The Last Door: Worth Opening

by Arthur B

A point-and-click adventure with a horror theme that doesn't drop the ball horribly? Sign me up!
You are entering the vicinity of an area adjacent to a location. The kind of place where there might be a monster, or some kind of weird mirror. These are just examples; it could also be something much better. Prepare to enter: The Scary Last Door...

OK, it isn’t very Twilight Zone, but I find it difficult to see the title The Last Door without wanting to go for the Futurama reference. Which isn’t fair of me, because this episodic point-and-click adventure is much more than just a potential punchline.

Season 1

You play Jeremiah Devitt, Victorian gentleman. It's 1891 and out of the blue Jeremiah just received a letter from Anthony Beechworth, who was his best friend back when they both attended a remote Scottish boarding school on the coast near Aberdeen. The letter simply reads “Videte ne quis sciat", which was the motto of a little club the duo had formed at school dedicated to scientific and philosophical inquiry. Concerned, Devitt heads to Beechworth’s isolated country home, only to discover that a tragedy has unfolded there. Determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery, Devitt heads to the school to see if he can find any important clues there - and finds that the horror resides in a terrible experiment from his school days that he for some reason does not remember, but whose results reverberate to this day.

So we’re talking a classic horror premise and a classic point-and-click adventure format. The game is structured in an episodic fashion, in keeping with the fundraising process that produced it. The first episode was produced off the back of a Kickstarter; with the episode out in the wild, Spanish development team The Game Kitchen also made pre-orders for the next chapter available, so as time went by the funding stream both from the sales of completed episodes and pre-orders of the next episode allowed Game Kitchen to keep the lights on and to continue cooking up their material.

Playing it through as a season, the episodic structure isn’t as disruptive as it might have been. Point-and-click adventure games often unfold in a set of acts where the various puzzles in a particular situation all build up to a particular bottleneck through which the player must pass to get to the next section of the game. The Secret of Monkey Island, which is a model of excellent point-and-click adventure design, works in exactly this way - each of the major challenges Guybrush faces in terms of qualifying as a pirate and getting his own ship, navigating to Monkey Island, exploring Monkey Island and discovering its secret, and using the knowledge he has gained to defeat the ghost pirate LeChuck culminates in such a bottleneck. Had the game been developed today, it could absolutely have been released on an episodic basis.

In addition, The Game Kitchen are able to do some nice things with the episode structure. Each episode subsequent to the first has a “Previously in The Last Door” sequence, which can be handy to get you up to speed if you’ve taken a bit of a break after beating the previous episode (as opposed to blasting through the entire season in an evening as I did, greedy piglet that I am). There’s also a title credits sequence at the start of each episode which is skippable if it annoys you, but which I appreciated - it gave it the air of binge-watching a Netflix show.

In each episode there’s also a little pre-credits sequence, often involving you controlling one of the supporting cast as they are doing something suitably foreboding as pertinent texts (usually their thoughts at the time) pops up on screen. One hideously effective example of this is in the very first episode, which kicks off with you controlling Beechworth as he prepares to hang himself in his attic. I think it’s irresponsible of the Game Kitchen not to very, very loudly signal that there’s a suicide that early in the game; the nature of suicidal ideation being what it is, suddenly confronting someone with an interactive suicide as the literal first thing the game presents you with is a bit flippant.

That said, whilst I think they should have warned the player about that particular artistic decision of theirs, I cannot criticise the decision itself, because it’s exceptionally good game design both for the purposes of tipping you off as to the ultimate goal of the episode and in terms of developing atmosphere and tension. Playing through this before the credits have even rolled means that you know that ultimately you need to guide Devitt to the attic, you have this dreadful knowledge of what he's going to find there, and then when the episode springs its final shock on you - something which manages to be a true surprise, despite the episode having neatly laid out the groundwork leading up to it - it's a real blow to the gut, because you've been steeling yourself to see Beechworth’s body but not this other horrible thing.

In terms of what you actually see, by the way, the game is presented in highly pixelised artwork. It’s not truly 8-bit in presentation - there’s various graphical features which I think any 8-bit machine would choke on - but it’s the sort of imitation of that style which is in vogue among game designers who want to evoke that particular aesthetic. They say it’s a “unique lo-fi graphical style”, and no, sorry guys, I love what you have done with this game but you don’t get to fucking claim that this lo-fi pixel-tastic quasi-8 bit throwback style is “unique”, every indie developer’s doing it these days because it’s a style which is in fashion and which is very viable for a small development team to execute.

That said, whilst the style is not unique, it is exceptionally well-executed. These faceless little figures you interact with manage to be terribly expressive, and the imagery accomplished is nicely judged, ranging from the richly surrealistic to scenes which convey a lot despite their simplicity. There’s a particular standing rock off the coast near the school which cuts this achingly lonely landmark whenever it recurs here or on the second season, the various crumbling buildings that Devitt visits on his mission are grandly realised, and the recurring use of birds is especially effective.

If the graphics are rudimentary, the sound is fantastic. There’s no voice acting, all dialogue being delivered via text like in old-school adventure games (a decision which presumably made the process of localisation much, much cheaper for Game Kitchen), but the soundtrack by Carlos Viola is excellent and the use of diegetic sounds is really well-handled. There’s some sequences where everything goes dark and the game relies entirely on sound to convey what’s happening, and at least one puzzle in which sound is of essential importance, and whilst that worked really well for me, a person whose ears work, the Game Kitchen realise that that’s not going to work for people with deafness (or who are playing with the sound off out of necessity or preference) and make sure to include closed captions for such if necessary.

