Shady Brook

Review by Scout
September 2005

College is a place rife with "in jokes" created by insular groups of friends coining phrases that immediately enter the clique's vernacular. One that circulated among my friends back in the day was "dill pickle." It meant anything that was eerily odd and subtly offsetting. Strange encounters in convenience stores at 4 a.m. were "dill pickle." Marathon six-hour drives across the Arizona desert while listening to Pink Floyd's Ummagumma at low volume while reading aloud from Naked Lunch were "dill pickle." Most of H.P. Lovecraft's stories were "dill pickle." I haven't thought about that term in ages, but playing Christopher Brendel's new indie adventure game, Shady Brook, brought back the meaning of the phrase in full.

This low-budget game, with its many failings and a few surprising successes, is rooted firmly in the tiny township of "Dill Pickle," USA. Since it's a horror-style adventure game (as opposed to a horror-survival game), that's a good thing. The strange atmosphere Brendel conjures is in many ways the strongest element of Shady Brook. It's not the story; the story is a slight variation on an old horror trope passed down to the likes of S. King and J. Saul by way of Shirley Jackson. It's certainly not the graphics. They are mostly eyeball-assaulting depictions of a small town set in an L-shaped box canyon, the blocky buildings seemingly picked at random from other locales and dropped side by side. The puzzles are just okay, mostly direct lifts from hoary old adventure game boilerplates. You got your slider (which resets if you accidently exit before completion), your puzzle box within a box, a Pipe Dream bit that doesn't quite make sense given its context, a coded poem full of clues and an assemble-the-note-from-torn-bits-of-paper puzzle, among others. Puzzlewise, there is nothing here even the most casual adventure gamer hasn't encountered at least once.

No, what draws the player through to the ending is the consistent "oddness" Brendel injects into almost every scene. The game opens with a man speaking into a minirecorder, issuing a warning to any who might find the tape. Cut to ominous silhouettes outside his window and the words, "They found me." The next scene introduces Shady Brook's protagonist, Jake Tobin, a drawling young man with shaggy hair, a blind and sickly father and a strange habit, apparently, of buying houses in far-off places, sight unseen. Jake is a writer in search of a quiet place to practice his art. Having read an article on Shady Brook, he packs himself, his father and a toothbrush into a car and heads out.

Of course, small towns in horror stories all have terrible secrets, and Shady Brook has a doozy. That comes later, though. First, Jake, a sort of Dean Erickson–era poor man's Gabriel Knight, sets out to meet his new neighbors. They're a friendly bunch, almost too eager to please and for the most part blandly appealing. There's Mom, the glassy-eyed town matriarch with a heart of gold, her affable doctor son Gary, Tim the overly chummy neighbor and owner of the local gas station, Kate the sweet young blonde with infant Amy and husband Nick. Less savory types are Danny the barber, Chief the loner, Michael the smarmy mayor and his troubled wife Tanya, Lee the glowering sheriff, Aaron the world's creepiest teen, Rusty the barkeep, Curly the generic bad guy and his generic slut girlfriend Cindy. Finally, there is Ethan Morrow, the priest figure in Shady Brook's outlandishly large church.

If you're thinking that's a lot of characters, it is, and as such most of the puzzles in Shady Brook are dialogue-driven. Gameplay consists of walking back and forth in Shady Brook, moving from building to building and speaking with the characters. Most can be found in the same place time and time again: Cindy in her laundromat, Kate at her general store, Mom at her diner.

The story unfolds as you speak with the various characters. Once you have completed the requisite number of dialogue trees, the game moves forward to the next time block. As you trudge back and forth through town, you occasionally run into one of the above-mentioned puzzles, none of which are that challenging if you know the slightest thing about adventure games. I was a bit stymied by the puzzle box but only as long as it took me to understand what the puzzle wanted from me.

The game is created using Adventure Maker, in a slideshow format, with an inventory complete with an "examine" icon and contextual cursors that prompt the player when an item is called for. There are a few perfectly obvious combine-the-inventory-items-within-the inventory tasks and a primitive save system that brings up a Windows file menu. You click your way through the town via big fat arrows and, except for one location, you can make it from one end of the map to the other in about 30 seconds. It's a small town, right?

As you engage the populace of Shady Brook, it quickly becomes apparent that a few actors handled most of the voices. For the most part, this wasn't too distracting, though several times, especially with Jake's distinctive voice, it was irritating to hear him paired with the same, barely disguised voice in a phone conversation or tape recording. Indie stalwart John Bell was all over this game, to its benefit. The women's voices were also well-handled, though since no specific credits were given at the end of the game or in the Companion, it's impossible to say who voiced whom.

