If Adventure Games Are Dead I've Found Their Burial Mound

by Arthur B

It is bad enough that Barrow Hill is a mediocre and disappointing game. What's worse is that nobody's willing to say that.
People like to talk about the "death" of point-and-click adventure games. Certainly, the genre hit a severe slump in the late 1990s and early 2000s - personally, I like Old Man Murray's take on why it happened. (If it's a good enough explanation for Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame, it's good enough for me.) But with the rise of games like Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk on the Nintendo DS, and a number of releases on console and PC platforms by both major publishers and independent developers, it seems daft these days to suggest that the genre is dead.

It is therefore rather irritating when adventure game fans act as though they were starving for attention, and that every new release is blessed manna from heaven. And yet, that's how they appear to have received 2006's Barrow Hill, a PC adventure game from Shadow Tor.

The premise of Barrow Hill's plot is fairly simple. You're driving through Cornwall one evening when your car abruptly stalls. Leaving your car to find help, the first thing you find is a depressing service station with an abandoned car sat in front of the pumps, a night shift worker cowering in the office mumbling to himself, and tourist information about a local landmark - Barrow Hill, a legendary stone circle, and the subject of a recent archaeological dig. Clearly, the dig has awoken something which should have stayed asleep, and since supernatural forces prevent you from leaving the area, you're going to have to deal with it before it deals with you.

Barrow Hill is an independent title, and most aspects of the project are handled by Matt Clark, although he enjoys a fair amount of help from various members of the Clark family and some friends of his (including Jonathan Boakes, developer of the well-received Dark Fall series of horror-themed adventure games). It would therefore be unfair to expect the absolute highest technical standards. However, there are points where the game's low-budget origin undermines proceedings. The prologue, in which you drive into the scenario, and the ending scene where you drive away were clearly filmed on a cheap camcorder and put through a few filters, which seems jarring next to the rendered 3D scenes that one is presented with over the course of the rest of the game. Likewise, the voice acting just isn't that great. The voice you hear the most of is Emma Harry's (cast as Emma Harry, the presenter on the tiny local radio station which operates out of a caravan in the marshes - yes, the character's name is the same as her's), who is apparently a West End actress of some variety, although it seems that voice acting isn't quite her strength. She just doesn't sound as though she believes in the situation her character is in, so she ends up doing a miserable job of letting the player believe in the situation. What's more, the only time you see her whilst she's talking is in the form of a series of still pictures on the camera of her phone whilst you are conversing (why the characters would use such a battery-draining function on their phone in an emergency situation is beyond me), and in most of those pictures she honestly looks more bored than scared. (In fact, all human characters are rendered using such still photos, which inevitably makes them look kind of out of place against the 3D backgrounds - but then again, you only very rarely see other human characters in the game, probably for this precise reason.)

About those still pictures. There's very little actual animation in the game. The style of presentation is referred to as a "slideshow" by adventure gamers - it's the sort of thing you had in Myst, where most of the graphics in the game consist of mostly-static, pre-rendered 3D scenes from a first person perspective. You click on various parts of the screen to turn left and right, move forward (if that is possible), investigate things more closely and interact with them, inventory items and the save/load menu can be accessed by moving the mouse to the bottom or top of the screen. The reason this presentation is called "slideshow" is because the images involved are basically static, aside from the odd lighting effect and the very occasional animation of one or two items. When you move forward or turn around, you don't watch as your character physically and continuously moves forward or moves around - you just jump from one image to another, with no linking animation.

This is a format with some quite striking limitations. I found that much of the early part of the game consisted of me running back and forth spinning around to make sure I could completely assess my options for movement. With the limited animation available, every moving item suddenly appears to take on enormous significance, even if it's actually just a pointless feature. There's a pool of ketchup with ripples implemented in it. I can think of no possible benefit this gives to the game beyond throwing out something else you can interact with. At the same time, I can also see why Shadow Tor went with it. The slideshow format is not one which will impress people used to fully-realised 3D worlds rendered in realtime, as has become more or less the de facto standard in videogames these days. It is, however, comparatively cheap to implement, which makes it great for independent game developers - it won't break the budget and lets them produce a type of game which major developers have more or less abandoned.

