Haunted Hotel – Charles Dexter Ward

I truly disliked the three first Haunted Hotels but played them out of a sense of… principle. I’ll admit they got better as they went a long but I was not looking forward to Charles Dexter Ward in the slightest.

The reason why I played Haunted Hotel, other than for being absolutely anal about playing things from the beginning, is because it’s a series where you can perfectly trace the various trends and design philosophies behind HOPA as they changed. It’s one of three series that are perfect for analyzing the various trends in HOPA, the other two being Mystery Case Files and Hidden Expedition.

The first Haunted Hotel is as basic as you can get, consisting of a handful of hidden object scenes and some puzzles tied together loosely by plot delivered in entirely too much text.

After that, with Believe the Lies, they got a bit more fancy, having you play an FBI agent with a specific goal in mind but the gameplay hadn’t evolved much except for the text crawls being replaced by cutscenes. The third one came closer to what we consider a “HOPA” with much more conventional hidden objects scenes, a bit inventory management and much more story.

They sort of formed a bit of a trilogy, a story about a single hotel and its owners who were causing mischief throughout time. At least I think so? From what I remember (despite finishing the trilogy a week or so ago) the hotel was a giant time machine that was fueled by creative people so they went around plucking artists and stuff out of time… or… something along those lines. But at the end of the third game, Lonely Dream, the hotel was “defeated” and the world was saved or… something.

Then came Charles Dexter Ward and I wasn’t at all sure what to expect.

Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward
(2012, SpecialBit)

When your brother mysteriously goes missing, it’s up to you to find him and bring him back home. But where to start? Luckily a package suddenly appears in your home, revealing that Charles was summoned to a hotel that the two of you have supposedly inherited. But when you arrive you realize quickly that things are worse than they seem and if you fail here, not only will you lose your brother… but the world might pay a heavy price.

You might be smarter than me and recognize Charles Dexter Ward right away. I didn’t. I may have read a fair bit of Lovecraft but this is one story that I completely missed. My first inkling of an idea that this might be related to the Cthulhu mythos was this:

Yup, that is Cthulhu himself emerging from the darkness. It was quite abrupt and is now my laptop desktop image. Imagine that.

But it made me go back and check up on the history of Charles Dexter Ward and I realized that this was an adaptation. A loose adaptation but an adaptation none the less. And despite being loosely adapted, it still follows the story quite well, hitting most major plot points of the the story. And the ending is… well, it’s very Lovecraftian if you ignore the bonus chapter which only serves to set up a sequel. Which might not have been made but that remains to be seen.

Charles Dexter Ward then (or Haunted Hotel 4 if you prefer) is a horror game of mostly the psychological variety. Instead of relying on jump scares and gore it relies on building tension, atmosphere and dread. Because when thinking back on the game, very little actually happens and outside of what your mind conjures up, the game does very little to get your pulse up. There’s a smoke monster that regular goes “Hey, remember me.” and one or two branches bursting with excitement to meet you so they enter unannounced through the window but I’m not entirely against jump scares, they’re a great way to quicken an audience’s pulse and get them in the right mindset of “anything can happen at any time”. It’s just important, to me, that you entire movie isn’t this cause that just gets tedious after a while.

Strangely the game that this reminded me the most of was the very first Resident Evil. That game definitely contained more jump scares and gore, for sure, but the setup was very similar: you’re plonked down in a mansion in the middle of nowhere without much setup and after that it’s up to you to figure out what happened and how to progress. Granted, it’s a pretty common setup for haunted house movies in general but my point remains. I suspect more than a little inspiration was taken from that 16 year old game.

The game comes with some pretty standard fare for HOPA: a small journal, a task list, Hint function and (with the Collector’s Edition) a built in walkthrough. The journal is more of a collection of other people’s journals, people who were there before you, similar to how much of the backstory in Resident Evil was delivered through various documents that you found, detailing the lives of people affected by the same thing. If you take the time to read these notes and you’re a fan of Lovecraft, you’ll probably notice that they’ve been taking some of his other work into the development process as well. One page makes a reference to rats in the wall. Very interesting.

