Lovecraftian horror games are nothing new: The Call of Cthulu games, the Arkham Horror board games, and the masterpiece that is Eternal Darkness have kept the unrelenting horror of beings beyond our scope of understanding alive and done credit to the works that they’ve taken as their inspiration. This time though, I’d like to highlight a game that was a big part of my childhood and my first foray into horror games. Ladies and gentlemen, from the group that would one day publish projects like Arkham City and Bastion, and the writer of the Steppenwolf series, I give you: Arcane: Season 1, The Miller Estate.
Back in 1998, WB made a really ambitious effort with their Flash-based games and multimedia. In addition to the usual addictive games you’d find on any other website, you could also find cartoon shorts and even exclusive webisodes of shows like Batman: The Animated Series (which even had the same voice actors). Sure, at the time, Flash was pretty basic and the slow connection speeds at the time kept the games from being too complex, but there were several developers who busted their butts to bring out some very good games. One of these games was the multi-episode online mystery game Arcane.
Like the Sam and Max games that have come out over the past decade, Arcane was a point-and-click adventure game that was separated into episodes that would be periodically released on WB’s website. The episodes were each part of a story arc or “season.” However, unlike that more humorous series, Arcane played its horror elements straight and each episode focused on a different character: there was Preston, a skeptic who depends on science to explain the supernatural forces he encountered, Ophelia, a young psychic who is very sensitive to the cosmic horrors that stalk her, and her father, Gregor, a learned man who sees the value in both scientific research and the magical arts. In the first season, they were called out to the Miller Estate after its last tenant went mad and disappeared.
Now, the reason I’ve been referring to the game in the past tense up until now is that the site it was initially hosted on dropped the game long ago. Luckily, there are several sites that now host the game and its sequel. Admittedly, there are some issues with these versions (the save feature only works sometimes) and the site at the bottom of this article sometimes brings up links to sites that no longer exist.
Fortunately, the core gameplay and story is intact, which is Arcane’s greatest strength. While the gameplay is your typical point-and-click adventure (click on something to investigate it, drag an item over something to use the item on it, and look for guide arrows when you need to leave a room or read something), there are plenty of puzzles that will challenge your mind while not delving into Sierra logic. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a puzzle or two that will drive you nuts though; the final episode has a puzzle where you must reassemble a broken ladder before the tide comes in and even if you have all but one of the pieces assembled when the tide comes in, you’ll have to start all over. However, the game can be brutal due to its sharp difficulty curve. Every time you make a mistake or click on a meaningless bauble, a counter will rise and some type of horror will begin to stalk your character. As you make more wasteful moves, cutscenes will play of the horror getting closer to your character. Since new players will not know which things to click on, they can expect to see their characters die or go insane lots of times.
Fortunately, these cutscenes add to the game’s creepy atmosphere. The cutscenes are terrifying and very diverse and the only sounds in the game, aside from the voice acting, are ominous moaning, the creaking of a dry corpse’s bones, and the sound of Preston’s machine pinging evermore rapidly as an eldritch abomination closes in on you. Combine that with the setting sun and the shadows of the corridors you’ll walk through and you’ll have a terrifying title to play late at night on Halloween. The story is solid as well and captures the feeling of a Lovecraft stories while putting its own themes into it. You’ll see terrifying rituals, descents into madness, and the gurgling beasts from places unimagined but the ending will suggest a different theme from the ordinary cosmic horror tale.
However, while the game looked great back in the day and still has a great atmosphere, the animation and voice-work don’t hold up that well by today’s standards. The animation is really basic and aside from the wind rustling something, you’ll mostly just see a single object moving at any one time. This also hurts the voice work since the synch is off by quite a bit in some scenes. Speaking of the voice work, it’s actually pretty good, especially considering the state of voice acting for major games at the time and remembering that this wasn’t done by professional voice actors. The problem actually comes from the equipment used to record the voices. On two characters, the sound is badly distorted and the rest were recorded with low-quality microphones. While it would make sense for low-quality sounds to be used due to the connection speeds at the time, WB had shorts on their site that sounded a lot more clearly.
Overall, while it hasn’t aged that well, Arcane: The Miller Estate, still stands out as an excellent adventure game that is legitimately creepy. If you like Lovecraftian horror, then this is the game for you. The sequel though, is much better.
A host for the game can be found: HERE