However, whilst I won't mark the game down simply for Matt Clark's choice of format, I have to mark him down on the implementation of that format. Whilst the actual pre-rendered images that constitute Barrow Hill are excellent and atmospheric - they're based on extensive research and photography of actual locations in Cornwall - they're also extremely fiddly to interact with. The hotspots - the clickable portions of the screen - aren't always obvious, and aren't always of a sensible size either. Often hotspots will be located extremely low on the screen - to the point where I'd try to interact with them, but the inventory would pop up and get in my way. There were three times that I had to look up a walkthrough to get past a puzzle - each time, I found that the problem was that I'd missed a quite small hotspot. (Even worse, in two of the cases the hotspot appeared to have absolutely nothing special or interesting about it.) Pixel-bitching - requiring players to click on precisely the right portion of the screen in order to get something done - is an issue that has plagued point-and-click adventures since the beginning, it's widely known and acknowledged to be a problem and a flaw that should be avoided. In this day and age, there's simply no excuse for it.

The plot isn't exceptional either. It's not especially original, and it's irritatingly overdependent on Dan Brown-style alternate history. (A gentle reminder to anyone who didn't know otherwise: the UK's stone circles were constructed long before the rise of the Celtic culture and the druids, and neither the druids or the actual stone circle makers have anything to do with Wicca. It's quite possible to tell an interesting story about any one of these subjects without pointlessly tying them together.) The box cover also promises the use of "real archaeological techniques", though aside from some waving around of a metal detector and the use of a trowel in some puzzles you don't really interact with any archaeological techniques. There's a puzzle where you have to interpret the results of some soil sample analyses, but they're fairly straightforward to interpret, so that's more the outcome of an archaeological technique than a technique in itself. And there's a little too much pushing of the idea of Cornwall as a magical mystical country full of wonder and ancient sorcery. Worse still, the game's major threat to life and limb is a mobile rock that burns you to ashes if you touch it. Now, granted, the Sentinel Stone's first appearance is pretty effective - as you stroll down a forest path the lights set up by the archaeologists wink out one by one, leaving you in darkness - and when the lights come back the Stone is just there, blocking your way. However, later on Matt Clark makes the inadvisable decision to let the player view security camera footage of the Stone in action, which ends up looking like a standing stone chasing a bunch of people around a service station like some sort of especially dadaist Benny Hill sketch.

All these many flaws are a shame, because there's also some cracking ideas in the game if you can work past the gameplay and plot difficulties. I was particularly impressed with the number of clues available to the player, and the fact that a great many puzzles either have multiple different clues pointing towards the way forward, or multiple different solutions (or, in some cases, both). Matt Clark has obviously put a great deal of effort into creating the clues (all the documentary clues alone, together, would come up to a not especially brief page count), as well as designing the plot in order to both accommodate puzzles with multiple solutions and ensure that for most of the game multiple different puzzles are available at the same time (so if you're stuck on one you can go away and work on another). The one downside was that I did find myself taking notes as I played along because you can't take most of the documentary clues with you (with one odd exception) - it would have been nice to have had a "book bag" in my inventory which I could use to store all the documents collected along the way.

This all adds up to a game which could have been really good fun but is hampered partially by basic errors in implementing the gameplay and partially by a somewhat disappointing plot. So why, then, has it been getting rave reviews from the adventure gamer community? Just Adventure gave it an A- grade, and Adventure Gamers gave it four stars. To give this some context, this would mean that Just Adventure thinks Barrow Hill is better than the first two Monkey Island games, the first Broken Sword, and Eternal Darkness, and is about as good as the original Alone In the Dark, Deus Ex, Resident Evil 4, the first three Silent Hill games and Project Zero. Adventure Gamers considers it to be about as good as Beneath a Steel Sky, and better than Loom, Maniac Mansion, Prisoner of Ice, and Hotel Dusk. Both of them rate it as being as good as or better than Full Throttle - not the best LucasArts point-and-click adventure, but a sorely underappreciated one.

This willingness to give an at best mediocre game a first-class mark is astonishing; considering the heights which the genre has reached in the past (and occasionally still does reach today) it seems utterly pathetic that entirely separate reviewers on two separate, major websites devoted to the subgenre should heap praise upon Barrow Hill as though it were a masterful tour de force. One wonders what horrifying ordeals of pixel-searching the reviewer for Just Adventure must have gone through in order to convince him that the hotspots in Barrow Hill are of an adequate size; one shudders to think what butchered voice acting must have assaulted his ears for him to think the performances in Barrow Hill are in any way acceptable, let alone "good, if a little stetched".

