"Infocom released more than thirty Interactive Fiction titles in their time, setting the standard for sophisticated text adventure game parsers in the process, but only one of these games declared itself as belonging to the horror genre. That one was 1987's The Lurking Horror (TLH). In this adventure you assume the role of a student at the fictional GUE Tech whose essay on the topic of 'Modern analogues of Xenophon's Anabasis' is due tomorrow. The game begins with you sweating away at your essay ..."
Infocom released more than thirty Interactive Fiction titles in their time, setting the standard for sophisticated text adventure game parsers in the process, but only one of these games declared itself as belonging to the horror genre. That one was 1987's The Lurking Horror (TLH). In this adventure you assume the role of a student at the fictional GUE Tech whose essay on the topic of 'Modern analogues of Xenophon's Anabasis' is due tomorrow. The game begins with you sweating away at your essay late one night in the campus computer lab. A blizzard is raging outside and your only company is a geeky hacker whom you're told you recognise, though whom you really don't.
If I may make a joke at this early venture, the source of the horror is not the topic of your assignment, nor the proximity of the deadline, nor the dubious quality of your company. It is a Cthulhu-like force which begins to make its presence felt on the GUE campus as the night wears on.
TLH initially suggests that completing your assignment might be your goal, but almost immediately does some thwarting stuff which makes you feel you're unlikely to achieve this goal any time soon. If you've read the back of the box and taken note of the game's title, you'll be expecting to run into bad supernatural stuff at some point, but it's hard to anticipate how or where or why. If you venture beyond the terminal room, you'll find there's a fair bit of campus to wander but that most of it seems empty. If you try to go outside, you will be driven back inside by the extreme weather. And if you're as thick as I can be when playing an Infocom game, you may fail to trigger the crucial dream sequence in the first location which would have obviated all of this noodling and given you a concrete goal – to locate GUE's Alchemy Department.
The onset of creepiness can be slow in TLH if you don't do the right things right off the bat. I thought that the hacker was there to help me kickstart proceedings with my recalcitrant computer, so I fetched some Chinese food for him from the nearby kitchen to try to grease his wheels a bit towards this end. I also had to microwave the food, entering explicit commands to press each relevant button on the microwave to set the timer and power levels correctly. This might have been my idea of gaming torture if I hadn't fluked acceptable settings on my first attempt; all I did was use the same settings I would have in real life. This incident also speaks to the low wattage of my ancient microwave, given that this computer game is 24 years old as I type these words.
After all my efforts, the hacker seemed momentarily pleased to have been fed, but then lapsed back into his regular oblivious character, and I was no wiser as to what I should ASK HACKER ABOUT...
Thus I found the opening of TLH to err on the unhelpful side in terms of getting the story going. Nevertheless, I began to explore the campus more thoroughly, expecting that my purpose would become clear. What was weird was that I found myself trying to overcome some of the obstacles I encountered in the heavy-handed manner by which I might expect them to be overcome in a horror film, only because the game's packaging and title told me that the genre was horror. I had not encountered such weirdness or scares in the game prior to these moments which would otherwise have caused me to act this way.
For instance, I found my passage along the campus's so-called Infinite Corridor blocked by a passively aggressive maintenance man driving a floor waxer. Whenever I tried to pass him he would manoeuvre into my way. This was the most untoward thing that had happened in the game up to this point, yet I found myself taking to the man and his machine with a fire axe extracted from a nearby emergency cabinet. It was an unprovoked act of extremity I felt a bit silly about trying, but when the maintenance man responded by pulling the axe out of his chest and attacking me in turn, this was the first time the game had signalled to me that I was definitely in some kind of supernatural horror story.
Whenever and however you crash through into the realm of apparent horror in this game, the events and threats from that point onward certainly live up to expectation. You will find yourself investigating the suicide of another student, catching glimpses of some slimy horror which thrashes around in the snow, digging severed body parts up out of a garden and fending off things which live in the sewer. The cloistered atmosphere of the snowed-in night time campus is evoked through the finely written location descriptions, and as always in an Infocom game, atmosphere is a huge part of the overall effect.
The dynamics of TLH's puzzles play equally to a long-term view and to the here and now. There are obstacles in the game which you might come back to at any time after you have found an appropriate object with which to deal with them, but there are also sequences where you must improvise exactly the right moves in the right order and at the right time. The combination of the two approaches and the game's moderate overall difficulty (Infocom's own difficulty assessment for this game was Standard) make TLH a decent starting point for a newcomer to interactive fiction, since the first approach is timeless, but the latter is more modern, and a gentler incarnation of it is frequently used in text adventures written today.
The game's map layout is clear and logical and the puzzles are more practical than abstract, but inventory management is difficult. Your inventory space is limited in a realistic and un-fun manner, and you can't just temporarily drop things wherever you like because a roving basement urchin will pick them up. This can result in some tedious plodding back and forth to cart objects about. It's also easy to lose or destroy crucial items (monsters will eat them, or jerky professors or urchins will relieve you of them) so it is important to save often, but this is probably relevant advice when playing any Infocom game.
TLH wasn't just Infocom's sole horror game, it was the only one of their classic adventures to sport sound effects, at least on the Amiga version. It can be hard to hear these effects in situ on the modern Infocom game interpreters many players would use on their Mac or PC, so the best way to do so is probably to play the game on an emulated Amiga. Considering that the aural experience of playing most text adventure games is one of silence, I expect that the sudden breaking of that silence by groaning or chanting noises would definitely have added to the already tense atmosphere of the game.
One last flourish which I didn't get to experience as intended is that the original package had a creepy toy bug in it. The bug's presence wasn't announced on the box, so the idea was that you would open up your software and flinch in shock as something like a cockroach fell out. If only game developers would go to such lengths to entertain me today.
Apart from the dynamic mistake of it being possible to get some way into the game before the horror strikes – and I assume that if it happened to me, it probably happened to someone else – TLH is a fine all-rounder in Infocom's adventure library. It is solid, atmospheric, varied and creepy, and without some of the weirder idiosyncrasies that can make Infocom titles too vexing.
Community review by bloomer (September 27, 2010)
A bio for this contributor is currently unavailable, but check back soon to see if that changes. If you are the author of this review, you can update your bio from the Settings page.
If you enjoyed this The Lurking Horror review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!