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Sunday 22 June 2014

The Lost Crown

There aren’t many computer games that have the author’s name on the cover, but in the case of The Lost Crown it’s well-deserved – Jonathan Boakes created the whole thing virtually single-handed. I originally bought the game in September 2008 – only a couple of months after it first came out, and long enough ago to have forgotten most of the details. But that didn’t stop me from entering the Lost Crown quiz that Jonathan ran on his blog a couple of weeks ago.

I approached Jonathan’s quiz in the true spirit of adventure games, which are all about resourcefulness, after all. I know “resourcefulness” isn’t precisely synonymous with “cheating”, but it’s certainly consistent with using Google when your memory isn’t quite up to the task. Even then, there were a couple of answers I wasn’t sure about... so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was among the five lucky winners (picked at random from the ten people who got top marks in the quiz). My prize was a free key for the newly released Steam version of The Lost Crown.

Although the details had faded, the general atmosphere of the game is impossible to forget. In a sense, it’s stretching things to call it a “game” at all – it comes across more as interactive storytelling. The Lost Crown is almost unique in that respect. In most point-and-click adventures, the narrative is simply a convenient vehicle to get you from one puzzle to the next. The interest lies in decoding cryptic messages, or putting unlikely objects together to construct even more unlikely objects, or whatever else you need to do in order to progress through the game as quickly as possible. The playable characters don’t get emotionally tied up in the plot, and a die-hard gamer can safely ignore all those boring grown-up things like characterization, subtext and back-story.

The Lost Crown isn’t like that at all. It contains very few traditional-style puzzles, and when they do crop up you can whizz through them pretty quickly. It’s really much more about slow, methodical exploration and perseverance. That may sound dull – and I guess it would be dull for the kind of gamer who just wants to... well, play a game. But if you think of it as being immersed in your own personalized horror movie, then The Lost Crown really comes into its own. The evocative black-and-white settings, the bizarre cast of characters and the atmospheric soundtrack all help to create an emotional depth and a sense of genuine mystery that is much more than “just a game”.

The plotline of The Lost Crown consists of multiple interwoven threads, but all those threads are Fortean in one way or another. You’ve got conspiracies and paranoia. You’ve got ancient legends. You’ve got timeslips and other paranormal phenomena. And you’ve got ghosts... lots of them.

The story starts with the main character, Nigel Danvers, attempting to escape the clutches of his employers – a sinister high-tech corporation called Hadden Industries. It seems that Nigel, either inadvertently or deliberately, came across some computer files that were above his pay grade (“Danvers has seen and heard too much! He knows about the chasm, and D Labs. He could have seen the experiment.”). Nigel takes the train to a small (and entirely fictional) town on the coast of East Anglia called Saxton. An isolated and strangely old-fashioned place, it looks like the ideal hideaway for Nigel... but there’s always the sneaking suspicion that Saxton is precisely where Hadden wants him to be.

The official Lost Crown website quotes the Fortean Times review as saying that “a sense of unease and isolation develops similar to that evoked by the film The Wicker Man”. In some ways that’s a good comparison – certainly the creepy feeling that everyone in town except the protagonist knows what’s going on. Nigel wasn’t expecting to end up in Saxton, but it seems that at least some of the Saxton residents were expecting Nigel.

The subplot of the “lost crown” itself is based on (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say inspired by) the M.R. James short story “A Warning to the Curious”. The key idea here is that a crown dating from Anglo-Saxon times is buried somewhere on the East Coast. According to legend, the crown protects the country from invasion. If you believe the legend, you’ll leave the crown where it is. If you don’t believe the legend, you’ll seek out the “treasure”. Nigel, of course, can be counted on to make the wrong decision.