One could suspect that the sites in question are acting out of a misplaced desire to help out a new adventure game developer make a success of it - in effect, giving it extra marks simply for belonging to the genre in the first place. Just Adventure seems especially bad for that sort of thing - they gave a B grade to Limbo of the Lost before the plagiarism controversy that hit that game prompted them to mark it down, when the infamous RPG.net playthrough thread clearly establishes that the game has severe issues that go well beyond the graphical designers being shameless thieves. What's worse is that they tend to give older games harsher marks - the original Secret of Monkey Island only gets a lousy C grade, for example - so it seems to me that this isn't so much a matter of rose-tinted spectacles as a desire to support new adventure releases from independent developers for the sake of it. The Just Adventure reviewer saying "Add all that to the fact that it’s an independent developer and I would be remiss if I didn’t give it an A-" pretty much confirmed this for me.

And yet, according to the official site for the game it's not just specialist adventure game sites that have given it rave reviews. The BBC, PC Gamer, the New York Times, everyone seems to be queuing up to praise the Cornish Emperor's new clothes. It's doubtless nice to see an independent developer making a game. But we see a lot of that these days. I just can't find a good reason to forgive Shadow Tor for omissions and errors which have nothing to do with their independent status or a lack of funding and have everything to do with bad game design. By giving plaudits and acclaim to mediocrity these reviewers are essentially saying that we just can't expect more from independent developers, or from point-and-click adventures, or from point-and-click adventures from independent developers. In effect, they're saying that Barrow Hill and similiar is all that independent adventure developers should really aspire to, and that Shadow Tor don't need to improve. I can't see how this helps anyone in the long run.

Adventure game fans in particular, whether they are out and proud and writing for a specialist site or closeted adventurers writing for the mainstream, should resist the temptation to give a fellow-traveller an easy ride. I know for a fact that we can expect better from recently-published adventure games, because I have played far better games. But people who are new to the genre, or are returning to it after a long absence, won't have, and there's the danger. If fans want publishers to consider the adventure game genre to be a commercially viable avenue for exploration, and if they want players to see the adventure game scene as a vibrant and creative place producing great new games that are worth investigating, they can't hold up games like Barrow Hill as paragons of the point-and-click revival. That can only prompt people to assume that the genre, like the antagonist in Barrow Hill, should have remained dead and buried.

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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 13:40 on 2010-03-24
I've been on a bit of an adventure game kick myself recently, and what I've seen so far is kinda patchy. I will defend the "slideshow" format, however. The problem with rendered 3D environments is that there's a lot of variation in the way a given scene can be viewed, which means that you can't be sure if you're missing something just from the angle. The nice thing about the slideshow is that you know you're looking at exactly what you're supposed to be looking at, and that anything you can't find is therefore the game developer's problem not yours.
Arthur B at 14:05 on 2010-03-24
That's a very good advantage to the slideshow format that I hadn't thought of. Unfortunately, in this case it is kind of the developer's fault that I couldn't find some things. (Aside from the two things I had to look up in a walkthrough, there were a whole bunch of items I didn't notice until I'd gone over a particular screen with a fine toothcomb.) The slideshow pictures are very detailed, but that's kind of the problem - irrelevant objects that aren't actually useful or interactive stand out, important objects you're meant to interact with fade into the background.

The worst one was the bush with the berries on it. For one of the puzzles you had to find some red berries (along with some mushrooms and other ingredients). So I'm walking up and down the forest paths, looking for red berries. You'd think I'd find them fairly quickly - red is a fairly eye-catching colour, especially the sort of red that berries tend to have (which has literally been crafted by natural selection to catch the eye of scavengers). In fact, they were on a small bush down the side of a forest path. A bush which I had to click on to examine closely before the berries became visible. A bush whose hotspot was not located over the bush itself, but over a nondescript patch of darkness, where I had no reason to expect anything interactable to be.

