Gray Matter

     from DTP Entertainment

What an amazing trip this game is! I mean that in the best sense: it's gorgeous, clever, and engaging, with an intricate plot and a lot of love and care obviously put into both its story and its graphics.

This game was highly anticipated - not by the Phantom community, who largely didn't know it was coming, but by the gaming community. The game's designer, Jane Jensen, is a celebrity in the world of adventure games; she wrote several celebrated games during the genre's heyday, including the Gabriel Knight series and King's Quest VI: To Heir is Human (which I have to admit is one of my favorite games of all time so there may be bias involved here). She also writes novels, including gay erotica, and is generally a badass. The adventure game genre suffered a giant downturn in the mid to late 1990s, so this was her first game after a decade. The general consensus is that it was worth waiting for, and I can see why.

Oddly enough, I spent a lot of this game struggling with whether or not it even really qualified as a Phantom-related piece of media. There are large swaths of the plot that don't seem related to the Phantom story at first glance and the genre and time period swing wildly, but after having finished the whole thing, I'm sure it is meant to be based at least in part on Leroux's story. Of course, the dude in a half mask that looks just like the one in the Lloyd Webber musical on the cover there is also a clue.

 

This intro scene sets the tone for the whole game: creepy but gorgeous, and full of things that suggest the Phantom story: the seemingly empty boat on the lake, the dark figure in the distance, and the ghostly mask. The handful of cards and chessboard are symbols for the game's primary protagonist, Samantha, with whom we are going to spend all our time.

 

There's a ton of customizability in this game, which is fairly rare in adventure games and is really nice to see (especially all the way back in 2010!). Players can bind whichever mouse buttons and keys they like to the game's commands, making it easy to control it however works best for the individual, and it's also nice for folks with mobility issues who might use different setups.

Most of the interface is very similar to classic 1990s adventure games, with a point-and-click interaction system and an inventory accessed by hovering over the top of the screen. There are also some really neat extra touches: the progress bars show how many points you've accumulated in each of the game's eight chapters and how many are left to go before you can finish it, dividing them up by objective so you can see which areas you might have missed if you get stuck, and the map lets you move more quickly from area to area that you've already visited, which cuts down on aimless wandering travel time. A really excellent feature is the hotspot labels: little tags appear over any interactable object or area on the screen, and players can toggle them on or off to get more challenge out of finding them alone or see what they might have missed if they're having trouble.

The pre-game setup also gives you additional control over the graphics level, which would have been more important when it first came out, letting you set things like resolution, how much of the graphics to render, and whether or not to include extras like mirror reflections and shadows. It's the year of our Lord 2019 and I'm running a former CAD station with a double graphics card and more gigs of RAM than years of my life, so I got set everything at maximum, which really made it a lovely experience.

Anyway, it's on to the intro animation, which is definitely scene-setting but will also make me VERY FRUSTRATED for the rest of this goddamn game.

 

It is, naturally, a dark and stormy night, and a young woman is riding a motorcycle through the filthy pouring rain in the middle of nowhere. You might notice there's a frigging EVIL FACE IN THE CLOUDS above her there, which is not just a trick of the light, I promise. It appears briefly at the beginning of the scene, shortly before the signpost that shows which way to the major cities of London and Oxford is blown, seemingly by a very convenient wind, to reverse directions and throw the traveler off course.

That's right, this is a supernatural Phantom tale! But not in the traditional sense.

 

This scuffed matchbook she's carrying says "Daedalus Club" on it, which is the name of a London private club for stage magicians that she's trying to get to. Where she got the matchbook and how she figured out she should go there is not explained, but we have our opening motivation. Annoyingly, she and everyone else in the game will persist in pronouncing the name as "DEED-a-lus" from now into eternity, when it really should be "DED-a-lus" or, if you want to use the classical Greek pronunciation, "DAH-AY-dah-lohs". (Sorry, everyone, I don't have an IPA keyboard. This is the closest we're getting.) (Ha, "Daae-dalos".) You'd think a game going out of its way to be spooky would jump at the chance to have a homophone for the word "dead" in the name of the club. Maybe someone thought it was too on-the-nose.

Daedalus is a figure from Greek mythology, a famous inventor and architect who is probably most famous for building the maze that confined the Minotaur and for designing the wings that allowed him and his son Icarus to fly, although tragically Icarus was bad at following directions and flew too close to the sun, melting the wax in the wings and plunging him to his death. He's appeared as a comparison to the Phantom in a few other pieces of media before, most notably Kay's 1990 novel (which makes sense as his architect side was very played up there) and Meyer's 1993 Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It's also one of my favorite Greek mythology metaphors for the Phantom story, since it not only incorporates themes of creation and genius but ALSO of those things being dangerous when taken to an extreme or not considered in terms of consequences and ALSO there's that nice double metaphor whammy of Daedalus building the maze for the Minotaur, a monster trapped in the maze, and then getting trapped in the maze HIMSELF because the king didn't want him telling people how to get out of it, and also Daedalus is kind of a tool who pushed a teenager off a cliff once because he thought he was making better inventions than he was. It's a good reference, is what I'm saying.

It's even better in this game, because the Daedalus Club, as we'll soon discover, is exclusively populated by stage magicians, and our main character is a magician herself and desperately wants to prove that she's good enough to get an invitation to join it. The Phantom, of course, has a lot of associations with magic tricks, and just like this game there's a constant question of whether he actually does supernatural things or is just extremely skilled at what he does and at confusing and misdirecting others.

 

Meet Sam! She's a globetrotting street magician with no fixed abode and a pet bunny rabbit named Houdini, and she's our main character. Sam is one of my favorite main characters in anything ever, y'all. She's interesting, emotional, complex, and she does some sketchy shit but ALSO learns and grows and gets better. So basically, I love her.

Here, she's being clueless about where the hell she is because it's pouring rain and she's lost in the wilds of rural England and London is not helpfully looming over the horizon and her motorcycle just died, and she ends up finding a big old mansion looming ominously in the rain beneath the glowering clouds where she can try to seek sanctuary until the storm ends. As you do, in Gothic lit.

But Sam arrives just after another lady, who has come by car and is ringing the front doorbell.

 

I don't know this lady's name, but I have a LOT of opinions about her, so get ready for that.

She's trying to get someone to let her in the front door, explaining that she's the new assistant for a Dr. Styles who apparently lives here (she's obviously practicing how to say hello because she's nervous and adorable). No one seems to be answering the door and it sounds like maybe she isn't able to get through on the intercom. My first thought was that maybe she and Sam could form a badass lady detective team to get to the bottom of all this.

But NO, they CANNOT. Because a few seconds later, an indistinct shadow shape rushes her, she screams, it kind of looks like she's assaulted by some sort of skull-faced ghost or something gets thrown over her head or something, I don't even know, and then the taxi she came in hightails it the fuck out of there.

