Nobody does a ghost story like Neil Gaiman. Normally that phrase is reserved for mere talent or skill. What this phrase means is if you asked Neil Gaiman to write you a ghost story, you would get something nobody else on the planet would be capable of writing. So when the good people at The Odd Gentlemen gave him a Lego set and asked him to write a ghost story, one of the quirkiest adventure games in recent memory was developed. Thanks to Moonshark Mobile, it’s now available and it’s really quite an experience.
Wayward Manor lets you play as a ghost with no direct control over the characters, just the environment they are in. Your job is to make them so scared they leave. The ability to haunt in this game is an essential puzzle solving mechanic. Each of the nine characters have their own unique reaction to each object you haunt, the idea being that when they get scared enough, they will leave.
The characters you are haunting are family of 1920’s aristocrats called The Budds. Each character has a unique, but predictable reaction to each object you can interact with, and with each other. You can use these reactions to move the pawns around and scare them in different ways. In the opening levels this is as easy as dropping something on their head but as the experience moves on, it requires you to position them in just the right way to deliver a proper scare.
The game is designed to be challenging but not overwhelmingly complex. You are often in a situation where you will need to scare two characters at once, but they will never see or be scared by the same object. This means manipulating them back and forth so they are both where you want them to be to create a Rube Goldberg-style scare system. This is where the meat of the game comes from mechanically It feels more like a board game than a video game. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, I said exactly the same thing about 2012’s X-COM: Enemy Unknown. I quite like being able to see the mechanics at play within a game and how it would translate to a non-electronic setting and being that it’s exactly how this game started, its design process it makes a lot of sense.
You are benefited by taking your time and planning your movements, even if some of those movements require some good timing on your part. With the exception of the last level (which throws a little too much random into the mechanics) the game is quite well-designed. It feels like a genuine puzzle. Each action has a consequence. Failing to plan correctly can result in needing to restart the level, but this only happens in the later levels once you’ve learned what each object does to each character. I wouldn’t say it’s unfairly difficult, but I like a puzzle game that won’t go easy on me. (I do think however, it might be less suited to PC, which is what I played it on, than a tablet or phone with a touch screen.)
Of course, the main selling point of this game is the involvement of Neil Gaiman, and his flavour is everywhere in this game, not just his awesomely deliberate voiceover work as The House. What would have been a perfectly serviceable point and click puzzle game is elevated tenfold by learning about the quirky characters Gaiman has populated into the Manor. He’s a master at passive storytelling. You learn everything you need to learn about the surpisingly complex Budd family not through direct interactions, but how they react to various stimuli and each other. You can see their personality, their flaws, their shames, just by watching and listening. They aren’t unsympathetic but they aren’t all that likeable either. The game is just cartoony enough to get away with doing horrible things to them, but to make you feel a little bad afterwards.
The game is vaguely reminiscent of a game I enjoyed for the Sega Megadrive called Haunting. It’s quite similar thematically but it mostly relied on showing cool/scary things happening, there wasn’t much reason to care about who or why you were scaring. It’s as if someone played that game and decided that there was no reason to exclude emotion. The end result is a thoroughly engaging puzzle game with quirky characters, a great plot and fun mechanics at play. It’s a great example of what you can expect from Neil Gaiman in an enjoyable interactive package.