That was one of the ones I had to look up in the walkthrough, by the way. But you probably guessed that. :)
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 22:20 on 2010-03-24
I've never really played any adventure games. My first real experiences were platformers on the N64, and now I'm mostly into action/shooter games on the 360 and PS3. I think I fooled around with Myst a decade or so ago, and I played through the Wii version of Trauma Center.

This is to establish my ignorance of the field, because sometimes it seems to me that there's more awful, poorly-conceived, poorly-written, poorly-implemented adventure games than actually good ones. And that the good ones tend to be spoofs of the genre, which seems like kind of a cop-out. Sure, most genres are 99% garbage, but with adventure games it seems like the only discussion is how loopy they are and how asinine the puzzles and interface are and how they're dying because people want to play games that actually provide a rich and consistent method for interacting with the game's world.

Stephen Bond, author of Rameses, makes me think that interactive fiction is in much the same state. Pixel-bitching plagues adventure games and guess-the-verb plagues IF. Both genres are loaded with moon logic and pointless puzzles whose solutions only begin to make sense when you're in a massively altered state. It's honestly hard to understand the appeal the format has EVER had, unless the format prides itself on historical precedence and its advocates take a knee-jerk "more accessible = more stupider" reaction to action games or games with fully-3D worlds.

There seems to be a massive conflation of inaccessibility and intellectual maturity. No one outside the tiny group of enthusiasts is capable of enjoying this game, so the group must be more intelligent because they ARE capable! It brings to mind Tycho's distinction between games that are challenging and games that are difficult to play. He's talking about Lair, not IF or adventure games, but I think it's an interesting point. When the challenge of a game comes from the inscrutability and capriciousness of its interface, rather than the actual content the developers have included and your avatar is supposedly overcoming, something has gone awry.
Arthur B at 23:53 on 2010-03-24
There are some pretty good entries in the genre which don't resort to self-parody. Hotel Dusk and Phoenix Wright are excellent, though they come from a slightly different tradition than Barrow Hill (they're as much visual novels as they are adventure games). The first two Monkey Island games are a sheer delight - there's the odd spoof of the conventions of the genre as it was at the time (mainly at the expense of Sierra, who published some of the more obtuse adventure games) but they're side jokes rather than core elements of the story. Beneath a Steel Sky is excellent, as is the Blade Runner game from 1997. Loom, Sam and Max Hit the Road, the underrated Shadow of Destiny (AKA Shadow of Memories), there's heaps to love.

If you're not the sort of person who excommunicates games from the genre because they've got a direct-control interface rather than point and click (as in, you push the joystick/move the mouse and the main character moves as opposed to the joystick or mouse controlling a cursor) and a few action elements, I'd argue that most survival horror games are really adventure games at heart - yes, there's some combat in the Silent Hill games, but aside from very, very occasional boss fights you advance the story by exploring and solving puzzles, not by gunning down bad guys. (Project Zero is an even better example - that has no boss fights that I remember at all.)

There's also some pretty good IF out there, but I'm not going to get into that because I've already rambled on a lot. Point is: like all genres, there's a few diamonds and a hell of a lot of garbage. I suppose the problem really is that at the moment in the adventure game genre people are far more tolerant of garbage than they are in other genres. If you released an FPS which had as many serious gameplay issues that Barrow Hill has it'd sink without trace to the bottom of the bargain bins and never come out again. But as it is, Barrow Hill and games like it have been buoyed by the support of well-meaning but uncritical fans, and as a result it's a little more difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff because the chaff sticks around for longer. If you see what I mean.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 02:49 on 2010-03-25
That's true. With FPS, there's admittedly a huge glut of repetitive garbage that comes out every year--and yet there's also some AAA titles like Killzone, Bad Company, Call of Duty, Halo, Medal of Honor, and Resistance. And when they're criticized, it's generally for high-level abstract stuff like repetitiveness or derivativeness or cash-cowness or feature absentness. There are relatively few high-profile FPS where you've got basic errors in control schemes or the hitboxes are incredibly wonky or you need to suffer through illogical or impossible encounters. My biggest pet peeve terrible design decision is infinite enemy faucets, where until you pass some invisible tripline you will face a ceaseless parade of foes...and that's still bearable, because that kind of game is going to be rewarding constant movement and aggression in the first place. The genre's not all stuff like Turning Point: Fall of Liberty or Geist or whatever. (For all its merits as a ghost simulator, Geist is a remarkably poor FPS.)