That's exactly as much detail as you get from watching it, so don't blame me if you aren't sure what happened. I'm not sure, either, even after playing the entire game. I legitimately thought she'd been kidnapped at first, since it looked like whatever it was grabbed her and then the car shot out of there, but I don't know if that's actually true, since that's the car she came in herself. Otherwise, maybe something attacked her and she just got back in the car and fled. It's not explained. I will absolutely lose my mind trying to figure it out as we continue because it NEVER MAKES ANY SENSE.

Neither does Sam, who walks up to the same front stoop she just saw a woman assaulted on to see this plaque by the door:

 

I mean, first of all, Sam, honey. What are you doing? Have you not heard of safety in your many travels?

I was a little distracted from yelling at her, though, because I was busy seeing a field of red flags here. The plaque says "Centre for Cognitive Abnormality Research", and combined with the general horror movie feel of everything, it made me very worried we were going to head into one of those stories where the real evil is People with Mental Illnesses, who are some sort of monster preying on poor hapless Normal People, or where mentally ill and neurodivergent people are being regularly abused by the villains but we never pay attention to that because there's one neurotypical person trapped in there who needs rescuing because excuse me, she doesn't belong here!

The horror genre is really terrible about mental illness, y'all, in case you haven't gotten that from my incoherent rambling. When "she was diagnosed with [insert personality disorder here!]" or "the child wasn't normal!" is the sudden revelation of the killer in fifty million movies and one of the staple tropes is an asylum where the abused inmates are zombie-like monsters to be escaped, you are not operating in a genre that has any understanding of how damaging those things are for people struggling with real-life mental issues.

Anyway, please don't do that to us, game, and now that I've said that I can go back to yelling SAM, WHAT ARE YOU DOING, because she apparently decides the smart move here is to ring the same doorbell, talk into the same intercom, and say the same phrase - "Hi! I'm the new assistant!" - that just got someone ATTACKED BY POWERS UNKNOWN RIGHT IN FRONT OF HER. SAM. NO.

I mean, she's right, they let her in and she's out of the rain, but this is apparently a woman who fears neither God nor man.

This is confusing again, because since I have no idea what's going on in this intro sequence, I legitimately had to sit there wondering if the blonde lady was an impostor and Sam is the real assistant, or if Sam used some sort of supernatural powers to run her off so she could take her place? But it turns out that Sam wakes up the next morning worrying about how to get out of here before the owners of the house find out she just lied her way inside to get a dry bed to sleep in, so apparently not. She just girded up her loins in titanium and bluffed her way inside a Gothic mansion used as an abnormal psychology research center where apparitions are attacking people at the front door.

Anyway, intro scene over, on to actual play.

 

Chapter 1:

It's worth noting that there are loading screens each and every time you change rooms or a new scene starts, which some players might find annoying. They didn't bother me much, mostly because they always include a little line of information that isn't in the game proper - things about Sam's past adventures, explanations for the things referenced in the game (for example, one explains who Daedalus is), and so on. They're basically annotations for the game you're playing, which is exactly the kind of nonsense I'd put in a game if I were making it.

The game has a tutorial here, which is essentially just a couple of simple tasks - rescue your bunny from the plant he's hiding in, feed him, and unpack your luggage - to get the player familiar with how tasks and controls work in the game. It's not skippable, which might annoy some veteran players, but the game has a very weird system of "readying" an item out of the inventory before clicking on things with it that's more than a little clunky, so I definitely did need the explanation for that.

This is Sam's traveling backpack:

 

God, she's delightful. I want to marry her in an ill-advised whirlwind romance.

The cards and book of magic tricks are obviously Sam's tools of the trade, which she will use A LOT in this game, and the water bottle and carrot are for the rabbit. Add in a picture of her lost parents for angst and a copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein complete with ominous smear suggesting science Man Should Not Know, and she's a complete goth stereotype and also perfect for a Phantom story vibe. The Swiss army knife, she says, is important for a girl traveling alone, and the yellow towel can't be picked up but she informs us that it's the most useful thing a hitchhiker can have when you look at it, an obvious homage to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 

There's also some nicely done backstory and exposition here; the wallet is mostly empty, which she says is because she spent all her money on the now-defunct motorcycle (she blames Liverpool somehow? I don't think I'm British enough to get this joke), and the letter in the back is from the foster care program in Washington, DC, which in one quick second explains Sam's American accent and gives us insight into her as a former foster child who lost parents she obviously still thinks of fondly. It's nicely done and not too intrusive. (And incidentally, if you want to know more about Sam's history, Jane Jensen wrote a short story about what she was doing before this game that is still online here.)

We aren't done referencing things yet! The house Sam is staying in has a name, like many other old British houses: Dread Hill House. This isn't a real place, but it IS a real reference to Shirley Jackson's gorgeous seminal haunted house story, The Haunting of Hill House.

Speaking of being gorgeous, the artwork for this game really is.

 

A lot of adventure games have lovely painted backgrounds, but not only are these superb, real obvious work has been put in to make sure that the characters moving around in those spaces fit into them naturally and don't break the player's immersion into the story. Look at that light and shadow directionality off of Sam, who I left standing uselessly in the hall so I could take a screenshot! That's beautiful.

While Sam desperately tries to nonchalantly find a bus schedule or something so she can get out of here before the people of the house realize she's an impostor and have her arrested, I fiddled around with the controls and game framework to get a sense of things. Saved games show a screenshot of where you are as well as what chapter you're in and how much overall time you've played, which is nice since they don't give you the option to give the save a name (yeah, that's old-timey, but I like being able to name my games things like "Trying the Evil Door" or "Before Punching Attempt").

It's too bad the game has a limited number of hotspots per room - that is, there will be a few things you can click on in any given room to learn information or pick up items, and then everything else is uninteractable. It's a decision I understand from a design point of view - it takes a long time to make everything interactable, plus voice acting if you have voiced lines, plus it can create player confusion over which things they can click on are important and which aren't - but the overall effect here is that some of these beautiful areas are sadly empty-feeling, with interesting artwork or details that you can't even try to learn more about.

Sam is a smart and thoughtful sneaker, which is why once she figures out that a door leads to another bedroom, she does not go in there and instead heads downstairs. The game gates off areas until Sam has discovered enough to be able to reasonably want to go there, but it's good about giving logical reasons for the character so the player doesn't feel too cheated about being denied access.

 

God, did I mention how beautiful this game is? Everything looks like this. Hello, yes, I would like to personally live in Dread Hill House, and yes, I understand the risks of driving into a tree and dying but have you SEEN the place?

Also, Sam is SUCH a goth and I love her.

 

I'm right there with you, Sam. (Incidentally, this came out in 2010, was written over a couple of years before that, and is by a woman who was already famous for writing in the 1990s, so the in-game references to Sam being a goth are more sincerely about counterculture than they probably would be taken now.)