There’s another homage to M.R. James in a scene featuring a young hippie couple named Karswell – after the villain in the brilliant short story “Casting the Runes” (and the equally brilliant 1957 film Night of the Demon based on it). This scene is significant in that it’s the one unambiguous case of a timeslip in the game. Nigel later learns that the Karswells died more than 20 years earlier – and not only that, but the house where he had dinner with them burned down at the same time (unfortunately, you can’t go back to the Karswells’ house after you discover this – I would have liked to see with my own eyes that it was nothing but a decades-old burned out ruin!).

I referred to the Karswell house as an “unambiguous” timeslip because there’s explicit documentary evidence within the game that the house burned down before Nigel visited it. But if you want “ambiguous” temporal anomalies, The Lost Crown is full of them! Nigel arrives in Saxton (or Sedgemarsh, to be pedantic) on a steam train – something that strikes him as odd, but doesn’t seem to bother the station master. The barmaid refuses to tell him what year it is. Present-day newspapers contain antiquated-looking advertisements for goods priced in shillings (which were phased out in 1970). The villainous Ager brothers only exist as ghosts today – but there’s conflicting evidence as to just what century they lived in (18th? 19th? 20th?).

The first time I played the game I spent a lot of time worrying about these anomalies. The second time around, I just took them in my stride. I don’t think there’s any profound significance to them – they’re simply part of the vaguely surreal nature of Saxton. In some ways the place reminds me of the village in the Prisoner TV series – you just have to take it on its own terms, not try to apply logical analysis to it.

The Lost Crown’s subtitle is “A Ghost-Hunting Adventure”, and it certainly lives up to that. Despite the homages to M.R. James, the various ghosts you encounter tend to be closer to “real ghosts” than those of traditional ghost stories. And by “real ghosts” I mean the kind of ghosts people who believe in such things claim to encounter in the real world! There’s a strong sense of realism in the way Nigel goes about ghost-hunting, too, with orb photography, EVP recordings and a satisfyingly jittery EMF meter – gadgets that would have baffled M.R. James, but are the stock-in-trade of the modern paranormal investigator.

Nigel is supported in his ghost-hunting activities by a psychology student named Lucy Reubans – arguably Saxton’s only non-creepy resident! The juxtaposition of believer Nigel and skeptic Lucy is an obvious echo of Mulder and Scully... and the game’s mixture of supernatural and man-made horror is also reminiscent of The X-Files. The most genuinely frightening scene in The Lost Crown is the one where you discover where the town’s cats have been disappearing to – and it’s got nothing to do with ghosts! I don’t think that’s a coincidence, either, because deep down you know that ghosts can’t hurt you... but a psychotic with a butcher’s knife can!

One of the great attractions of The Lost Crown for me is that you spend hours exploring the kind of places I like to explore in the real world – old churches, caves, coastal paths, a quirky museum, an old railway station, an antique store... even a New Age shop! I’ve never been to East Anglia, where the story is set, but the actual locations were filmed much closer to home, in and around Polperro in Cornwall.

The good news for Lost Crown fans is that Jonathan is putting the finishing touches on a sequel, called Blackenrock. Personally, I can’t wait!


Peni R. Griffin said...

The big game companies do an even better job of covering up the fact that games are an art form than the major players in the film industry do of for their form. Art, after all, is expensive to create, and modern corporations like to keep costs down.

But they are art, all the same, and can produce the usual artistic satisfactions, if allowed to. And here's one that does, evidently.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Peni. My comments about games lacking artistic depth was, of course, aimed at mass-market adventure games and the like -- not the sort of things you do with the Sims!

H. G. Davis said...

Very nice review and summary. I am on my second time through but wish I had let more time pass between plays. But it is too much "fun" for that with the pre and sequels due out.

Andrew May said...

Thanks very much, Helen (I think you're name's Helen, because I've just got a new follower named Helen Davis). My own feeling, after almost six years, is that I let too much time pass between plays!

Brian Clegg said...

Thanks for tempting me, only to discover that I can't get it for Mac, Andrew! Grr.

Andrew May said...

Oops, sorry Brian! I'll pass that comment on to Jonathan...