Beneath Fenwick, by Pete Gardner
I’m very ambivalent about this one. To explain why this is, I think I can divide my experience of Beneath Fenwick into three stages.
First, there’s my initial impression based on the blurb, the cover photo, and the first 15 minutes or so of gameplay. This can all be summed up as “flawed but entertaining.” It’s obvious that we’re going for a Lovecraftian horror vibe here: mysterious disappearances, old rural New England town with suspicious and deformed residents, purple prose, all that kind of thing. It oozes a familiar flavor that can easily be enjoyed.
But it pulls it off in a campy, not-quite-right kind of way. Lovecraft had intimate knowledge of the New England landscape and could write convincingly about it; this author sets the story in a Massachusetts township (when in fact the township as an administrative unit does not exist in Massachusetts, nor any other New England state) and represents it with a photograph of a French village. The purple prose bleeds over into stilted dialogue that would never be uttered by any human being. The setting is described in excessive detail but does not feel real at all. You know things that you shouldn’t know - like that the pavement is crumbling because it dates to exactly 1945, for example. The first major puzzle, in which you want to talk to a guy who works at a service station by summoning him with the currently out-of-order button in the office, so instead of just knocking on the door to the back room or trying to go through the service bay, you steal a yardstick, buy some twine, use the twine to affix a meat hook to the yardstick, then use this unholy construct to subtly swipe a package containing a new button without being seen through a window by the guy (that is, the guy who is right there who you could easily contact by knocking on the door), then go back into the office to remove the malfunctioning button and have your companion use a screwdriver (which I’m pretty sure you also stole from somewhere) to install the new button so that you can summon the guy to the office and watch him pick his nose IS PATENTLY RIDICULOUS, but also, it’s glorious and I love it.
But what I’m going to call the second stage of the game is another can of worms entirely. After clearing the first puzzle, the ridiculousness dies down somewhat and some real suspense starts to built. Clues make themselves available, breadcrumbs hint at as-yet unplumbed depths. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I believe the setting, but I’m starting to feel like there’s an actual reason why it is the way it is, and that this reason will be explored further as new information comes to light. Tension builds, danger increases, strands of inquiry come together and I feel that this case is about to be blown wide open. This part of the game, lasting from late Day One to just before the climax, is quality mystery - very enjoyable and almost beyond reproach.
(As an aside, when it comes to the parser vs. choice-based dichotomy, I don’t generally prefer one over the other. But both paradigms have certain strengths and weaknesses, and I feel like an actual parser might have been a better fit for a mystery-oriented horror story of this nature. After all, compared to Twine, a parser is clearly more mysterious and horrific.)
Anyway, once we’ve gotten to the point where it feels like the strands are beginning to come together, a climax is approaching, and the significance of earlier clues will come to light, we enter what I will refer to as the third stage of the game.
Massive spoilers to follow, recommended only for the initiated:
The third stage of the game lasts for about five seconds. Le fin.
Why does the gardener still have such a strong Scottish accent if he’s lived in Fenwick for the past several decades? Why is Ms. What’s-her-name growing central Asian apple trees? How did the UPS person know where to put the package? Does that dog really have rabies, mange, and gangrene? Is there a fourth passage into the basement that we don’t know about? What happened at 6:47 on an unspecified day in 1962? Are people being tenderized in the back of the gas station to be used as fertilizer for asters? Who is maintaining the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere? What horrible fate befalls us? Is it time to take an aspirin?
The answers to these and many other questions are never given. Not at all. Right when I felt like I was getting to the payoff… le fin.
Certainly, Beneath Fenwick is not the first entry I’ve tried in this comp to feature an abrupt ending, nor do I expect it will be the last. But I strongly suspect it will stand head and shoulders above all others in terms of the magnitude, the sheer extent to which the abrupt ending is like a totally unexpected slap in the face.
When’s the sequel coming out?