You can see that Sam's little 3D portrait in her speaking view is now quite the same level of beautiful detail as the rest of the game's more static parts; unfortunately, that's pretty par for the course as we go on. Other characters' speaking models are less fully rendered as well, although I will say that the lip-syncing with the voice actors is pretty good.

Sam does notice a large portrait of a blonde woman in a white dress on the wall, which she says looks like a "Grace Kelly type". If you are like me, you probably thought, "Aha! Christine spotted!" This is weirdly accurate but also not very accurate, and we're going to have to slog through a LOT of plot to get there. This game is very good at setting up disparate pieces and making you work for them.

This house, and indeed the overall game, by the way, is absolutely FULL of masks. This picture alone has two hidden faces - the statue of the veiled woman and the Green Man-esque mask on the end of the hand railing - as well as the golden bust at the top of the stairs, which evokes a third. There are people wearing literal masks everywhere, artwork that just so happens to contain masks, and masks being used as literal plot points. You have not seen this many masks in a Phantom-derived work since the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries and its string of fakeouts.

Interestingly, although there's an envelope for the new assistant taped to the door to the basement, Sam doesn't take it. Sam has an interesting relationship with ethics; she often does unethical things for her own gain or survival, but she doesn't go out of her way to do so when it won't help her. She makes a good psychological portrait of a kid who was disadvantaged and learned to scrounge on her own, but still has a good moral center and doesn't want to hurt others. In this case, she's not planning on impersonating the real assistant any longer than she has to, so she leaves the envelope so she doesn't cause any further confusion.

As a player, I am already probably way more anxious about encountering other people in the house than Sam is. After the bedroom incident upstairs, she also hears someone moving in the kitchen and avoids it, and I'm just out here on the other side of the computer screen biting off all of my nails because there are OTHER PEOPLE IN THE HOUSE, WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE.

This game incorporates a lot of classical mythology, although usually subtly, such as using Daedalus' name and the logo of the labyrinth but not explaining them, or the fact that this house is full of paintings of famous Greek and Roman mythological scenes.

In the doctor's study, Sam also refuses to take his wallet, which is lying on a table and obviously full of money, because dammit, she's enterprising but she's not a criminal. Not only is that a nice moral note for the character, it's refreshing in an adventure game, where generally the goal is to take everything that isn't tied down like an unstoppable rampaging gremlin.

 

These pictures in the doctor's office, which Sam guesses must be of some of his patients, give me an ominous music sting, which again I don't appreciate because it's just doing that obnoxious horror genre thing where disabled people are somehow Scary despite the fact that folks with congenital issues, amputees, or neuroatypical people are vastly more likely to be the victims of crimes and abuse than the ones hurting anyone. I would guess from the pictures that he specializes in some kind of physical therapy... but the sign outside says he's in psychology. Sadly, I think it's just a touch of lazy writing setting any "weird" patients as part of the same category.

Annoying though the creepy music sting here was, the game actually has excellent music overall, very mood setting and pleasant to listen to, so much so that I went and got the soundtrack after I was finished. The orchestral and background music was all written by Robert Holmes, who happens to be Jane Jensen's husband, and there are also several really nice contemporary songs by the band The Scarlet Furies in the game, including image songs for both main characters. The Scarlet Furies songs only appear on menu screens, credits, and in cut scenes, but they're excellent (and also in the family; the lead singer of the Furies, Raleigh Holmes, is Robert's daughter and Jane's step-daughter).

Sam finds the doctor's diplomas on the wall in the office, which give his full name as David Leighton Brandish Styles, which cements him as wildly British and probably upper-crust, and says that his postdoc work was in Cellular Neurobiological Clinical Practice. It doesn't say which university he actually did his work at, but he's on the faculty at Oxford, so we can assume probably there. So he definitely is in neurobiology and possibly psychology, so... maybe he's studying phantom limb phenomena or something?

(Honestly, I think the implication is supposed to be that Dr. Styles is studying brain waves in disabled people who might develop compensatory abilities, given that later this game is going to be like SURPRISE, PSYCHIC PHENOMENA. But this early, it doesn't connect to anything and it takes hindsight to put it together.)

While looking at what she calls a "demon statue" in the waiting room, Sam says, "You know, this house is downright creepy. And I'm an ex-goth. I know creepy." I laughed out loud. I called that without even trying, y'all. Also, it really is a waiting room - the doctor apparently sees patients here in his home, which is still a thing (albeit less common) in the United Kingdom more than it is in the States, and which also makes more sense if he's also had his house double as a medical research facility.

Distracted by everything going on, I didn't actually look at Sam's magic trick book until now; it's very cute, with cartoonish illustrations of a magician and his rabbit doing each trick that is lined out. It's a literal book of basic magic tricks, which is a fun bonus for any aspiring magicians out there who could actually try them out with the step-by-step instructions provided. Of course, having to pull them off in the game is already giving me anxiety, but one problem at a time.

Now that it's not pouring anymore, we can see the outside of the house, which is indeed peak Gothic Mansion:

 

Everything is obviously old in spite of its use in the recent past as a medical center, there are creepy statues and run-down old storage buildings, there's a castle-like tower in the back that appears to never have been unlocked in Sam's lifetime, and the game insists on ominous music event though it's broad (if overcast) daylight. This is as Gothic as you can get, y'all.

Outside was a bust, sadly, as Sam confirms that her motorcycle really is dead, she doesn't want to steal the car in the garage for fear of getting caught, and she can't figure out any way back in the building except through the front door. And all my terrors are vindicated when she walks in and comes face-to-face with a grey-haired older woman, who turns out to be the housekeeper, Mrs. Dalton. She's still under the impression that Sam is the new assistant, so she just drags her off to the kitchen to feed her a giant breakfast that Sam is clearly sort of flabbergasted by, and conversation with her lets us know that she thinks Sam is a student from Oxford and that the doctor is here, but he's working down in the basement lab and doesn't want to be disturbed.

 

All the active dialogue in the game looks like this; any topics of conversation you can ask a character about appear as headings, and you can click them in any order you want, with them disappearing once you've exhausted all the conversation on that topic that there is. New headings will appear if you talk about something and it brings up a new subject. It's obviously the ancestor of game dialogue in more modern roleplaying games like Dragon Age, but it's still fully scripted; Sam can talk about every subject on the list without any of the others disappearing or changing, and her choices of which ones to talk about in what order don't change the future plot of the game or her relationships with other characters.

It turns out that this building is no longer the Centre for Cognitive Abnormality Research, which was an organization Dr. Styles founded with a colleague but which closed down after a nebulous "something" happened. They apparently worked with patients who had had strokes or traumatic brain injuries, but Mrs. Dalton says he hasn't seen patients in years. The conversation is absolutely textbook Gothic mystery, with the revelation that the doctor has a certain "reputation" at the university but never mind that, he can't "abide company" but she's sure it'll be fine, and under no circumstances is Sam to mention "the accident" and no, she will not entertain explaining what that was. She also tells Sam never to ask about the lady in the painting over the stairs.

