The first time I read work by Neil Gaiman, horror legend and internationally acclaimed author, it scared the shit out of me.
Probably not an uncommon story, I was lent the first volume of Sandman by the cool kid at summer camp. Thinking I was a tough guy, I read it alone in my bunk, getting nightmares from the pages where Doctor Destiny gleefully manipulates a group of unfortunate diners into various kinds of disemboweling.
That didn't stop me from pursuing his other work. That thrill was an incentive to weave about his decades of comics, novels and short fiction. Creepy, clever, uncanny contemporary fantasies, blending mysterious unseen worlds into the shadows of our own.
And this week it led me to a video game Gaiman lent his voice to, based on his story of the same name—Wayward Manor—which is terrible. In fact, I'm not going to pull any punches, it's a really bad video game, nowhere near as scary or creatively brilliant as his past work.
Wayward Manor is an intersection between a point-and-click puzzle game and Haunting Starring Polterguy. You're a ghost, recently released from a locked chest, and Neil Gaiman is a talking house.
"As a house of fine New England stock, I was built to welcome guests, in time, however, they began to abuse my hospitality," says Neil Gaiman, the house, in his feathery voice within the first moments of Manor. "I spent years praying to the spirits of architecture take my balcony, cellars and wings, give me hands!"
While the introduction is a wispy discourse, all a narrative penned and spoken by Gaiman, the game is littered with unwanted interruptions and more glitches than ghouls.
The more you scare guests in the house, the more power your ghost has, giving you more options to tinker with. On top of bugs, which forced me to restart a level three times in the first chapter, it reeks of bad adventure games too.
Each cartoon inhabitant has a quirk that makes them sensitive to some paranormal activity on your quest to scare them out of the manor. One thing I did realize on my way to scaring these bizarre cartoon avatars: having a bottle thrown at any character seems to universally work.
While you're playing Manor it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on or what your true objective is, which sends you into a clicking frenzy trying to make sense of the gameplay. Stuff like rats, dynamite and pratfalls that appear as scaring tactics aren't exactly textbook cases of horror fantasy.
Stories of whimsical lonely ghosts have become Neil Gaiman's comfort zone, a shimmy towards family-friendly frights through successes in Coraline and The Graveyard Book. When he speaks it's inviting and British, with sparks of being talked down to and a coy humour like he's hiding the fact that someone has hung themselves in the room.
But that has led Gaiman to basically become this pleasing mascot of the horror genre. Like Ice Cube's rap career, Gaiman began with groundbreaking and intimidating work, but has now found a cultural Valhalla where no one will flinch if you cameo in a children's film.
Wayward Manor seems like the product of a creator being too comfortable. I doubt it was the most important endeavour on his schedule, but the possibility for Gaiman to make an excellent game is out there, somewhere, but it ain't this one.
That's what's disappointing. This is a game built around imitations of Gaiman's work: stuff like glowing spectres, silly names, or crows wearing top hats. In the end, unlike his other work, Wayward Manor doesn't scare me now and wouldn't have scared me at summer camp.