Nightmare Frames feels to me like the quintessential Adventure Game Studio game. The homebrew point-n-click engine is incredibly versatile, but tends toward late-period Sierra-style games, that go easy on the puzzles, and hard on the storyline. This is a dark, adult adventure, set in 1980s Hollywood, during the slasher movie boom.
Alan Goldberg is a screenwriter, who once scraped close to OSCAR success, but has since found himself resentfully writing horror scripts. Despite the enormous success of his most recent project, Lunatic, he’s bitter and frustrated, striving to get deals to write what he considers to be highbrow drama, rather than a genre that he seemingly both adores and yet sees as beneath him.
In the first act of the game, you’re primarily muddling through Alan’s life. You can head to the diner, try to resolve conflicts with people his brash attitude has previously upset, and meet with your current producers. And on the way, people will ask for some help, giving you some fairly rote puzzles to complete. It’s one of those adventures where you’ll find yourself picking up and combining objects long before you’ve any reason to, and then realise you don’t need to go anywhere when a task comes up – you’re already well-prepared. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, with a game that’s putting story first.
Come the second of three acts, you’re off somewhere new, and things get far more intense. What’s really interesting about this game is how you just don’t know if it’s going to go to a fantastical place, with the chances in the first act feeling a good 50:50. So I’m not going to say. It makes reviewing harder, but your play better.
The game is a real love letter to both the horror genre, and the process behind its creation. Lots of the game’s lengthy conversations have people discussing the finer details of the classics, and some lovely behind-the-scenes views, especially a visit to a special effects studio. The tale then starts to explore one of those glorious “missing film” myths, about a rumoured horror film so scary that all who watch it will etc etc. Which is fantastically ’80s.
For a game originally written in Spanish, the translation is superb. I think I spotted two typos total, which is damned impressive, and there are no issues with coherence, an issue that so often plagues indie translations. There’s a ton of writing in this, with superb “look at” descriptions for almost everything and everyone, giving in-depth information about a person or an item, that are always well written. There’s also a score by Stefano Rossi, and some lovely pixel art.
I do have a small concern regarding the character portraits, however. One of them is clearly from a photograph of Ricky Jay, another of Helen Mirren, and a bunch of other faces I recognised. As it seems vanishingly unlikely they (or their estates) agreed to the use of the likenesses, I can see the game getting in hot water for this.
So, I’ve avoided writing about a lot of things I really liked about this, in order not to take away from the experience I had when I played it. (I warn you, even the game’s Steam page gives far too much away.) But I found this a solid, interesting adventure, and one that’s “adult” in the sense that it’s squarely aimed at adults, rather than the more tiresome understanding of the word. There’s blood and gore from the opening scene, lots of swearing, and some heavy discussion of demonic cults. But all the way through, the cold, anti-hero nature of Alan makes it feel unsensational. It’s a really clever approach.
I’m not wholly convinced by the third act, and I wish the ending had allowed me a bit more closure on a bunch of Alan’s relationships established early on. But this is a solid piece of adventuring, with a clear passion for its genre.
- Postmodern Adventures