This is amazing. I know it sounds like it'd be boringly trite, but it's just perfectly balanced to set up the game's plot while obviously paying homage to its genre. Dr. Styles is obviously being set up as the Phantom figure, lurking in his basement doing his projects while scaring everyone else and refusing to have human contact, but he also has more than a hint of other similar characters, most especially Frankenstein with his own supra-scientific experiments, called out by Sam's book upstairs.

Sam is primarily interested in the fact that the guy has never had an assistant before so at least he probably won't notice she's full of shit if she can't get out of here, and the information that there's a bus stop nearby and she can get to Oxford in about half an hour and London in about an hour longer than that.

By the way, other characters watch Sam walk around when she isn't interacting with them, turning their heads to keep an eye on her. It's pretty basic but in an already creepy game it adds a great extra touch of ambiance.

This is an adventure game, so we have to communicate information passively and there's a bulletin board in the kitchen to help out with that. It has a card with the number of an Oxford police inspector, a card for a Dr. Simon Helborn, psychologist, who is the other dude that Dr. Styles opened the Centre with, and a noticeably ancient calendar from 2002 that hasn't been either removed or updated.

 

Ah, the ancient days of yore, when music was confined to little discs and this is what state-of-the-art looked like. Sam can tell the system hasn't been used in a while and hilariously says the guy must not be much into music. The line is funny because he's so obviously being set up as the Phantom, but it's also actually accurate; Dr. Styles is not about music or really any art forms, and we'll find out more about it as we go along. (He has a lot in common, actually with the nefarious Dr. Hohner from the 1944 Waggner/Karloff movie, who was in art-related situations a lot because he was in love with an opera singer but was in fact all about the weird science.)

Sam still wants to leave but also still doesn't have any money, so I had her wander around a bit until she noticed a painting with "L + D" on it and remarked that someone who lives here must be an artist. The D is probably Dr. David Styles, but the L remains a mystery.

Finally frustrated, Sam finds out what the position of the assistant entails, learns that she can live in her current room and that it pays well and that the actual assistant never showed up (we already KNOW that, Sam, you SAW her), and decides to actually give it a shot. It's a neat turning point for her to go and take the envelope she earlier avoided, signifying her acceptance of the role and desire to actually do a decent job. Dr. Styles is ready to immediately be a butthead about it.

 

I said out loud, "Well, he sounds delightful," about five seconds before Sam said baiscally the same thing.

But whatever, Sam has a job now and room to explore! The housekeeper gives her a cell phone (and yes, I instantly tried to call the other doctor’s number, but it came back disconnected) and some money and off she goes on a bus to Oxford to find some test subjects for this douchebag in the basement. Much amusement was had by all as she pretended she TOTALLY knew where things were in Oxford, yes, because she is definitely a student there, for sure.

 

Things are creepy in Oxford, which shouldn’t be a surprise since they’re creepy everywhere in this game, but it’s still worth mentioning. Everything is old, rain-slicked, dark and broody. There are random people walking around the city, but Sam can’t interact with them, which gives it a weird feeling of being alone in a world populated by ghosts or robots, or of being a ghost herself. (No, that isn’t the twist in this game, although it would have been amazing given the plot.)

 

Helpfully, there are tons of things to poke at for Sam to learn more about the area, which is important if she’s going to keep her cover as a local student. I’m not British and have never been to Oxford, so I helpfully get to learn about things like the different colleges’ coats of arms right along with her.


It’s supposedly still daylight throughout most of this game, but Ye Olde Gothic Cloudcover really makes it seem like we’re all trapped in an eternal twilight of doom. Again, as you do in Gothic lit.

 

Against all odds, Sam stumbles on a specialty shop for magicians called The Black Wand, which she’s understandably super excited about. It doesn’t seem to actually exist, from what I can find on the internet, but that doesn’t surprise me too much. What does surprise me is a giant marquee next to the shop that says Samantha on it, which somehow Sam never notices or reacts to in spite of my best attempts to click on it a whole bunch. Obviously, the game designers put it there for some reason, but they won’t tell me what that reason IS and I’m FRUSTRATED.

 

The inside of the shop is literally everything a magic shop should be: mysterious, spooky, dark, full of the tools of the trade and a bunch of other weird-looking things that might actually be supernatural or at least want you to think they are, a Zoltan machine, a portrait of Houdini, and so on and so forth.

No one is actually running the place, so Sam pokes around, looking at the items for sale, until she discovers a public puzzle box that has the Daedalus Club’s labyrinth logo on it, at which point she turns around and the owner has apparently materialized behind her and somehow she doesn’t leap entirely out of her skeleton.

 

The owner’s name is Mephistopheles.

 

Now, obviously, magicians have stage names, often related to magic and the supernatural in order to add to their act. We’re going to hear other stage names later in the game (including Sam’s, which is the hilarious Lady Byron and I don’t know if I mentioned it yet but I love her). But while Mephistopheles is a perfectly reasonable name for a stage magician, it’s also the name of the demon with whom Faust makes his famous deal for secret knowledge and power in German folklore. Gounod’s opera Faust, with Mephistopheles in a major role as a baritone-bass antagonist, is one of the most famous works of French opera and is very notable performed in Leroux’s original novel, in which Christine sings the youth Siebel and later, after Carlotta is indisposed, the lead role of Faust’s love Marguerite, which is the role in which she gives her famous “tonight I have given you my soul and I am dead” line (which is of course Faustian on purpose itself).

 

What I’m saying is this isn’t an accident and Sam, I know you love making bad decisions just to see what will happen, but you should run far far away from the smiling man with the Van Dyke beard.

 

She doesn’t, of course, although their interaction is pretty cute, with her and Mephistopheles doing several magic tricks at one another in order to establish their cred as professionals. She asks him for information, and he basically confirms that the Daedalus Club is an exclusive professional organization for magicians, and that you can only gain membership by pulling off what they refer to as a Great Game - that is, a huge trick, con, or public illusion that is impressive enough to convince a member to seek you out and sponsor you. He also explains that the first rule of magician club is not to talk about magician club, so he refuses to confirm for her whether he’s actually IN the club or not, although it would be a sucker bet to think he wasn’t at this point. (You know, assuming he’s a human being, I REMEMBER THE CREEPY CLOUD FACE AND SHADOW ATTACKER EVEN IF SAM HAS CONVENIENT AMNESIA.)

 

By the way, when first looking at the portrait, Sam says it’s weird that it doesn’t look too much like Houdini...

Oh, that would be because it’s actually Mephistopheles just looking like Houdini, and also now I wonder if it was him all along or actually changed after he showed up, and look, this shop makes me nervous. Although I do love that he apparently has the Ace of Bunnies in his hand.

