I use the word potential all the time. To the extent that it becomes annoying to the people around me. But it is an important word, especially in this still youthful industry. It’s locked in the bizarre ideas forming in the mind and on the hard drive of the smallest indie developer, and it’s evident in the expanding technical prowess of the largest blockbusters. It’s not just in the future though. I also love the potential of what already exists, the engines that have been built and the histories they have produced. And that’s why I love mods. They can make the old new in so many ways: balancing, tweaking, expanding, subverting, or being something self-contained and entirely new. Take The Worry of Newport. It’s a self-contained, Lovecraftian mystery that’s pretending to be a mod for Crysis.
Although it’s small and imperfectly formed, The Worry of Newport is as authentic a Lovecraft experience as I’ve ever played. That’s not to say it’s the best Lovecraft-inspired game I’ve ever had my hands on, it’s just the most true to the man himself. I am a huge fan of the mythos and I’ve read a thousand books inspired by it, most of them crappy. A few years ago, I bought anything that said Cthulhu on the front. Or shadows. I was the reason the horror section in my local Waterstones was essentially a Lovecraft tribute act. The fact that the horror section is now made up entirely of stories about teenage girls fighting and/or falling in love with vampires is absolutely definitely not my fault. Oh, and those mashups are there too I guess. Things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Personally, I’m waiting for the Dickensian wave to really take off: Bleak House of the Dead and Great Exhumations are going to be money in the bank.
Despite my love of his craft though, brace yourselves, because I’m about to say some things about HP that are less than complimentary. His writing is often ponderous, overly portentous and sometimes just plain silly. All that stuff with cats and dreamworlds? I prefer the cosmic horror and madness, thanks very much. The point is, if you read a lot of Lovecraft, there is a swift realisation that people have an idea of what is Lovecraftian that has developed outside his works, supported by the best of them. And so I say again; The Worry of Newport is as authentic a Lovecraft experience as I’ve ever played. Which is to say, it’s slow, wordy and takes itself very seriously indeed. However, it’s also atmospheric, creepy and mysterious.
The mod is an unusual fit for CryEngine 2, with its literary base and deliberately slow pace, although I don’t think it would work quite as well anywhere else. It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as a largely uninteractive, on-rails storybook. I have two problems with that. The first is that such a thing is worth dismissing if the story is good, the second is that interaction only means picking things up and using them. In such an exquisitely designed 3D space, simply by existing as an agent we interact. By exploring, choosing the pace at which we move and observing from chosen positions, we create unique experiences. Though the story may be linear, the sense of place is strong enough that acting within it becomes integral.
It begins on a dock, the wood rotting as it is lashed by rain. The beam of a lighthouse cuts through the tempest, illuminating derelict buildings and collapsed piers. Behind, the sea yawns, immense and filled with unimaginable horrors that it is imperative you immediately attempt to imagine. Frightening, aren’t they? And cyclopean. Possibly eldritch. I don’t know for sure. You see, they’re indescribable as well as unimaginable.
As you make your way to Newport and its one big Worry, you will hear a voice. A narrator! Infuriatingly, when he speaks you’ll sometimes be frozen in place, presumably to ensure another audio segment or setpiece isn’t triggered while the previous one is still playing. It may be necessary but it’s annoying and it made me think about the mechanics of the mod rather than its atmospherics. Part of the problem is that the narration is rather slow and verbose. The voice acting isn’t terrible, though I wouldn’t defend its honour too fiercely. If it grates at first, perhaps, like me, you’ll find it grows on you as the story goes on. Maybe that’s also because your character doesn’t become locked in place quite so much later on, allowing you to roam while you listen. There’s a certain cleverness to the way the narration works, oftentimes telling you what’s about to happen so that you can be pre-emptively distressed, or to guide you when your goal isn’t clear. It’s not Bastion, but it does make it seem like you’re doing more than tripping invisible wires to active audio files.
As for the words that are actually being spoken, they are fine words. Again, I think the writing as a whole improves by the second part. There’s plenty of it too, whether acted or not. Books, mostly in the form of journals and diaries, are scattered along your path. I felt they were too explicit about the mystery – sorry, the Worry – early on but there is a fair degree of subtlety later. As well as some more personal stories.
So what you get for your investment of time is a decent horror-mystery, heavily indebted to Lovecraft, and some beautiful environments to explore. And do explore them. Take your time. Instead of rushing onto the next chunk of plot, let the rain soak into your bones as you stare out at that unforgiving sea. Shelter from the cold and the horrors in the woods when there’s a chance for a moment of respite. Just don’t wander off the path too far or you will run into invisible walls and that is very annoying. It would hardly be realistic to surround every area with impassable mountains or chasms, but it is jarring to feel hemmed in however it is done. It’s necessary, of course, but sometimes clumsily implemented.
It’s important to state, although it’s obvious once you start playing anyway, that CryEngine 2 still looks astonishingly good and the mod makes excellent use of it, despite some technical hitches. As I rushed down the beach near the beginning of the story, I suddenly realised how spoiled I had become. A few years ago, it would have been impossible to travel through such a fantastically detailed and well-realised replica of the blighted coastlines I’ve read so much about. That’s why I slowed myself down and appreciated what was there. I strongly urge you to do the same. Hell, I did the same in Crysis all the time. It was more a tourist trap than an FPS the way I played it.
Another thing of note, as you can see from the screenshots littered around, the story doesn’t take place exclusively in dank old Lovecraft Country. There’s plenty of Innsmouthesque drabness but you won’t always be by the sea and, in a strange twist, it won’t always be raining and dark. You’ll want to know how difficult stealth and combat will be in the brightness of day and you’ll be pleased to know there isn’t any combat at all, difficult or otherwise. The unimaginable, indescribable creatures after your hide cannot be harmed by mere bullets. In fact, it’s not even clear that anything is after your hide at all. Maybe your hide is undesirable. Maybe that’s the worry.
It’s probably a good idea to mention that the mod didn’t terrify me. It didn’t scare me a huge amount at all but that doesn’t mean it did nothing. I enjoyed it more as a mystery than a tale of terror. Digging up the past and piecing things together, like a proper investigator. I think the pace is probably too sedate to set the heart racing but the contemplative mood does conceal plenty of unnerving details and the occasional shock. It’s also very different to Dear Esther. I say that because many people were, and maybe still are, expecting something similar. Play this on its own merits.
There are, as is often the case with Crysis mods, some niggles and the internets tell me that people have experienced difficulties getting it to work properly. There’s nothing too complex to overcome though and the installation instructions here for part one and here for part two did everything I needed. There is no save function, which again is typical of such things, but the story is handily split into two parts so you can do one, take a break, then come back to the other later. The first isn’t much over an hour, the second is longer but certainly not more than three hours, even if you crawl through it.
The team behind the mod have already started work on a new one and that will be using the Amnesia engine. Even though it’s probably a better fit for what they’re trying to do, I’d like to see CryEngine’s large, open spaces being used more for tight, mystery storytelling. It might not be the smoothest fit but it’s interesting and it’s a far remove from Amnesia’s own take on cosmic horror. Hopefully, using the same engine won’t mean using all the same tricks.