I've also never really played a survival horror game. I played a smidgeon of Resident Evil 4, which is not particularly survival anymore since there's a merchant and everything! My disappointment of it was also based on its failure to adhere to action tropes, rather than to survival horror tropes. It's entirely possible that on higher difficulty levels Dead Space becomes survival horror, where wealth by level drops to extremely marginal levels and everything is much more lethal. I didn't play it on those difficulty levels, and so it hewed much more closely to action stylings.
Arthur B at 12:17 on 2010-03-25
I think Resident Evil 4 was a fairly deliberate attempt to take the RE series out of the "classic" survival horror mode and into a sort of survival-action hybrid. (Your progress is pretty much based on shooting folks rather than gathering clues solving puzzles, for one thing.)

If you want a survival horror recommendation (which you didn't ask for, but someone else reading the comments might be wondering what to go for), I think Silent Hill 2 and Project Zero are the best survival horror games I've played.
Arthur B at 14:16 on 2010-03-25
A little update: thanks to the magic of archive.org I found the text of the Gamecenter article the Old Man Murray rant was inspired by.

It's mildly startling to see Myst, the original slideshow adventure, get such harsh treatment from an obvious adventure game fan, when these days the slideshow style seems to be an accepted subgenre. It's also interesting to see that people were whining about casual gamers 10 years ago using the exact same (idiotic) arguments they're offering now.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 15:41 on 2010-03-25
we tended to our beautiful adventure games, like the Quest series (King's Quest, Space Quest, and so on), and enjoyed our puzzles and our exploration. Those Sierra classics were gems of true puzzle mastery.

Now, maybe I'm mistaken, but aren't King's Quest and Sierra now kind of held up as the pinnacle of moon logic and stupid design?

I'm also not sure what they mean by "faux" interactivity. The slideshow format is LESS interactive than a parser interface, or whatever roguelike they prefer? What? And of course something like SS2 and Half-Life is more interactive than either, since you have a much larger suite of tools with which to interface with the world.

And, of course, they bring out the awful "they want action not story!" card, and I have no reason to believe that the Quest series has anything but utter nonsensical trash for a story. To play the motive game: It's harder to tell what's going on in KQ than it is to tell what's going on in Half-Life, and so you convince yourself that the work you did decoding the plot was worthwhile.

So weird. More Bulverism: It really does look like the sort of conflation of "challenging" and "difficult to play" Tycho was talking about, where people mistake the difficulty of mastering a complicated, austere interface with the difficulty of a legitimately challenging experience. How can anything where you immediately understand how to manipulate your avatar and his simulated universe POSSIBLY offer the same richness and depth as something where you need to spend hours just figuring out which verbs are accepted?

Oh Gamecenter. Oh Old Man Murray.
Arthur B at 15:59 on 2010-03-25
Now, maybe I'm mistaken, but aren't King's Quest and Sierra now kind of held up as the pinnacle of moon logic and stupid design?

Pretty much. They're considered classics because they were the first commercially successful graphic adventures and were a crucial step in the evolution from text adventures to the point and click format. That doesn't necessarily mean they're any good.

I'm also not sure what they mean by "faux" interactivity. The slideshow format is LESS interactive than a parser interface, or whatever roguelike they prefer?

I think they're talking about the classic Monkey Island-style point-and-click interface. Which tended involve picking a verb (or right-clicking until the mouse cursor showed the correct verb symbol) and then clicking on the right hotspot on the screen, whereas slideshow games tend to involve just directly clicking on the hotspots and pick the right verb for you. So there's arguably a mild loss in interactivity. But not that great a loss, since in many point-and-click games you only ever used "look at" or "use" anyway.

How can anything where you immediately understand how to manipulate your avatar and his simulated universe POSSIBLY offer the same richness and depth as something where you need to spend hours just figuring out which verbs are accepted?

To be fair, most post-Sierra adventures had full point-and-click interfaces so verb-guessing was minimised - you had the full verb list in front of you, in well-designed games the verb you wanted to use tended to be obvious. (Later games eventually tossed the verb list and just let you cycle the cursor between "walk to", "look at", "use", and maybe "talk to", which were all you really needed.)
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 16:04 on 2010-03-25
I'm gonna go ahead and say that parser-interface IF is far superior to radial-menu adventure games, because it takes way more imagination to play them and their stories are far more sophisticated. Plus the interface is less comprehensible.