 

Anyway, the puzzle box is a sort of beginning entry requirement for getting the Club’s attention, so Mephistopheles tells her to figure it out and starts just lurking creepily in the vicinity watching her. It’s not as impressive as you might think a super secret club puzzle would be - it says YOU MUST BE 21 at the top, and you have to prod at it until you convince the cards to show a blackjack of 21 - but it is just the beginning step. It spits out a prize that is actually a riddle, which Sam is thrilled about.

Having wandered around Oxford a bit, lots of this riddle is already clear: High and Queens are local streets, Carfax Tower had a plaque on it explaining that the name comes from the Latin Quadifurcus, the one who sold his soul for thirty pieces of silver is the Biblical Judas, and so on and so forth. It’s hard to do riddles in games, because on the one hand, it has to be easy enough for the player to actually solve it or they’ll just end up frustrated and unable to continue, but on the other hand, if it’s too easy, they end up yanked out of the story and wondering how this club could possibly call itself exclusive if a ten-year-old could unravel its clues. This game does a pretty decent job of walking the line, especially since it can make the clues very obtuse because Sam’s investigations in the area will provide answers if the player can’t get them alone.

 

I didn’t mention it before, but the mouse cursor switches to a little hand when you can touch things, which is pretty standard operating procedure in adventure games, and a little mouth with tongue when you can talk to people, which is NOT and which looks extremely creepy. I keep feeling like I’m propositioning everyone Sam tries to talk to.

 

By the way, I think the movement stuff is pretty reasonable in speed, but the lack of a setting to control how quickly the character walks is annoying when I have to sit around waiting for her to casually sashay her way down an entire street. I suspect it’s a sacrifice of function for form, since her moving much faster would probably look unnatural and mess with the very attractive character and scene synergy the game has going on.

 

You know, I said before that it was already creepy when it feels like people are lurking around watching Sam while she goes about her business, but then I arrived on this street and they were straight up just standing around staring at her.

And yet this game thinks the center for abnormal psych is the scary zone.

 

Since she’s on a mission here, Sam tries to talk to some of these scary zombie students to see if they’ll participate in the study (which is paid, by the way, fairly well). They all uniformly laugh at her, call her names, and imply that the doctor is a menace and no one in their right mind would participate in this. Yeah, this dude’s reputation on campus is definitely doing well. That’s the response you want when you’re faculty.

 

One of them happens to drop a flyer for the freshmen orientation today, though, so obviously the thing to do is to go grab some newbies who haven’t heard about the Terrible Dr. Styles (relation to the Abominable Dr. Phibes absolutely intended by both me and the game maker) to get this experiment underway.

 

Priorities, though, so first we have to stop and try to solve this magician puzzle. Eventually, Sam finds this box hidden at the top of Carfax Tower:

The image is clearly another Greek mythology reference, this time to the Titan Prometheus, who was chained to a rock to have his liver torn out by an eagle over and over for eternity for the crime of defying Zeus and giving humanity fire (and thus technology and progress), which had previously been known only to the gods. The Daedalus Club is really into keeping things classical.

 

Of course, the story of Prometheus is a cautionary tale about the perils of defying the gods and committing the sin of hubris, believing oneself equal to them, as well as an origin story for technology, but Sam appears immune to this and is understandably proud and excited that she’s making more progress.

 

She then rides the momentum to go to one of the other local colleges and dig around in their fountains and flowerbeds for clues. It’s a lot of fun to have an American character, so that she and I are having the same level of “this is a weird British mystery” feelings.

Man, that’s a nice freshmen orientation. Mine was in a basement multi-purpose room at a folding table.

 

Sam arrives in the middle of an argument between two of the incoming students, with a guy promising that he’ll erase a girl’s scenes and her having absolutely none of it and telling him maybe he’ll think better of his behavior next time. I’m not entirely sure what he did, but my impulse is to think good for her.

 

Unfortunately, this is one of the first places where Sam decides to go morally grey in pursuit of her agenda. She identifies the guy as the easier mark, since he’s desperate and likely to respond to her as a pretty girl, but I don’t WANT to take his side against this other lady, who seems to be very reasonably pissed off.

 

Talking to the dude, whose name is Harvey, confirms that he absolutely is in the wrong; he filmed Lisa, the lady in question, for a student film, but intentionally misrepresented what he was doing in order to get embarrassing footage of her that he then threatened to release, and she retaliated by breaking into his dorm room, erasing his hard drive, and stealing the only hard copy, which is honestly a BAMF move. His woeful “but my ART” face is not making much headway with me versus Lisa, who would like to not have humiliating footage of her released to the entire student body on her first day.

 

But Sam doesn’t really care who’s doing what here; she just sees an opportunity to get her own job done, and she convinces Harvey to agree to doing the experiment if she can get him his tape back. I hate it and you’re disappointing me, Sam; you’re directly aiding and abetting this poor girl’s humiliation and putting footage of her back in the hands of a dude who was already untrustworthy with it and now might do even worse out of a desire for revenge. This is not how we do sisterhood.

 

But anyway, it’s happening, and the player doesn’t get to make a choice here, so I have to grump along. We’ve finally arrived at the first place that Sam has to perform a magic trick in order to get things done, which turns out to be much less intimidating than I thought it would be!

The magic tricks are done in a special interface, where you can choose which items go where in what order, neatly laying out the order in which you need to do things. All the items you need for the trick are provided in the interface, and the book with the step-by-step instructions is, too, so you can open-book test your way through it. Most helpful of all, the interface will simply reset itself if you do it wrong, so it isn’t possible for you to accidentally fuck up the trick and get in trouble. That might be a little annoying to people who feel like the challenge goes out of it, but then again, Sam is a professional magician and should succeed at these things, and most players are not. It's one of my favorite things about the game, having played through it all the way - it's interesting and gives you a real sense of participating in this special skill that your character has.

 

Sam gains Lisa’s confidence by invoking the same sisterhood she’s betraying, claiming that Harvey also creeped on her and filmed her without her consent, and then switches the tape for a blank one and burns the fake, letting Lisa believe that all the footage has been destroyed. Sam, you are unethical and I’m very angry with you for giving this poor girl’s footage back to this asshole, and I don’t really care that it gets us ¼ of the way to keeping our job. UGH.

Meet Angela, another new student, who comes from a tiny island in the Orkneys and is timid, adorable, extremely Scottish, and just wants to read her book and not be worried about everything. Sam pegs her as easy to bully and makes her the next target to get her into the experiment, and I’m continuing to be aggravated with her. Sam, of course, doesn’t know there might be something sinister going on in these experiments, but the very fact that she has to find people who have never heard of the guy and dance around what he’s doing should clue her in that she’s not being entirely ethical here.

 

Sam discovers that Angela’s rural Scottish upbringing has made her very superstitious, so she performs another magic trick to pretend she has precognitive abilities and will know when a pay phone rings; she also learned that Angela was considering going into medicine, so she plays that up and claims the experiment will be valuable experience. She could actually be right, but again, it’s just very sketchy and she obviously doesn’t care. Sam, you’re going to end up feeling extremely bad if you’re being a catspaw right now.