In fact, in general the Game Kitchen are nicely on the ball on the accessibility front; for instance, the game uses an old-timey quasi-8-bit-style font, which will give you warm nostalgic fuzzies if you remember old point and click adventures, but they also give you the option to switch it out for a font designed to be easier for people with dyslexia to read, which is just plain friendly. (And to be fair, not being able to hear some of the dark scenes is in no way as much of a barrier to playing the game as not being able to read the dialogue and texts would be.)

As far as the story and writing goes, Game Kitchen cite Lovecraft and Poe as influences, and - aside from a cat in episode 1 - they do an excellent job of not lazily regurgitating overused tentacular imagery (or, even worse, uncritically repeating tired old racist tropes) in the way that so many creative projects claiming a Lovecraft influence do. Instead, they tap into the cosmic horror undercurrents of Lovecraft and combine it with the sense of the imp of the perverse from Poe; this, and a slight sidestep into theatrical imagery, yellow robes and pallid masks to put us in mind of Chambers’ King In Yellow.

In particular, the arc of the season embraces cosmic nihilism and absurdity to an extent few other than Thomas Ligotti have accomplished. The final shock of episode 1 finds nature itself to be a mocking, leering facade over the grander horror beneath; in episode 2 Devitt finds that human faith, philosophy, and science have no answers for him. Episode 3 finds him immersed in the malignant absurdity beyond the veil, and in episode 4….

Well. episode 4 takes a rather special arc. There’s a certain discontinuity between the end of episode 3 and episode 4, a suggestion of something hidden from the audience having passed between Devitt and the subjects of his investigation. By the end of the season he is very evidently acting out of knowledge and motivations he has kept from us to an extent, setting everything up for season 2’s switch of protagonist.

Progressing in the story, of course, requires you to solve the game’s puzzles, and by and large they’re really nicely executed. Not once during this season did I find myself so frustrated with a puzzle that I had to consult hints, but I did consistently find myself challenged. The solutions to puzzles all by and large made sense within the context of what was happening, and in general I never got to the stage of attempting to use every inventory item with every interactable object on the scenery or not being sure of what I was supposed to be trying to accomplish next.

In short, the first season of The Last Door is the best point-and-click adventure I have played for a good long time, and might in fact be the best specifically horror-themed one I have ever played. Give it a try.

Season 2

For the purposes of season 2, yoiu’re now not playing Devitt but Dr John Wakefield, Devitt’s psychiatrist. Devitt disappeared at the end of his own investigation, but he’d told Wakefield some things. Occult scholar Johann Kaufmann, with whom Wakefield has shared some of his concerns, believes that the danger is all too real, and after a brief attempt to pick up Devitt’s trail they decide that the most likely person to know something about Devitt’s fate is Alexandre Du Pré, another friend from his school days. It soon becomes apparent that Du Pré is at the hub of a whirlwind of occult conspiracy, and that if Wakefield is to catch up with Du Pré and Devitt, he’s going to have to reproduce some of their results…

For the most part season 2 of The Last Door is more of the same, with a big fat boost to the ambition and scope of the episodes. The areas explored are much larger in most of the episodes, and the stakes seem higher, now that Devitt has passed the Last Door and it’s entirely possible that something terrible might come out from the other side. We go a bit deeper into the mysteries of the setting this time, which means that the graphics have to go all the further in terms of depicting utter strangeness, but by and large Game Kitchen pull it off.

That said, the writing does seem to be very slightly less tight this time. Kaufmann and Kaufmann’s mentor both get written out in a way which is effective at the time, but which in retrospect seems to have been thrown in just to add a bit of superfluous mystery and because Game Kitchen couldn’t work out anything better to do with them. (The mentor, Professor Wright, at least has some abominable experiments you can uncover which ties into the wider plot; Kaufmann himself is spectacularly useless.) The emphasis on the cult around the Last Door threatens to descend into cliche, but just about avoids this through the utter strangeness of its activities.

Perhaps worse is that there’s at least two puzzles on here which were so awkward that, even though I had sussed out the solution, I still needed to check online to work out how to actually implement it. One of them, a geography-themed button-pushing puzzle, might be my fault for misinterpreting the written clue that tells you what order to push the buttons in, but in my defence it’s not as unambiguous as the writers might think (and indeed part of me wonders whether this is a weakness on the part of the translation process). Another one requires you to know how old-timey safe dials work in terms of inputting the combination, which is a level of knowledge which I don’t think it’s fair to blithely assume of your players.

The end of the season offers no promise of a third, and I think that’s the right call - the last episode, in particular, comes perilously close to overexplaining everything, flinching back just in time to avoid complete demystification and just about sustaining itself on its incredible oddness. Moreover, in terms of the plot it would be extremely hard to follow things up, the case of Devitt and his school friends having been more or less exhausted. Still, I’ll eagerly hope for future point-and-click banquets from the Game Kitchen, since they’ve demonstrated themselves to be pretty adept at the art.

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at 14:01 on 2019-04-23
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