Friday, 2 March 2012

Game 12: Mortville Manor - Fatal Translation

Jérôme Lange Journal Entry 1: “Something terrible has happened. My good friend Julia is dead! To make matters worse, I am convinced that foul play was involved. If I’m right though, given the circumstances of her death, that means someone in her family or manor has committed murder! Just before her death, Julia sent me a letter that suggested she was in trouble, but by the time I travelled to Mortville Manor to assist, it was too late. I now feel it is my duty, as an investigator and friend, to try to solve this mystery and put things right. I’ve begun my investigation by searching the bureau, the dining room and the kitchen for clues, asking the manor inhabitants questions as I go in hope of finding out some useful information. Everyone seems a bit reluctant to help, which is strange given how they all profess to having loved Julia very much, but gradually I am finding out some answers. There are some interesting artefacts around the house, such as engraved inscriptions on pillars and a coat of arms that is missing the motto, but I don’t yet know what they mean or whether they’re relevant. I also have a parchment with a strange message on it, although none of it makes any sense to me yet. If the murderer really is in this manor, I will find them out eventually. It’s just a matter of time.”

Mortville Manor is a strange game! I didn’t really know what to expect when I started, but since then I’ve found myself switching between genuine interest, total frustration and utter bewilderment. On the interest side, investigating objects for clues and drawing information out of family members is certainly thought provoking, and I like the way that new questions enter the list available every time I come across a new item or location of interest in the manor. The result is new information becoming available to me each time I come into contact with a family member, which is a good way to make the game unravel at a gradual pace. It’s a technique that hadn’t appeared in adventure games prior (that I know of) and could be considered a predecessor to the future genre blueprint. I’m genuinely intrigued as to who murdered Julia and why, and at this stage, plan to see the game through to the reveal. However, there are many, many things about the game that are making it quite challenging, and unfortunately the majority of these challenges are not of the intentional type.


Not a bad place to drag out an investigation.

I don’t even know where to begin when discussing the aspects of the game that are frustrating, but I’ll start with the most obvious one. The speech synthesis is what Mortville Manor is most notable for, as it appears to be the first game of any genre to make use of it, but it’s exceedingly awful! Considering the game revolves around collecting information from the various suspects and that there are no subtitles to assist, it’s of vital importance that the player can understand what’s being said to them. It’s bad enough that the voice is totally monotone and has crappy audio quality, but the French accent and terrible translation job makes it at times plain impossible. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can replay responses over and over again until I vaguely understand, I would call the game unplayable and move on. As it is, it’s merely a frustration, and I’m pretty sure I’ve picked up enough to be able to get by. I’ve got a spreadsheet set up with a worksheet for each suspect and I’ve been writing down all their responses to each question to look back over (nothing is recorded in the game to go back to), and the cells are filled with things like “it is ???????? and I have enough to keep me busy” and “that’s how the ?????? that lies at the foot of the manor”.


Is this Mortville Manor or Maniac Mansion?

Before I criticise the game further, I’ll try to give you an idea of how the interface works. Everything is controlled through drop down menus. Right click on the screen to bring up the menu bar, select the menu you want and then scroll down to the option you want and let go. For example, right click on the screen, move the cursor up to Act (short for Action) and then scroll down to “open” and let go, and then click on a door to open it. Right click on the screen, move the cursor to Mov (short for Move) and then scroll down to “dining room” and let go to go to the dining room. It’s pretty straight forward and easy to get used to. In fact, I find myself unable to use Windows properly after playing the game as I right click on icons, move the cursor up and let go, expecting that to run the application (it doesn’t). The main issue with this menu system is not the interface itself; it’s the sheer number of options available. Check out the screenshot below to see the Action options you can choose from at any time. Scratch? Smell? Force? I have to wonder how many times these actions will actually produce a result and yet I’m having to look at every item in the game and think about whether any of that long list of actions might be relevant in that case. I’ve smelt, scratched, and listened to every item I’ve come across so far, as I don’t yet know whether Mortville Manor relies on logic or trial and error to solve (I don’t trust adventure games until they prove themselves trustworthy).


I look forward to the part of the game where I need to sound something!

There are not as many options in the other menus thankfully. In fact, there are surprisingly very few rooms that you can Move to, at least initially, with Bureau, Dining Room, Kitchen, Cellar and Chapel being the only places to explore. That being said, there are stacks of items to look through in the various cupboards and draws, many of which surely have no relevance to the investigation. Pens, romantic novels, packs of cards, tennis balls etc. etc. The only things I’ve thought might be of value and therefore tried to pick up are a pistol, some keys, a locked jewellery box and a parchment. This raises two other criticisms that I need to raise. Firstly, the parchment is really cryptic, but I have no idea whether it’s intentionally so or whether it’s just a terrible translation. It’s pretty much the first item I picked up and it could very well hold the key to the mystery, but lines like “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday, from Monday 1st to Sunday 1st, plunging from one day to the next your is or will become” just don’t make any sense whatsoever! The second criticism is around the inventory, which is ridiculously limiting. You can only have about five or six items in your inventory before you are unable to pick up anything else. I guess it would be silly for the character to carry around every available item, but limiting it to such an extent is downright annoying.


I'm sorry...um...what?!

