side hallway after you bought the house. This kind of piece-it-together puzzle has a decent feeling of accomplishment attached, even if it doesn't actually turn the power back on. Every new room you enter is another clue, another piece of the puzzle, another beautiful bit of image-and-sound artwork.
Even the credits you get whenever you quit the game are suitably creepy, with a baroque piano in the background, and a black-and-white, grainy feel, right down to the Special Thanks to Lovecraft. The interface fonts are suitably scratchy (no pun intended) and creepy, helping to heighten the feel in one more well-placed step. Unfortunately, the game does have some rate of red herrings and places that look like paths but can't be traveled down, and, at least on my machine, crashes. A lot. Make sure you save often.
Let it be reiterated. Scratches is not F.E.A.R. – it is infinitely more subtle. It is not Monkey Island – it is far darker with less arbitrary puzzles. Scratches is a work of art in the horror genre, and if you aren't willing to appreciate it as such, you should not bother. If you're still at least somewhat interested, however, get this game, max out your monitor's contrast, turn off the lights, and do not have any outside distractions when you play. This title is not meant to have its surface scratched – it is meant to be dived into headlong. Solve the mystery, very soon ....
More articles about Scratches