“You are alarming me, professor! Should I be worried…”
“No, it’s nothing, at least I think not. All will be well. I shall return this evening, and we shall dine together…
…if I am still alive.”
-An exchange between Mina Harker and Professor Gabriel Van Helsing, from Dracula: Origin
The PC adventure game genre is ripe for humor in games produced with its limitations in mind — this much has been obvious since the text-based origins of the genre. Zork was frequently hilarious, and not only because it featured one of the original geek memes (“You are likely to be eaten by a grue.”). From Zork to King’s Quest to Space Quest to Maniac Mansion to Sam & Max to Grim Fandango to, God help me, Leisure Suit Larry, it’s almost hard to find a PC adventure game that doesn’t prominently feature humor in some way. Granted, most of the aforementioned games are more than 10 years old, but they’re examples of their genre that are widely regarded as “classic”, in various senses of the word.
Adventure games are built for humor, largely because players know that unless the game is brain-dead easy, they know that they’re going to have to think outside the box, so to speak, to solve some of the puzzles. This means that, yes, a player is going to try to use a live baby squid on a bottle of wine because, well, you never know when a drunk squid will come in handy. Of course, in the 98% of instances where such absurdity won’t work, such games generally have no reservations about mocking you for your ridiculous thinking, offering witty comebacks and dismissive one-liners, battering your ego into submission until later puzzles actually feel more difficult because you’re subconsciously afraid of being mocked. “Sure, the tentacles are appealing, but shouldn’t you at least take it on a couple of dates first?”
Heck, Maniac Mansion traumatized us by allowing us to blow up that poor hamster in the microwave.
That’s why it’s almost jarring to play a game like Dracula: Origin, one of those rare examples of the adventure genre that steadfastly avoids humor as if it will irrevocably damage its credibility. Often, this can be a death sentence for an adventure game, as there are only so many ways to say “you can’t do that”, or “that doesn’t make any sense” before the insults start flying. In the case of Dracula: Origin, however, the flippancy of adventure game humor would seem utterly out of place amidst all of the very serious dread, death, and destruction floating around the game’s late 19th century setting.
Now, I will grant that, at times, it goes a little over the top. The quote I put at the top of this review is one in which the famous Professor Van Helsing is trying to reassure his friend’s lovely wife that she’s not in danger, all while telling her to hang cloves of garlic from all her windows and insinuating that he might not come back alive from wherever the hell he’s going. Not only that, but Van Helsing is telling her this immediately after discussing her housemaid’s sister’s very recent, violent, disturbing death.
Yes, he’s very reassuring.
So perhaps in that way, there is humor, though it tends to be more like B-movie humor where you’re never exactly sure the humor is intentional. In some instances, of course, the presence of the question of intent doesn’t make the funny bits any less so.
What Dracula: Origin seems to have sacrificed its adventure game humor for, then, is a sense of atmosphere, and for the most part, developer Frogwares pulls off this feat magnificently. The music is appropriately moody, nondescript, late 19th century romantic drivel, all swelling strings and minor keys, which suits the somber nature of the proceedings wonderfully. The color scheme is largely muted, with lots of cloudy days and stone structures, though it’s made quite clear that Frogwares did not fear color. Rather, the dank tones that permeate the computer screen the majority of the time make the occasional blasts of color (the particularly green leaves on the trees, the deep crimson of freshly spilt blood) all the more magnificent. The dialogue, usually such a staple of this type of game, is actually kept to a minimum here, sacrificing interpersonal communication with a steadily heightening sense of isolation, a loneliness that feels particularly deep when you’re stuck trying to figure out what to do.
Of course, it’s still a puzzle game, so you’re bound to try to do things like, oh, combining an iron rod and a veil full of flies and hoping something will happen. Rather than admonish you for thinking such a thing (or rewarding the random combination with a new item called “flies on a stick”), the only feedback that the game offers is the split-second sound of the grinding of gears, more toss-off than un-pleasantry. If you try to make Van Helsing do something he doesn’t want to do, he’ll simply offer “I can’t do that.” If you try to use an item on something that quite obviously makes no sense, he’ll give you one word: “Useless.”
The reason Dracula: Origin can get away with such a stoic, humorless negative feedback system is simple: the vast majority of the puzzles do make sense. This is Dracula: Origin‘s greatest victory. It’s a game that rewards deep thinking and the careful study of its environments. It doesn’t make you hunt for pixels, as a quick tap of the space bar will highlight every point of interactivity in a given room. It doesn’t expect you to dive in to fantasy logic, aside from the rare interactions with the supernatural. Dracula: Origin rewards human logic. It doesn’t even overload you with useless, obscure items as a means of artificially ramping up the difficulty of its puzzles. It simply asks that you look at what you have been given and make connections from there. Solve a puzzle and you feel a little thrill, knowing that you’re just a little bit closer to outsmarting the king of darkness himself.
There are a few little quirks to some of the puzzles, in that some of the actions taken don’t necessarily seem to advance the plot in a meaningful way, while others have apparently arbitrary “finish” conditions. A particularly egregious example comes early in the game as you are expected to clean a surface to uncover a piece of writing. Having cleaned said surface sufficiently enough that I could see it, I expected to use the information I got from it to advance in the game. No dice. After killing half an hour walking around and trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, I went back to cleaning, and found that I couldn’t progress until all of the letter-obscuring dirt was gone. Since I had left a couple of sprinkles, I was stuck.
Such idiosyncrasies are rare, however. Generally, time spent with Dracula: Origin is time spent in a rewarding game world that actually effectively manages to creep the player out every once in a while. It may never take a place with the classics, but for fans of the genre it will be a cool drink of water (or goblet of blood, if you prefer) in a mostly barren landscape of serious adventure games.
Despite its trips into sub-B-movie-grade dialogue, Dracula: Origin does a mighty fine job of creating a tense, twisted, and occasionally horrific sense of atmosphere.