The game really scraped bottom—and there is no way around this criticism—with the graphics. While the faces were nicely handled and nuanced, the bodies were little more than mannequin-stiff blow-up dolls. Watching the characters walk was especially painful as they thrashed about like half-frozen zombies, their arms and legs out of synch, their feet moon-walking over crude textures meant to represent grass and flooring. Windows look more like the sagging plastic sheeting you see in construction zones than glass. Kate's omnipresent infant never once moved in its mother's arms, and I found myself wondering if it was dead or alive. Watching Cindy the Slut preening for Jake was much like watching a stop-motion film, the arm jerking back and back and back. Some interiors were hardly more than sketches. The sheriff's office corkboard was completely blank, as was the in-box (until the very end ...). Sure, Sheriff Lee says he runs a tight town, but even a Mom's Diner menu would have been nice.

Character-driven stories depend on astute placement of detail to flesh out a believable world. In a game, we take visual cues from a character's surroundings. Brendel succeeded best in the mostly ignored barber shop and to a point in the general store and bar, but in Jake's house, all of City Hall, the laundromat, church, motel, cemetery, and gas station we encounter starkly empty locales with almost zero interactivity. The motel office is an empty room we can only view through a thick plate glass window with a slot at the bottom and an ugly couch centered against the back wall. The city hall is wildly grandiose considering the size of Shady Brook.

Obviously, the game was created on a shoestring budget, but another passthrough for the visuals was definitely called for, especially considering that Shady Brook is selling for $14.99, or $22.98 if the you want the Companion strategy guide. This is barely a price point or two below what infinitely more polished adventure games are selling for.

Also puzzling is the oddly equivocal attitude Brendel takes toward his game. Upon starting a new game, you first have to agree to a copyright agreement. Fine, no problem. But each time you return to the game you have to click past the copyright screen again. I'm sure the developer meant nothing by it, but after playing the game twice for review I was beginning to tire of that stupid screen greeting me at the beginning of each session as if my word was not to be trusted.

More disturbing were the screens offering a censored mode and a choice between action or adventure mode. While the action/adventure choice has some precedent, the censored mode smacks of game design by committee, of the developer trying to cater to many tastes simultaneously. I played the game uncensored and in "action" mode, and while there were a few mild R-rated scenes that did little to offend and a couple of organically placed curse words, the underlying subtext was as disturbing as any of the plot points. An artist's first responsibility is to his vision, not his audience. If that vision included adult subject matter, so be it. If the artist feels that the subject matter interferes with the piece, he should cut it out. Offering a censored mode is, sorry but I must say it, a copout and a capitulation to an all-too-familiar censorial mindset in the adventure game community. I was saddened to see it begin to appear in actual games. Christopher Brendel is better than that and has a yeoman's grasp of story and a fine touch for macabre atmosphere. He should follow those instincts wherever they might lead and not worry about the content that emerges. That way lays his strength.

As the game chugged along toward its finale, I was simultaneously fascinated and discouraged. There was so much potential in Shady Brook, the music, the Gabriel-Knight-meets-David-Lynch atmosphere, a few of the characters (at least a third could have been cut), the whimsical and oddly pleasing voice acting ... but the lackluster gameplay dragged it all down. The puzzles were stale at best, more like placeholders for more organic and clever versions. Brendel mentions in the Companion's Forward that the game development was problematic to the point that it was nearly shelved. While he didn't go into detail, there was an aura of defeat in this game that was hard to shake.

I encountered some technical problems as well on my Athlon AMD XP 1800+, 1.53 GHz, 512 MB, ATI 9600XT, XP Pro with Service Pack 2 rig. Every single time I won an arcade sequence, the game crashed to desktop and I could only return by clicking on the bottom screen toolbar. Twice I had to reboot and replay an arcade scene in full to safely get to a place to save. In most of the dialogue sequences, the screen flashed to black for a second before the character began to speak. Once the sequence was completed, the screen jumped back to a static character posed with generic expression. It was like watching technicians milling about at the edge of a stage during a play, sloppy and distracting.

All in all, I can't recommend this game at the current price, though it's somewhat more bearable if you forego the Companion guide. You certainly don't need it to make it through the game. A perfectly serviceable walkthrough already exists online. By the way, the game is released only on DVD format (yay!), so if all you have is a CD-ROM player, you are out of luck.

I suppose something should be said about the point system. I've never understood the reasoning behind allocating points in a game. Even Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, perhaps one of adventure gaming's finest moments, employs this gimmick. It utterly destroys the immersion factor for me, and for the most part I ignore it as best as I can. Brendel mercifully didn't display points on the game screen, just in the notebook and once at the end of the game. I would much rather see the developer's energy redirected toward better art, puzzles that are more organic and a stronger storyline. From what I've seen of Christopher Brendel's work, he has it in him. But in the end he is a writer first and a programmer and visual artist second. This is one case where too many cooks (and heavy on the pickle, please) might just be enough. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Chris Brendel
Publisher: Chris Brendel
Release Date: August 2005

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium III
Windows 98/2000/XP
516 MB RAM
350 MB free hard drive space
640×480 resolution, 24-bit color display
DVD-ROM drive
Windows-compatible sound card and mouse

Where to Find It

Chris Brendel $14.99

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