Horror and point-and-click adventure go hand in hand. You can change the proportions of how much each genre contributes to a finished product, but the fact remains that they are complimentary. From Resident Evil and Silent Hill in the past, to the Amnesias and Annas of today, the emphasis that point-and-click adventure places on slow careful exploration forces players to probe the objects of their unease.
But adventure game logic is a curious thing. It’s a thing that, by now I have internalized, but one can never be fully prepared for the obtuse and highly specific solutions that come with the territory. Anna’s contemporary in the genre, the indiejuggernaught, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, circumvents the mental gymnastics of the genre by streamlining the solutions. Amnesia sends you forth into the terrifying unknown recesses of the manor to gather items and to solve clear and immediate problems, and is very particular about making the objective apparent. It nudges the player in the right directions by presenting fewer tools than the typical adventure game. By the time you encounter a lock you have a few options all of which can immediately be ruled out via trial and error. Your only conclusion is that you have to explore. All of the adjacent doors are locked except for one leading to a lab. In this lab you find a series of chemicals. Can you combine them? Yes! The description of the item indicates to you that you can use the corrosive mixture to help loosen that pesky lock you recently encountered. Amnesia’s finesse is that it keeps its puzzles fairly low-concept, and they keep the player just informed enough to keep them looking in the right direction without putting a giant floating arrow above the requisite materials with an objective tracker parroting your goal.
Anna was born after Amnesia, but it crawled out of the same sort of primordial ooze that gave life to more old school adventure games. The developers have a very clear goal for you, and they want you to reach that goal in an incredibly specific way ignoring the leaps in logic that it might take to come to the conclusion they desire. The result of this grand design architecture has you analyzing not only every possible logical solution set to a problem, but more often every illogical solution as well. These types of adventure games aren’t so much exercises in lateral thinking as they are exercises in M.C. Escher thinking.
What immediately stuck out to me, however, were not the obtuse puzzles. No. Instead, what is striking about Anna is the first impression it chooses to make. Right from the menu and the opening minutes the game is bright and verdant. The music starts out presenting only a hint of dread. When the opening theme picks up it becomes almost jaunty. It sends the message that perhaps Anna is trying to take a bold step outside the boundaries of its genre. Instead of placing you in dark, dirty, claustrophobic environments all the while shoving gore and filth down your eye sockets, it frontloads a glimpse of beauty on the player.
A bold gambit, and it pays off. It doesn’t take long before you enter the squalor, but the bout of serenity makes the transition jarring. The stark contrast makes me all the more uneasy once I enter the cabin.
Before entering the cabin, a number of things jumped out at me. The mouse was insanely sensitive. I couldn’t figure out what key opened the menu , so I couldn’t adjust it, nor could I easily check which keys are bound to what. I was off to a rough start.
I coped with the mouse sensitivity and the lack of a cheat-sheet for my controls. The opening to the game doesn’t hesitate to bring the adventure game logic hard. Within minutes I was wandering around the fenced off yard with an inventory half full of junk and a sea of tiny pebbles and pine cones to collect. The windows and doors into the sawmill were sealed tight. I tried my pebbles, my sticks, my lighter; everything in my inventory. Nothing. “Just use adventure game logic,” I told myself. “Ok, I’ll pry the door open with this branch…I guess.” Nothing.
Wandering around, you are given the option to examine a small innocuous rivulet that juts inwards. The water flow is disrupted by two rocks and the muddy water is obscuring something. . “Odd, but it doesn’t seem related to my immediate goal of getting inside. Oh, right. It’s an adventure game.” The game defeats my assumption that goal #1 is getting inside. Goal #1 is clearing the muddy water. “Ok, what can I use to do that with? Oh, why don’t I bail the mud out using my canteen. No, it’s probably more obtuse than even that. Maybe the game wants me to swish the mud aside with a stick to reveal something obscured?” Wrong. I set off again to scour the area for what might be missing, already with 12 items in my inventory including 3 rocks and 2 pine cones. I found a few more pine cones.
After resorting to asking the game for a hint, I still wasn’t entirely clear on what to do. It turns out that the game wanted me to use my rather fragile looking stick to pry the rocks out of the way so that fresh water could flow in and wash away the mud. Washing the mud away reveals a broken piece of glass that looks like it fits a notch above the door. Half of that notch isn’t filled in, but at least by this point in the puzzle we’re working with a clear objective. Upon further searching I found a crawl space. The doors were bound shut with a rope. Clear problem. I had a knife in my inventory. Clear solution. After flinging the doors open and shedding some light on the inside you see the other broken mirror fragment and place it in the notch above the door. That brief stretch of clear objectives pauses here.
Eventually I figured out that I had to place a pinecone in the center of the glass. The result is something of a mock eyeball. Next, after much consternation, I stumbled upon the solution to open the door: I had to set the pinecone on fire and then douse it.
Once inside, I got what I expected from a horror game. The interior was dark and dingy and tinted with blood.
I was immediately on edge. After playing enough horror games, that type of paranoia just becomes instinct. The game hadn’t really done anything to inspire dread yet, but the transition into this new environment and the slow pacing made me suspicious enough to brace myself for the scares. The game managed to startle me infrequently, but the most effective scares were jump scares followed by short randomized sequences where objects would fly around the room or chase you before disappearing. Once there was a tapping at the cellar door I had passed a dozen or so times – incessant tapping which grew ever more violent. “Oh shit. What’s coming? Is something coming for me? Do I run? Can I hide? Oh my God, what do I do?” was my response. It isn’t so much that these elements were frightening on their own merits, but you never know what to expect because by this point in the game you’re think either the game is very mechanic light or the mechanics are a mystery, and when a moment of prolonged action occurs it isn’t apparent whether or not you are in immediate danger or how to react to it. The mysterious nature of the game injects these moments with the ability to scare where they would easily be shrugged off in an established franchise with established mechanics, and it also leaves a lingering sense of unease in the air that settled deep within me after the first major scare of the game.
The sawmill/cabin consists of a series of rooms filled with puzzle elements that lead into the end game. Paranoia prolongs the puzzle solving because you’re never sure what progression is going to trigger. Also, while the initial puzzle in this area suffered from the same lack of direction as previous puzzles, once that opening step was complete the area flowed very well with few exceptions. The overarching puzzle that joins all the rooms is brilliant, and the imagery gets progressively more disturbing.
As for those exceptions, the parts of the game where you have to right click objects to move them around is awful because moving things anchors you to the floor. You don’t actually pick the object up so they don’t properly follow your cursor, they just wiggle a bit and cling magnetically to the floor, slightly shifting with your mouse swipes. Also, you’re unable to do anything aside from move around while someone is talking. This wouldn’t be too bad if the presentation of the story wasn’t done in such a way as to maximize confusion. Ultimately, I can’t speak to a greater narrative as I got nothing out of it, and the poor presentation of the story made plot-significant moments nuisances that interfered with my experience.
Anna teaches a lesson to aspiring horror developers. It teaches the value of keeping the workings of your game mysterious, and the value of pacing. It ultimately fails to leave a lasting impression, and the obtuse antiquated puzzle logic and control issues make the 2-hour long experience difficult to recommend, but it at least nails the tension.
6.5 / 10