First posted on 08 September 2007. Last updated on 10 August 2009.
Nucleosys' Scratches, published in 2006 by Got Game Entertainment, is perhaps the finest horror themed graphical adventure game I have played to date. The developer, Agustin Cordes, has produced a game that follows worthily in the footsteps of Jonathan Boakes' celebrated Dark Fall, and Boakes even lends his talent as a voice actor in Scratches. However, if Dark Fall is spooky, then Scratches is downright hair-raising. Indeed, there were several points of this game that had me looking over my shoulder and surprises that had me leaping out of my chair! This is definitely not a game for the faint of heart.
The key strength of Scratches is its imaginative, captivating, and at times baffling storyline. The game starts out with horror novelist Michael Arthate arriving at an isolated and decrepit Victorian mansion. Michael is suffering from acute writer's block after publishing his first (and highly successful) novel, and his thought is that spending some time in a creepy old house may stimulate its synapses enough to cure him. Michael soon finds, however, that he is getting more than he has bargained for. Apparently, the house was the site of an unexplained murder, and its various occupants—an architect and his wife, later their family physician—all suffered from some type of psychosis. Michael sets off at once to solve this historic murder case. However, the real fun starts when Michael goes to bed for the night, only to be awakened by a desperate, frantic scratching noise coming from the fireplace in his room. What is possibly making that awful sound? Only players who manage to complete the game will at least learn the secret, and it is indeed a terrifying secret!
There are many intriguing ambiguities left (I think, intentionally) in the game that will (and already) have fans speculating endlessly about their meanings. Like a good horror novel, Scratches gives gamers just enough upfront information to whet their appetite for more. Apparently, James Atwood, the architect and first owner of the house, was suffering from psychosis—and probably was responsible for his wife Catherine's death. However, Michael soon finds clues scattered throughout the mansion (newspaper clippings, diary entries, letters, and so on) that complicate matters. For instance, the police were never allowed to fully investigate the murder—Dr. Milton, the family physician, and the Atwoods possessed enough political clout to keep the case under wraps. Furthermore, Michael finds Dr. Milton's journal, which reveals the doctor's history of neurotic tendencies similar to his former patient (i.e., believing himself to be under a horrible curse). Likewise, it is never clear if there really is something supernatural involved, or if the entire affair can be explained rationally (i.e., Michael is only dreaming). The ending of the game is shockingly ambiguous, and probably raises more questions than it answers. Nevertheless, such ambiguity works well in Scratches, and no doubt the path is clear for a sequel.
The production value of Scratches is quite high, with very detailed graphics and a dark, oppressive ambiance. I greatly enjoyed exploring the mansion and the surrounding grounds, and was genuinely eager to unlock doors and search everywhere for clues. Some of the areas, such as the room full of African artifacts and the house cellar, are particularly effective. The scenes are rendered in fine detail, and in most locations the player can spin all the way around in full 360° panoramic view. There is some pixel hunting, so players need to be alert to their surroundings and keep a sharp eye out for items that look out of place. If nothing else, the many fine but creepy paintings sprinkled throughout the mansion add tremendous atmosphere. The sound is also worthy of note. The game takes full advantage of surround sound speakers to make the scenes feel even more realistic. Music is sparse, usually reserved for critical moments of the game and consisting of a few dissonant piano chords. Indeed, the relative silence of the house makes it even creepier. In 2007, an extended version called Scratches: Director's Cut has also been released which contains additional gameplay, an alternate ending, remixed soundtrack, higher resolution graphics, and interface tweaks.
Puzzles in Scratches are mostly of the tool finding variety, and Michael will soon collect dozens and dozens of useful objects: rope, screwdriver, matches, wire cutters, hedge trimmers, and so on. Usually, it is fairly obvious what kind of tool is needed for each puzzle, though sometimes more ingenuity is required. All adventure gamers know, for instance, that rubbing a pencil across a "blank" sheet of paper quite often reveals a message. Generally speaking, this game is more about being observant and thinking logically rather than the old "try everything" approach needed by most games. Often enough, an object's purpose will only be clear at a later point in the game. For instance, the grinder in the kitchen is not needed until the last part of the game. Hints are available for most puzzles, if they are ever needed.
The only real problems I had with Scratches were related to the pixel hunting and forced linearity in the game. Quite often, I would come across items that looked like the answer to a puzzle, but Michael would not pick them up or even recognize them. Meanwhile, I would overlook a small item lying about that was essential to solving the puzzle. Possibly the worst offender is a small metal leg needed to operate a portable stove. I probably saw this leg a thousand times without realizing what it was or that Michael could pick it up. Incidents like this, while frustrating, are rare in the game. The forced linearity involves which areas and objects Michael can manipulate at any given time. For example, Michael can only enter the furnace in the cellar during a particular night sequence. Unfortunately, I spent hours on this sequence trying to figure out what I was supposed to do next; it never occurred to me to try the furnace, since clicking on it did nothing during the earlier sequences.
Overall, despite a few issues, Scratches is a fine game that every fan of the genre will likely enjoy. Seldom has a game thrilled me as much as Scratches, and I will be among the first in line to buy the sequel.