The third student is a hilarious super-rich party girl named Helena, who refuses to tell us what country she’s from because Sam “wouldn’t have heard of it”. She doesn’t give a single damn about this study and doesn’t need the money, so Sam goes with getting the guy she’s crushing on into the study to get a two-for-one. The dude in question, Charles, is adorably shy and dreamy, and he and Sam have a sweet conversation about their mutual love of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (again with the Greek mythology!), although calling them “the first novels ever written” is not very factual. (If you’re wondering, the first novel is probably Murakami’s The Tale of Genji from 9th century Japan. Iliad and Odyssey are older, but they also aren’t novels - they’re epic poetry and were largely passed down orally for a long time before they were eventually written down.)

Sam may be pissing me off with her cavalier attitude toward all these students’ safety, but you can’t deny that she’s a fantastic manipulator. She makes up stories out of whole cloth to get Charles’ sympathy, talking about how lonely she is here at school without her mother after she sees that he has a letter from his mother next to him. She’s super good at what she does, which makes it even sadder when Charles is so hopelessly good at being manipulated, eagerly and wistfully talking about how he hasn’t read the letter yet since he’s used to having dinner with his mother and always waits to read her letters when he eats. I’m sorry, Charles. You’re a sweetheart.

 

Sam, of course, steals the letter, steams it open, finds that the mom was encouraging him to get out and try things more, and puts the flyer for Dr. Styles’ experiment in there with the letter before sealing it and slipping it back into his stuff, making it look like his mother is telling him to participate. And then she can go back and get Helena by not only confirming that Charles is definitely coming, but hinting that she’ll steal his affections if Helena isn’t there to compete with her.

By the way, Helena has a very gross fixation on the fact that she thinks Charles is sexually inexperienced, maybe a virgin, and she wants to be the one to “initiate” him. It comes up way more often that it needs to for someone who is just talking about having a crush on someone else and it’s creepy every time. Do not do this, authors, no matter what the genders of the people involved are.

At this point, Dr. Styles himself calls Sam on her cell phone, the first direct interaction they have ever had, and he’s just as terse and crotchety in person as he was via letter. He demands everyone get over here for the experiment because he has to set up, and when she says she only has four out of six participants but promises she can get the others, he’s noticeably shocked she found so many. She then gets immediate karmic payback for her shenanigans when he says he has one grad student and she can just be the sixth person, with the implication that refusing is really not an option.

 

His voice is British-accented and very light, snappy, and almost brittle; it’s not a particularly sensual or attractive voice, which is unusual for a Phantom. But then Sam goes back to the house, heads down into the basement of terror where she sees a lot of scary science and brains in jars, and then we get our first glimpse of the dude.

Yup, there he is. The white half-mask is obviously inspired by Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical and its many, many imitators over the years. Amusingly, this game came out the same year that Lloyd Webber’s sequel Love Never Dies did, although they don’t look like they have anything to do with each other.

 

Once we can actually see him directly and not on the other side of a terrifying tank full of Mystery Science Liquid, he’s a lot more Beautiful Romance Phantom than I was expecting from the game’s overall look.

It’s less noticeable with Sam, but Dr. Styles really makes it obvious that there’s a big difference between the art style of the cut scenes and promo art and the character models used in the game. His in-game model, which we’ll see later, has short hair and a distinctly squarer and more traditionally English-looking face, whereas the cut scene guy here is all angles, flowing hair, and ethnic ambiguity. I don’t know if this was a change that happened to the game halfway through, or just art departments not really communicating about what was going on.

 

Sam is confused, too, although in her case it’s because she assumed he’d be a much older dude to have the reputation he has. Luckily, he’s a rude motherfucker, so she’s back pretty quickly. That’s right, how about you ask for her name nicely and maybe she’ll be nice about it when she answers, bro.

 

Out of apparently nowhere in a very creepy moment, he reaches out to start fondling the necklace she’s wearing, asking her where she got it. She says she bought it at a thrift sale, and he says his mother had one just like it that was given away to charity after she died, so it might be the same one. The moment is confusing and goes by quickly, but it’s probably there to show that he’s putting up with Sam and her insolence at least partly because she reminded him of his mother.

The operating theatre he has set up for the experiment looks like somewhere you’d film an alien autopsy, which is frankly amazing. This is not a dude who is trying in any way to combat his reputation as Dr. Steal Your Organs on his campus. Beds and tubes and god knows what are arranged in a dark circle in a dungeon, and he seems annoyed and clueless about why the students are not super psyched to get into them.

Sam, as usual, is not here to not be hilarious, so she demands he up her pay from 50 to 100 pounds per week to deal with all this bullshit or she’ll leave, and doesn’t back down when he splutters about it being unreasonable. She gets it eventually - Dr. Styles is loaded, it’s not like it matters to him - and gets right on phase two of her job, which is basically “run interference with the students and tell them all pre-emptively that yes, he’s wearing a mask, yes, that’s weird, no, don’t stare at it or ask him about it.”

 

Once everyone is properly hooked up to the terrifying death beds, the doctor narrates what is essentially a fairly average hypnosis sequence while monitoring their brain activity. They go through some relaxation exercises, and then he instructs everyone to imagine that they’re at the school racetrack all alone in the middle of the night, about to go for a run. 

 

We then cut to the actual racetrack, where a caretaker is repainting the track lines before he’s hurled off his feet by some kind of explosion of energy, and when he turns back around, we get this:

So… THAT happened. We already knew we had some supernatural stuff at play, and now we apparently have some kind of psychic projection, too!

Chapter 2:

We return to Sam's perspective and discover that she and the other students involved didn't notice a thing, and after being told to concentrate really hard on the idea of running at the track, they just all got up and went home to bed. She doesn't even know anything weird happened until she sees a copy of the student paper.

Man, they have a fast turnaround time for new editions!

Sam being Sam, she's going to investigate this. The paper seems to think it was a prank, and compares it hilariously to the phenomenon of crop circles, I guess on the theory that both are unexplained environmental phenomena and maybe aliens, we don't know?

Anyway, now Sam can explore the labs during daylight, although it hardly helps much.

 

Dr. Styles, sir, your Phantom story roots are showing and it's an ominous look. This is no way to conduct Science.

I feel like Sam is not putting together things like “there’s a gated-off dungeon in the back of the lab” and “there’s a grate in the floor to some kind of tunnel system” and “test subjects sometimes go missing and everyone is scared of this dude” into the coherent whole they so obviously want to be. No, she’s just amused by the creepy statues and wondering if she can incorporate some kind of heads-floating-in-the-dark thing into her act, because she is unimpressed by spookiness and also hilarious.


It turns out, in case this wasn’t creepy enough yet, that there are two labs down here: the one that everyone was in last night for the experiments, and the “private” lab. When the lab people are allowed to see already looks like a horror movie set, y’all...

