Dracula (Commodore 64) review
"Dracula is an exciting, garish and highly confounding 95% text adventure which was released for the Commodore 64 by CRL in 1986. It was the first of a series of similarly themed horror adventures by Rod Pike (and later, other authors) including Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dracula broadly follows the events of Bram Stoker's novel and remains highly regarded in C64 circles to this day for a multitude of reasons, sensationalism amongst them. The non-text 5% of the game consis..."
Dracula is an exciting, garish and highly confounding 95% text adventure which was released for the Commodore 64 by CRL in 1986. It was the first of a series of similarly themed horror adventures by Rod Pike (and later, other authors) including Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dracula broadly follows the events of Bram Stoker's novel and remains highly regarded in C64 circles to this day for a multitude of reasons, sensationalism amongst them. The non-text 5% of the game consists of gory digitised images which are displayed when the player meets one of the game's many violent ends. The game deliberately courted the attention of the British Board of Film Censors, and got it; it was the first game in the UK to receive a 15 certificate. The game's producers admitted they had wanted an 18 rating.
"Their claws bury into my flesh! They beat their wings on my body while their beaks tear into me! They are tearing me to pieces!The above passage is typical of the game's thrilling tone of demise, and after each death the player is treated to a SID chip rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
ARRGH!! MY EYES!! NO! THE PAIN.. I CAN'T STAND THE PAIN! I CANNOT SEE!!"
While all of these flourishes are inseparable from the game's intense atmosphere, they aren't the primary elements of what, it must be remembered, is an adaptation of a classic novel. The game puts the player into the shoes of two of the novel's heroes, Jonathan Harker and Doctor Edward Seward, and presents puzzles across a wide range of contexts: Good old-fashioned obstacle removal by useful object, observation and exploration, warding off Dracula and his minions and, perhaps bizarrely, the testing of social and domestic common sense.
The game is frequently unfair, with an inconsistent approach towards what the player knows versus what his/her character knows, lengthy and attractive room descriptions which are nevertheless quite misdirective, plenty of unheralded and undoable deaths, and countless incidences of time-based sequences in which you have to start typing WAIT repeatedly to achieve crucial aims. Considering all these difficulties, I was surprised by how enjoyable I found Dracula, and I realised that the game's mitigating circumstance is that for two thirds of its length, it is almost entirely linear and episodic.
If you've been dropped off by coach at Dracula's Castle, and you're standing in front of a locked door and there are no other exits, what else is there to do but assault your current location with every verb and noun you can think of? I discovered in playing Dracula that I don't mind brute forcing a game so long as the story is exciting and the process isn't querulous. Many stretches of this game involve just getting through one or two rooms at a time using only observational skills or objects that are immediately at hand (okay, and at times, desperate illogic). What you don't have to worry about at such times is whether you failed to pick up some important item twenty rooms earlier. On the other hand, what you do have to worry about are the game's assumptions about your character's knowledge, abilities and inventory, as these change without warning throughout the adventure.
In the game's first location, your path into the inn is blocked by a drunk coachman. Checking your inventory shows that you are carrying nothing, not even money, but the solution you must dredge up is PAY COACHMAN. You might say to yourself, 'Fair enough, I can now assume I carry money around with me,' and the assumption holds true for awhile as you lavish various Transylvanian yokels with your Earth dollars. But in a later chapter of the game, your money starts off in a coat which you aren't wearing, and you won't be able to pay people until you have noticed this, taken your coat from your chair and rummaged through it.
A less nitpicky observation is that despite the fact that you get to play two very intelligent men in this game – or at least one very intelligent man plus Jonathan Harker – there will be times when both men are capable of acting like imbeciles if they do not receive your explicit directions to the contrary. The game's wavering treatment of the entity that is 'me' certainly caused me to reflect on what what actions I expect should be automatically taken for me during a text adventure, based on the qualities of my character in such games where I am playing a character with a pre-existing background and disposition (like Dracula) as opposed to games where my character is entirely a cipher for action (like Zork.)
The silliest incident along these lines in Dracula occurs when you are playing Doctor Seward and need to catch a train to Stratford. Having purchased a ticket, you then step south onto the platform. As often happens in this game, the room description does not mention any of the exits. Most of the time you can only find these by trying to move in every direction in turn. So you dutifully wait for a train to arrive, then board it. To paraphrase what happens next…
"You caught the train to Folkstone. You lose."Apparently the doctor is so klutzy as to be unable to board the correct one of two trains from his hometown station without player input, though he oversees the running of an entire mental asylum for his day job without the same. What the player must do here is bump into every 'wall' in the original platform location, find that there is a path to another platform and go and wait there, despite the fact that neither platform is labelled. It pays to save often in Dracula because you never know when another strange game-ender like this will crop up.
The game's prose is often uncharacteristically rich and lengthy for a text adventure from this period, even if the author misuses apostrophes. His punctuation mistakes don't matter because the perilous tone and content are well delivered, and the compelling writing places you thoroughly in the shoes of each character. The prose is also delivered in a gothic red font which definitely helps to create the game's particular atmosphere, at least for those whose eyes can stand it. Even in the game's heyday, hackers released patches which allowed players to use a more basic font. Different kinds of text are colour-coded, marking out objective description, your own thoughts, other characters' dialogue, etc., and this feature provides visual interest and clarification. The game's parser comes across as fairly opaque, simply because the game is so episodic that all the vocab you might struggle to guess is only relevant for a screen or three at a time.
It's hard for me to think of any other text adventure which trespasses so often against sense, logic and fairness, but which has remained engrossing to me. Dracula benefits from the qualities of Bram Stoker's novel, maintains the book's fearful tone in its prose and recreates some of its most memorable sequences, such as Harker's imprisonment and escape. The game presents mostly as sequences rather than as an open environment, and this seems to be the key to making its often inscrutable puzzles work. The player must doggedly persist with minimal cues to claw his/her way from one dangerous scene to the next, bashing against the walls to find the exits and turning to features in the environment which even the game itself suggests are useless, like a cupboard described as 'totally empty' which, predictably for Dracula, isn't.
With the addition of the gory demises, aggressive font choice and the narrative voice of keening peril, the effect is compelling, but undoubtedly aggravating at times. I have no idea how players without access to clues back in the day could have intuited those moments in Dracula when it is crucial to WAIT several times in a row to progress. With no Internet to help them, players would have stared at the game's descriptions of hostile situations for days or weeks until they were finally able to come up with the single phrase or idea that would push them through to the next sequence.
Dracula demonstrates that there can be unexpected benefits to having a linear structure in a text adventure, and its decided confusion towards the ideas of character and agency is at least thought-provoking. It knows scary and is reverent to its source material. It is also highly irrational, probably impossible for any modern player to complete without the walk-through, and not a place a newcomer to older adventure games should start, fans of Stoker's book excepted. I believe, however, that anyone who does play Dracula today will be able to perceive why the game is well remembered.
* In 2003-2004 some Inform users remade Dracula using this modern Interactive Fiction system, an impressive feat. In the way of fidelity, the remake offers a choice of Commodore 64 or Amstrad colour schemes, and in the way of niceties it offers cleaned up text formatting and the inclusion of features like UNDO. Strikes against the remake are the absence of the original music (replaced by an extremely dodgy Bach MOD) and the replacement of all the original graphics, except for the title pages, with uninteresting 3-D renderings. The new version is undoubtedly easier to play but it loses the specific aesthetic effects of the Commodore 64 hardware.
Featured community review by bloomer (December 10, 2010)
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