On the flipside, I do really think the Hint function is essential in this game. It’s by no means unbeatable without it but it would require you to simply walk around a whole lot to sort of jog your memory and remember “Ah, right, this is where I needed that thing to do the thing.” whereas the hints simply cut much of that aimless wandering about. Some items aren’t necessarily used in the simplest of ways and sometimes you need to take some additional steps in order for the item to work, steps that weren’t necessarily obvious. But the function is perfectly voluntary and I only used it sparingly in order to maintain that old school adventure nostalgic feel. So it fills the function it’s intended to fill, there to make the game easier at the player’s own discretion.

My only possible complaint is that the game takes place over the course of three days. This is not my complaint, this is actually a pretty neat setup and while I would’ve preferred there to be an actual time limit with days progressing naturally, I don’t mind this. It lends some urgency to the game that otherwise is quite easy to miss. But what I don’t like about it is that at the start of each new day, and sometimes in the middle of the day, you have to wander about the hotel, trying to find what new items have been revealed that simply weren’t active before.

Some of these are tied neatly into the natural progression while others are obscurely hidden away in places that you’ve already looked but simply didn’t trigger because it was the wrong time in the game. This is the sort of design that I don’t like and it reminds me of some old HOPAs that would reactivate hidden object scenes in places that you wouldn’t normally go back to and didn’t tell you that old scenes might be worth revisiting. It has to be tied into how a player would naturally move about the game and for the most part this game does that well but in some cases I was completely lost and either had to use hints to figure out where to go or wander about until I found what I needed, often triggering a “How was I supposed to find that?”-moment.

But if I have to put up with a game that actually demands I explore and perhaps even keep a checklist of things I need to do, much like how it used to work, then that’s an acceptable kink in the armor. In my eyes.

It is a hidden object game, though, not just horror so there are definitely hidden object scenes in there but for an old game they’re used surprisingly sparingly. And they… work, I guess. There’s really not much to say about them. Unlike previous entries in the series, you could’ve just as easily cut the hidden object scenes out and you’d only lose game time, not actual worth.

That said, some of them were quite grueling. Part of that is because they’ve squeezed a lot of objects into a relatively small frame. This is, after all, only 4:3 aspect ratio and it’s a couple of years old so the graphics aren’t quite as crisp and clear as a modern HOPA. Sometimes items were just hidden a little too well, just sticking out a hint from behind things or just changed to facilitate hiding so much that it didn’t really resemble what I had in my mind. Which is both a slight against me, teaching me to perhaps not be so confident in my object searching skills, but I also think there’s a point where the designer just simply took it too far. It never got to the point where I had to use a hint in a hidden object scene and they rarely took too long to complete.

All of that said, however, as much as I may complain it’s not really an issue, just something I thought I’d mention. I didn’t really think too much about the hidden object scenes when playing the game, I rather enjoyed them at the moment. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve started to think “maybe they weren’t perfect”.

But one area where even a few days separation hasn’t tarnished my image is the puzzles. They’re great.

I haven’t had this much fun with a puzzle game in a long while. While there were some traditional puzzles in there, there were a lot of really clever twists to them (the mirror jigsaw puzzle was brutal). And a lot of puzzles that I had never seen before or not seen in… years, easily. And they weren’t always easy either. Sure, some didn’t offer up much of a challenge and others I’m just so used to that it doesn’t matter how much you change up the graphics, my internal systems still work.

I can always spot a Tower of Hanoi puzzle even if you change up the placement of the “towers”.

The Bonus Chapter (included in the Collector’s Edition) was especially tough when it came to puzzles and it was here that I ran into most of the puzzles that I hadn’t seen before. I never had to skip any puzzles which I’m quite proud of considering how daunting some of them were. But they seemingly fit me like a glove because as soon as I took a moment to think about the puzzles, the solution typically came rather elegantly to me (*cough or I just got really lucky cough*).