 

This is the “main” lab, which is absolutely a mad doctor lab from the turn of the century. It has everything: random skulls, brains in jars, scary dungeon decor, iron bars, an ancient MRI machine you could not get me in for love or money, spines glued to things. This is like walking into a cheerful goth’s tongue-in-cheek workplace, except he’s 100% serious and ignoring it all. He fell directly out of some penny dreadful somewhere and there’s probably a dissected child somewhere in the filing system.

 

Speaking of the filing system, Dr. Styles has left a note for Sam to tell her to go sort them and clean up any outstanding files that aren’t in the cabinets. Only communicating with the staff via notes is a very classic Phantom move, and here casts Sam in the role of one of the opera managers or perhaps Madame Giry, the boxkeeper, as she does general admin for him. Of course, poking around in his files is a great way to learn about him, so she doesn’t really mind in spite of rolling her eyes at how much of an asshole he still is about it.

 

She finds a note here from the neurological department at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital (a real place!) stating that the MRI machine he donated to them in 2002 needs some kind of information about its provenance. It’s not 2002 in the game anymore - it’s hard to tell when it is, so I’ve been assuming around 2009/2010, when it was released - and that’s the same time the calendar upstairs stopped being updated. FMRIB stands for Functional MRI of the Brain and is a neurological research facility opeated within the hospital under the aegis of the university. And yes, hospitals really can’t just be like “someone gave us this MRI machine, idk where it came from”. Send them the receipt, you jackass.

 

Well, or hire Sam to do it for you, I guess. She’s having a ball down here and says that she wants the creepy phrenology model on his desk for her dressing room when she becomes famous. She also guesses that the brains in jars must be preserved for study and notes that some of the skulls are kind of weirdly-shaped so they might be from people with brain disabilities, but she cannot explain the angry stuffed crow glaring down at the lab from on high. Also, some of the skulls are just being used as paperweights, which strikes me as scientifically irresponsible.

 

The appointment book down here is also still showing the year 2002, and there’s a small framed picture on the desk of the same blonde woman from the oil painting in the hall. It’s starting to look obvious that this dude lost this woman, probably in 2002, somehow and is definitely not dealing with it very well, which initially suggests a sequel to the original story.

 

The rest of this dude’s papers are mostly busywork, but we get to root around in his filing cabinet, which is a TRIP.

This is the most hilarious E drawer I have ever seen. We’ve got clinical papers, ESP, and quantum theory all in one place, folks! Sam is totally uninterested in looking at any patient case files, which is disappointing because they’re probably hella interesting but at least she’s being disinterested in a medically ethical way right now, and she doesn’t care about ESP, either, SOMEHOW, but she does pull out and read the “Extraordinary Powers” article, which was written by Styles himself. He has apparently not published since the early 2000s, as well, which adds weight to the theory that something catastrophic happened then that caused him to stop working on things.

This is the most hilarious E drawer I have ever seen. We’ve got clinical papers, ESP, and quantum theory all in one place, folks! Sam is totally uninterested in looking at any patient case files, which is disappointing because they’re probably hella interesting but at least she’s being disinterested in a medically ethical way right now, and she doesn’t care about ESP, either, SOMEHOW, but she does pull out and read the “Extraordinary Powers” article, which was written by Styles himself. He has apparently not published since the early 2000s, as well, which adds weight to the theory that something catastrophic happened then that caused him to stop working on things.

 

There’s a picture of Styles without a mask in this article next to his byline, notable because he doesn’t seem to have any injury or deformity. Mrs. Dalton mentioned an “accident” earlier, so this is probably going to be one of those Phantoms who gets scarred in an incident rather than being born with a disability.

 

The gist of the article is that Styles believes human beings may have access to psionic powers in parts of their brains that go largely unused and inactive for most people but occasionally become active in rare cases, and he cites the idea that disabled people might develop extra abilities to give them other tools to work with, thus explaining why he works with so many disabled patients. He also mentions the theory that ancient Greeks (among other ancient people, but why drop the Greek theme now?) didn’t see the color blue the way modern people do, which is a neat scientific theory that started being proposed in the 1990s related to different cultures’ words for different shades of color. The article was apparently published in Scientific American, so ooh la la! It might be a pop science magazine, but it’s a big one!

 

Sam is hilariously unimpressed by any of this because she says she doesn’t believe in “that stuff”, which is an understandable attitude from a stage magician. After all, half her career is convincing gullible people that something magical just happened when she knows perfect well that it didn’t.
 

Sam’s priorities are killing me. In the F drawer, there’s a folder entitled “Fugue States and Field Independence” - in other words, THE EXACT EXPERIMENT LAST NIGHT - but she just flippantly says, “Nothing interesting in there!” and moves on. SAM. Her liberal definition of nothing being interesting also stops us from reading articles about how moonlight affects modern psychological research and she SOMEHOW doesn’t want to read the shit out of a file that is only labeled “Nice Brains.”  Sam, if you’re going to snoop, SNOOP. I can't believe I'm being deprived of pseudo-science of this caliber.

Instead, she finds a standard rebuttal article from an academic peer, published in Scientific Skeptic, roasting Styles’ Scientific American article as unscientific bullshit. It’s unfortunate that he’s being lambasted so much, but it’s hard to take it seriously when Scientific Skeptic isn’t a real magazine (Skeptic is, and does rebuttals of pseudoscience, so that’s probably what they meant) and when the author, an Abram Linkweller, writes sentences such as “since we hunted with bow and arrow and drug our kill back to the cave” without an editor hunting him down and clubbing him. How did that get past the peer review?

 

The rebuttal is also dated 2002, and once Sam finds an old staff list of Oxford’s neurobiology department and discovers that Linkweller was on the faculty along with Styles, it’s on. There’s academic skullduggery afoot, y’all.

 

I guess it makes sense that Sam just takes the files with her so she can reference them, especially since she’s in charge of filing now so she can put them back and he’ll probably never notice, but plundering a man’s filing system still feels wrong.

Yes, the creepy bed-filled circle is still here off the main lab, and it’s still just as dungeony. Sam thinks of the beds as the “super deluxe lobotomy models”, in case there wasn’t enough YIKES in this room yet. She tries to get into the private lab, but it’s locked, so we’ll have to continue wondering how much worse it can get down there.

 

She makes a quick detour to the racetrack to investigate what happened last night, and refers to the caretaker who is now trying to scrub away the offending lines as looking like a “headbanger”, which is hilariously dated slang for the US so I have to assume it’s a British thing. His name is Eddie and he is not having a good day. The entire scene has a very Junji Ito kind of horror feel, with an event that seems innocuous and nonthreatening but is creepy by its very inexplicability and the unfounded conviction that things will get worse in some unknown way.