And honestly, I'm not sure what the point of having a big selection of verbs is. There's a few possibilities. The best is that there are tons of legitimately different things you would want to do to a given object, and so the developers let you select that every time you're dealing with it. Obviously a Myst- or Zelda-styled context-sensitive omni-button can't replicate that kind of functionality. However, I doubt very much that that sort of thing ever came up. The worst is that they've introduced an enormous clutter of verbs, only one of which will ever be useful for an object, but all of which will be presented at all times. This seems like it would be somewhat common, because it would play into the kind of moon logic that seems endemic. After all, it's much harder to figure out the One True Solution to an inventory puzzle when you can't tell which of the many ways of interacting with an object are required. The final possibility is that there's decently-varied ways to interact with something, but you still only need one way to interact with any given object and so a click interface is perfectly functional.
Arthur B at 16:33 on 2010-03-25
And honestly, I'm not sure what the point of having a big selection of verbs is.

In point-and-click adventures, it is almost completely pointless unless, as you can say, there's multiple different ways you could interact with an item.

It can help prevent brute force solving of puzzles where players apply every verb available to every item on the screen or in their inventory in order to get a solution to the puzzle. But, as you point out, the more precise a verb selection you demand, the more frustrating the game gets for people who aren't using the brute force method, and so the more necessary it becomes to use brute force in the first place.

On the other hand, having a large number of verbs recognised is a very good thing in text adventures. Recent versions of Inform recognise a very large variety of verbs, but in practice use them as synonyms for each other. If your puzzle requires a player to put on a funny hat, it's obviously much better if the parser will recognise "wear hat", "don hat", and "put on hat" as meaning the same thing. The best IF will usually meet you halfway and make sure there's plenty of synonyms recognised (both in the verb list and in terms of the names of objects). In this respect, I actually think recent IF (especially stuff like the five-star games on Baf's Guide or games like Vespers and Slouching Towards Bedlam which get a lot of nominations/wins at the XYZZY Awards) is actually better than a lot of the so-called "classics" of the genre, because the fan community has cast a critical eye over those games and improved the parsers available accordingly.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 18:29 on 2010-03-25
Sure, but redundant verbs in text adventures are good for completely different reasons. You're not presented with a list of all the verbs, for one thing, and you're also not expecting each of them to do something different. Parser IF is trying to work with your own vocabulary, and so it needs redundancy to recognize all the actions you can think of; adventure games can explicitly state all the actions available to you, and so having tons of actions is just cluttersome and annoying.
Arthur B at 18:48 on 2010-03-25
You've got to bear in mind, though, that point-and-click adventures evolved from these sort of strange intermediary Sierra adventures which still used text input. The verb lists they developed arose from the verb lists used in those; it took a while before people realised that you could shrink down the verb list to only three or four verbs and turn them into cursor icons. Obvious in retrospect, but not obvious at the time.
Dan H at 00:42 on 2010-03-28
Woah, this discussion got long:Re: Parody games being better than serious games. I think it's true that a lot of the conventions of the genre play better in comic games than in serious or realistic ones, but that's a general issue with fiction - it's generally easier to get away with implausible situations in comedy. It's easy for puzzles in more serious games to feel forced, because you wind up with situations where you really need - say - a set of AA batteries, but for some reason you can't just go to a shop and buy them. I don't think this is necessarily a problem with adventure games per se - platformers do better with broad-colours settings too. Plus there *have* been some very successful games with "serious" settings (the Longest Journey being a good example).
Dan H at 16:01 on 2010-03-29
Second point, which I didn't get time to post originally:

Re long verb lists.

I think the advantage of long verb lists, particularly in text adventures, is that it allows for a more naturalistic approach to the game. In a point and click there's only one way to express anything - click on it with your mouse - so there the small number of context sensitive options are the best way to go, but in a text-based environment, even though you *could* just have one verb ("use X with Y") it would probably be rather jarring in practice. It just feels more natural to say "tie rope to hook" than "use rope with hook"
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