And since I brought up the Bonus Chapter, might as well keep going about it for a while longer. Sadly, it’s probably the weakest part of the game and if they cut that and moved all the puzzles to the main game, I would’ve been happier. This is just one of those times when the ending in the game was just perfect and continuing on simply undermined the rather dark and fitting ending of the main game, predictable as it may be. It also doesn’t help that, from what I can tell, the ending was meant to set up a sequel that never came. Oh, they continued the franchise but after this it switched hands and went to Elephant who recently made the fifteenth or sixteenth entry in the series.

From what I can read in the synopsis in the most immediate games following this, they never seemed to follow up on the promise of this game which is a bit of a shame and just makes the Bonus Chapter that much more pointless.

The Bonus Chapter doesn’t really hold up graphically either. Not fidelity-wise, it’s the same quality as the main game but the design is significantly less haunting. It does pour on with the Cthulhu references but it’s somehow too much on the nose. The main game definitely made references to the Lovecraft mythos but this one just basically stated it flat out and put the Elder Gods on display for all to see. I understand what they were going for but it was just a little too overstated.

But except for that the graphics are great, featuring just the right amount of washed out colors and murky environments. It’s incredibly atmospheric and moody which coupled with the music makes it all amazing. It’s not just that the graphics are good, every so often you come across something that will make you feel eerie. By all accounts simple little tricks but it’s surprisingly effective in raising the tension and lowering the mood. This goes for the sound design as well, the game sometimes simply eschewing music for silence and sound effects. Probably one of the most disturbing points in the game is when you’re walking around in the… haunted hotel… get it? Cause of the title? Eh?

Anyway, when you’re walking around in the hotel on the third day. Instead of the music, which is definitely great, it’s just the various sound effects to fill the empty silence. And let me tell you, when you’re walking around in silence for while then try a door which makes a loud rattling noise, it’s enough to make me jump. It’s little touches like that that makes this game stand out to me. Sometimes it feels like HOPA have the “epic feeling”-plague right now, unable to craft smaller, more intimate games rather than bombastic, great journeys across time and space. Just give me an abandoned hotel and let me explore it, my imagination will do the rest.

It probably helped that I had a hard rule of only playing it when it was dark. Perfect time of the year to do it too!

Really, the only complaint I have about the graphics is that the 3D effects were more than a little hinky and kind of took me out of it when I saw it. And the cutscenes weren’t all that well compressed, looking quite a bit grainy at times but I did enjoy the fact that they used live actors instead of crap 3D or poorly animated 2D.

And no, I’m not talking about the film grain but rather when the 3D effects were used which almost always caused the video quality to drop.

On the video note, it was quite fun seeing an actual “making of” rather than Eipix’ mostly humorous take on the subject matter. I always find it fascinating to see how things came together and this was a pretty good example of the kind of stuff I love seeing but perhaps in a more comprehensive video.

Sadly, SpecialBit closed its doors after this game… what, they continued making games? Well, okay, they’re still making games to this day but their release rate definitely dropped a few notches and Haunted Hotel was given to another developer. I don’t know if SpecialBit had a special relation with Elephant or if the franchise was owned by Big Fish Games and they simply decided to move it. Any number of things could’ve happened.

But I really would’ve liked to have seen where SpecialBit was going with this story and perhaps the franchise as a whole. Was it going to remain Lovecraftian in nature or was this just a phase? Was Lovecraft too much for the casual audience?

That’s not to say I don’t have faith in Elephant Games and their continued franchise, it actually looks really promising and I can’t wait to try some of them out. For all I know, this was the intended direction of the franchise from SpecialBit. But in another world I’d like to think that there’s a HOPA franchise that went on for fifteen plus games and revolved around Lovecraftian stories.

That’s all.

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