July 27, 2009
For a long time now critics have carped that Myst clones did in the adventure game in the early 90s. All I know is that when I finished Myst, in the late 90s, there was nothing I wanted more than a Myst clone. As many as I could find. I didn’t find many. The Castle was one of the few. This game has pretty much everything that the critics despise about Myst. It’s a pretty slideshow. It’s got nice atmospheric sound effects. It’s got enigmatic puzzles that serve little purpose other than to drive you up the wall. It’s got an essentially deserted game world. I was very happy for a while there, except that it was over just when it seemed to be hitting full steam.
Oh, yes, there was one other thing I liked about The Castle. It was a Mac only game. Those didn’t come along too often either.
That was in 2001, when I first ordered the game from the website. Recently, I was more or less flabbergasted to discover that not only is the Blueline website still up, but it’s still selling the game for the same price I paid six years ago. Here is a game using a “game engine” that was basically outmoded in the mid-90s. It’s only available for Macs, which now have what, four percent of the computer market? Indeed the website still proudly proclaims: “No PC version is available or planned.” Take that, Bill Gates! And it’s still on the market! Why is that? If this were a commercial gaming house product it might still be on their website’s backlist, but probably not. If you really wanted a copy, you’d have to troll eBay.
The Castle was produced, programmed, written and acted in by its CEO, Mr. Daniel C. Kueng. According to the credits, his wife helped here and there too. The Kuengs live in Switzerland. My guess is they have a nice life. He’s probably got a good job in something. It costs them next to nothing to keep the website up and ship out a jewel box whenever they get an order. This allows them to be indifferent to the shockwaves that regularly rock the professional gaming industry. This allows them to eschew producing a PC version of their game. Seemingly out of perversity, or pique. Or conceivably even principle. But it also allows people like me to order a ten-year-old game I might really like. That, to me, is the promise and the beauty of the internet realized — in a small, but satisfying way.
So those four percent of you out there with a Mac are now wondering: What about the game itself, for crying out loud. And is it playable on Tiger?
The Castle takes place on the grounds of a big white house that has turrets. Three people, Brad, Rod and Noemi have landed here mysteriously. After a while, you discover Noemi’s cat-face-adorned diary and all those pages you’ve been picking up all over the place are at long last readable. You catch up on the story, which, as I say, is dished out to you page by page as you stumble across them. Brad and Rod are madly in love with Noemi, who is indeed a fox. There’s some kind of magical and mildly satanic (lots of upside down pentacles and such) game going on. You don’t really know who Noemi prefers. You, as the first-person protagonist, are essentially following around in the same footsteps and actions of these three, as chronicled in the diary. You unlock the same doors and uncover the same revelations as they did on their eventful week or so in this odd vacation spot. Eventually you come to the same shocking moment of truth they faced and must decide for yourself.
The plot is fine. I confess I didn’t pay much attention to it the first time I played the game. I was too frantically trying to find my way around to solve the puzzles. I’ve always felt that a plot that is “unfolded,” or worse “told” to you as you’re playing an adventure game is a little like someone reading a short story to you over the side of the ship while you flail around in the water drowning. I don’t want a plot, I want a life preserver! However, I admit I understood and admired the plot of The Castle much more the second time around. Plot is still not what I play adventure games for, but I’m not opposed to one. For me, adventure games are about two things: puzzles and atmosphere.
Atmosphere, to me, is how the game makes you feel. Not the story. The feeling. That’s what was great about Myst. You felt like you were there, wherever it was. Real life doesn’t have a plot. It has sensations. It has occurrences. Plot is great in a book, because you’re reading a book. You’re not in the book. (Okay, really great books do both.)
The Castle has pretty good atmosphere. It’s trying very hard to reproduce the same one the Rand brothers created in 1993 and does a not bad job of it. Except, as I say, the biggest thing you discover is that the game world of The Castle is not very big. With a game produced essentially by one guy, this is forgivable. The puzzles are pretty good too. But, again, there are really only a handful of them. The hardest thing in the game is trying to figure out how to use things. I don’t think I am giving anything away in saying that the hardest part of the game is getting the rowboat to work. There’s also a hedge maze that is not complicated in itself, but when you click to go one way or the other it’s not particularly easy to see where you’ve ended up. Eventually, you get the hang of it though.
It should be noted that The Castle has just enough racy material in it to make it, as the saying is, “unsuitable” for the very young or the easily offended. We’re not talking raunchy here. The occasional tasteful erotic drawing (assuming you find it) and a little heavy breathing in some of the diary entries and other reading material you come across. The jewel box I have warns away children 16 and under. I noticed that on the website it lowers that to 13-year-olds. Have sexual mores slackened that much in six years? Perhaps in Switzerland they have. The Castle also contains some violence, and a couple of gory moments that I think are far more “disturbing.” Effective, but disturbing.
The Castle is also one of the few (possibly the only) commercial adventure games made in SuperCard. Myst was, of course, a souped-up Hypercard stack. SuperCard came along offering full color and lots of other benefits. Alas, the time of the slideshow stack was already over. As someone who dabbled in SuperCard, I confess I am very impressed with Mr. Kueng’s mastery of this application. However, it is a simple game engine, and it is not hard to throw it out of whack. Not glitches, per se. But if you turn at the wrong time, for instance, the small overlay QuickTime movie might still be playing in front of you. Not a big deal, but folks nowadays are accustomed to 256 megabyte graphics cards pumping out 3D worlds like firehoses.
In addition to the plot, the other thing I took greater notice of playing The Castle this time around is just how much in the game is similar to Myst. Even the opening title sequence letters appear the same way. The music in The Castle, though very subtle and nice, is also quite reminiscent of Robyn Miller’s justly acclaimed Myst soundtrack. Even the elevators look the same! You will have flashbacks to the lifts in Mystisland’s library and Channelwood’s treetops. But as hard as The Castle tries to echo Myst, it still is quite a different game. It’s apparently just not that easy to make a genuine Myst clone. If only someone could.
I suppose I should get around to rating the various aspects of The Castle. Okay.
You know how I feel about plots in general, but I did think the one here is well done, and actually more interesting in a second playing of the game, when you can finally pay some attention to it. I’ll give the plot a B+.
The music and sound effects are fine, nothing memorable, but also good. Let’s give them a B.
The puzzles. Only problem with the puzzles is there’s not enough. The ones that are there I’d give an A-.
Playability/interface. This is a bit dicey. Since moving around is simple enough, but I think it’s going to take most people some time to figure out how to interact with things. I’d give the playability a C+, though much of that is due to the age of the game. For instance, the game was apparently designed during the era of the 13-inch monitor and the game window is consequently on the smallish side.
And is it playable on Mac OS 10.4 or whatever it’s up to nowaday? I don’t know. I played it on my seven-year old G4 running OS 9.2.2. I also tried it on Mac OS 10.1.5 (the place I got off the OSX boat). The game ran fine under both, although in Classic mode of course in OSX. The Blueline-studios website claims that the game’s system requirements are “PowerMac G4, Mac OS X.” (I’d bet the game is playable on a much older system than that. In 1997, the reigning Mac OS was 8.1 or thereabouts and if you had a 100 mhz processor you were cookin’.) But they’re also promising an OS X demo soon! This sort of thing just cheers me up. Is there anything more perishable than a commercial adventure game? I wish every single one had its own little website like The Castle where I could still actually purchase a copy for only $19.95.
I very much enjoyed playing The Castle, both times, and overall I give it a B+.
Final Grade: B+