What’s that? You want more criticisms of Mortville Manor?! Well, since you asked, the conversation mechanics are also pretty annoying. Every time you choose to have a discussion with someone, you are taken to a close up view of them and have the choice to bring up a tree of possible conversation topics. As mentioned earlier, it’s nice that new questions are added to the list as you discover new things in the manor, but the amount of dialogue options combined with the amount of repetition between family members’ answers makes it less interesting than it should be. Add to this the fact that you only get to raise a few topics with each suspect before they continually respond with “you are too curious”, and that if you later go back and talk to that suspect again, the topics you’ve discussed previously are no longer highlighted, and you’ve got yourself a pretty irritating system. I set myself the goal early on of discussing every possible topic with every suspect and writing down what their response is, and I was hoping that after that was completed (which would likely take hours due to the above irritations) I would have a better understanding of what I need to do to solve the mystery. However, this is where we get to the bewildering bit…


Let's cut to the chase...did you do it or not?

Mortville Manor has a habit of ending my game extremely abruptly, and for no apparent reason. I’ll be looking at items in the kitchen when a random message will pop up telling me that someone has come up behind me and stabbed me in the back. At other times, the servant Max will simply give me my bags back and send me on my way as though I’d done something wrong. I’m beginning to think that I’m being murdered because I’m wandering the manor at night time instead of sleeping, but I need to test this theory. I literally have no idea why Max is sending me away though, and can only assume that I’m supposed to achieve something by a certain time or I’m considered a failure. I’m hoping that all this becomes clearer as if the game is forcing me to sleep at nights instead of investigating while still placing a time limit on me to achieve my goal, I won’t be particularly kind in my next couple of posts. Anyway, I feel like I’m a long way from being able to judge the merits of Mortville Manor. The obvious flaws don’t help its cause, but the jury is still out on whether it can overcome them. I’ve suffered a calf muscle injury today, so while I’m forced to use crutches and request assistance like a cripple, it does make it likely that I’ll be spending quite a bit of time this weekend in the manor, trying to figure out what happened to Julia.


That's a bit harsh don't you think? I got here yesterday!

18 comments:

  1. If you still plan to look at the french PC version to compare the two, I can always look at the corresponding texts (for example, the parchment, if it's at the beginning of the game) and tell you if it makes any sense to me. Of course, when you advance in the game, it's gonna be a hassle to go play the other version just to know what is says in french, but if it can help you...

    As for the vocal synthesis, be assured that it was incomprehensible even in french... but we didn't have to worry about the horrible accents though... :) Sorry for my people!

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  2. The scroll is supposed to be cryptic, but the one on your screenshot only makes sense (barely... once you've figured out all the symbols) once you know the whole story, it doesn't indicate what you're supposed to do.

    SPOILER:

    ...srehto era erehT

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Such a shame that the localization was so bad... I wish I could help!
    (if it makes any sense, you could ask us "what does X say about Y" when you don't understand, we could listen to the French version and tell you).

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    1. To be honest I'm getting used to it and can understand some of the original statements I couldn't earlier. I hope I don't walk around speaking like that soon...

      (Puts on monotone robotic French accented voice) "You are too curious!"

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  5. Well, it doesn't hold up in the end, at least you can see some potential in it. It sounds interesting enough. Maybe there wasn't enough time to develop it further.

    I hate useless dialogue options; while the alternative being only enabling them when they're useful may make the game too straightforward, the alternative is just wasting the time of the player. There's nothing to solve, just try again later: this doesn't seem like a good design.

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  6. Some of the design flaws you've noticed in Mortville Manor seem very common in detective-style games. There's usually a huge amount of topics you can discuss with the characters and usually only a handful of the information is truly relevant to the mystery - and the characters are often busy with their own random wanderings or just not in the mood to discuss anything, so you'll spend considerable time just following everyone and pestering them like Columbo. And there's usually some deadline, after which you'll be expelled from the mansion, killed or thrown into jail and the game's over or then a more minor event - like NPC death - occurs and you have just unwittingly missed your chance of finding an important clue - and so you'll end up repeatedly restarting and restoring just to get the whole picture.

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    1. Your description of detective-style games is pretty much why I haven't played that many over the years. This blog is going to make me face up to the challenge and I'm sure I'll be rewarded with some decent ones along the way.

      I've never played games like The Last Express, but I believe that game is in realtime. I imagine it would require a lot of being in the right place at the right time and stacks of restores.

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  7. Just so people know, the Myst Series is on sale at Great Old Games for the weekend; http://www.gog.com/promo/cyan_worlds_2

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    1. Nice... I'm happy to say I bought it three weeks ago... hate when it happens :(

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    2. I bought every single adventure game on GOG during the ridiculously cheap Xmas sale they had. There are only a handful that aren't on the Notable Graphical Adventure Game list (such as Personal Nightmare and Litil Divil), but I might as well play them when I get to them as I already own them.

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  8. Speaking of adventure games, check this thing out: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/66710809/double-fine-adventure?ref=users

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    1. Feelgood story of the year!

      I'm genuinely excited about this and hope it's really successful so adventure games will be considered big business again.

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  9. Daubeur: Why don't you use ROT13 in your spoilers? It is harder to read accidentally, and for long messages easier to decrypt (ROT13.com)

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  10. This game instantly makes me think of Cruise for a Corpse. Lots of questioning people, dialogue choices giving you more conversation with different characters and not to mention scratching around for clues.

    I only have to wait 40 odd games to see you get it to though.

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  11. What does the word "cool" (occasionally replaced by things like "heavy" and "gloomy" in the sidebar signify? Also, it amuses me that on the list of names, each name has only three letters in it.

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    1. It describes weather, I assume.

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    2. I guess that makes sense. ("Heavy," though?) I guessed they described the mood of the household, or of the player character.

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