 

Once again, Sam is a pro at reading people and knows right away that this guy isn’t a student, so she doesn’t pretend to be one, allowing her to bond with him over how the students think he’s stupid but they’re just rich idiots with no street smarts. He thinks this was done by aliens and that he barely escaped with his life, and explains that he didn’t hear anything because he had headphones on but was thrown clear of the track in a burst of light and then ran away during what felt like a windstorm. Sam doesn’t believe any of that, but she’s sympathetic anyway.

 

It’s somehow surprising to see a character casually use the word “shit” in this game, although I’m not actually sure why. It’s not like it’s severe swearing or anything. I think it’s probably because adventure games, as a genre, have always been generally considered family oriented (exceptions like Leisure Suit Larry aside), and even when aimed at adults have kept a basically PG rating going. This is from 2010, so it’s much later than most of those classic games, and times were changing, I guess.

 

It’s really neat that Sam’s first thought here isn’t all the psi stuff she just read and the experiment that she just participated in - no, she thinks this looks like a magician trying to pull off a Great Game to get into the Daedalus Club. It’s a giant public magic trick no one can solve, right? It makes sense for her to go there as a character and gives her an alternative but legit route of investigation while the player wonders about the supernatural stuff. Also, the maze pattern on the track is evocative of the club’s labyrinth logo.

 

Then she went to go investigate the Oxford neurobiology department, and UM.

Are you fuckers all like this? What do you need a RED MURDER HALLWAY for, clinical studies department? Are y’all making sacrifices to Ereshkigal in between office hours? Am I trapped in Crimson Peak?

 

Sam appears not to notice that this is the creepiest school department of all time and goes off to investigate, undeterred by the Staff Only signs. She discovers a break room with old pizza and forgotten lab coats in it (I assume there’s a microwave around here somewhere that says “for food, no science in this microwave”), and she finds the office of Linkweller, the guy who was rivals with Styles, but he’s not there at the moment and she can’t get in.

 

So she goes to bother the receptionist, like you do. This poor lady works for Dr. Headley, the head of the department, and she’s very grumpy, but I don’t really blame her if she has to work with these people all the time. She gets considerably friendlier when I give her the MRI machine receipt she’s been trying to get from my asshole boss for literal years, and she lets slip that Dr. Headley was (and is!) a big fan of Styles’ and that everyone was very sad about “what happened”. She even gets Sam in to talk to the guy, using Styles’ name heavily, and his office is another example of casually breathtaking set art in this game.

That’s just goddamn gorgeous.

 

Dude here is clearly worried about his old friend Styles, who he says he hasn’t heard from recently, and is obviously shocked that he hired an assistant. I have to pause again because by this point the fact that no one seems to know about or remember the original assistant has become too glaring to ignore.  Where is she? What happened to her? Does she need rescuing?! How do NONE of you know she ever existed when she’d clearly already been hired and sent over by the school before she got there? Where are you, terrified blonde lady?

 

No one wants to tell me, so I get background on Styles instead. The university is aware of his experiment as he properly filed to show he was working on something, although Sam is suspicious that he might be lying about what the experiment is actually about (she’s right). Dr. Headley tells us that Styles was easy to envy, since he had wealth, a prestigious family, a beautiful wife, and was a brilliant scientist, but that there was a “horrific accident” and now things are different. Sam is frustrated that all these British people keep dancing around what exactly happened, and as an other blunt American, I sympathize with her. He also says that the rumors of him being a ghoulish butcher doctor are groundless and the result of jealous people spreading nastiness now that Styles has fallen from grace, but he won’t tell me who these people are (probably because their office is right next to his).

 

Headley is a lot smarter than any of the students Sam has interacted with, refusing to give Sam Styles’ experiment details without his sign-off when she claims they lost their copy, and so is his secretary when she tries the same thing on her.

 

Gee, would you look at that, Sam is a lot more worried about how safe this experiment is now that she’s personally in it. Still, it’s good that she checks with him about the other students’ fears, and Headley says the experiment is safe and that Styles is on leave but still on the Oxford faculty in good standing. 


Although he weirdly emphasizes that there’s nothing physically wrong with Styles, which… is a weird response when she asks if he’s dangerous to others. It’s a little red flag that made me suspect that we might be dealing with a situation where the guy doesn’t actually have a serious injury or deformity but either thinks he does because of trauma or is acting like he does out of penance. I don’t know. The plot is a mystery. This is Chapter 2.

Back out on the street, we get a rare moment of sweetness from Sam, who spends some of her meager money to buy flowers from an old lady selling them on the street. She does a magic trick to produce and return one of the flowers to her, and then tells her kindly not to stay out on the street too long and catch cold. It’s a really nice characterization moment, showing Sam having sympathy for someone in unfortunate circumstances and being genuinely nice just to be nice.

 

But then she’s back off to the Black Wand, where Mephistopheles is still lurking. Understandably, she thinks he or someone he knows might be involved in the trick at the racetrack, but he just giggles at her and tells her that the penalty for breaking the Daedalus Club oath of silence is having one’s eye plucked out, and then does an excellent job of not letting her tell whether or not he’s serious. This dude.

 

They do have a fun conversation, though, where he tells her all about famous examples of Great Games from magicians in the past. The first one he names is a famous magician who made the Statue of Liberty disappear for half an hour, which is a reference to real-life celebrity magician David Copperfield, who did in fact make the Statue disappear on live television in 1983 and was greatly celebrated for it. Amusingly, he later hosted a nonfiction television show about The Phantom of the Opera in which he talked about a few of the different adaptations. Apparently he just can’t stay away from Erik and his magician ways.

 

He also tells her the story of an old lady who famously stole a ring from a jewelry store by just wandering off with it after making innocuous conversation without anyone being the wiser, which is probably a reference to famous jewel thief Doris Payne who often did such jobs, and a third story of a man who found out that his wife was a twin but had been separated from her sister as a baby and instead of just telling them set them up to begin searching for pieces of the same antique chess set until they ran into each other “by chance” and were reunited, which I don’t think refers to a specific incident but echoes a lot of publicized cases of twins accidentally finding each other in adulthood.

 

The three stories all show off different ways a Great Game could be designed and still qualify, they’re really fun to read about, and someone obviously had a lot of love for this subject when they wrote this game. In the case of the jewel thief, Mephistopheles replies, “Do you think that the Daedalus Club would accept a thief?” when Sam asks if she got in… but that’s just a rhetorical question, not an answer, sir. I see you and your wily ways.

 

She leaves suspicious but without any new information and then immediately runs into the other experiment participants outside the college, who are understandably kind of freaked out about the incident at the track now that they’ve all heard about it.

God, Sam is just a great protagonist to spend time with. She's so fast on her feet. When the students say they didn't find her on the student roster, she immediately says that she sometimes gets mislisted as a boy because of her first name; when they say they didn't see her last name anywhere, she says her parents got divorced and she switched back to her mother's maiden name but it might not be updated yet. There isn't a beat missed.

Anyway, they're all freaked out and also feel like they physically had been exercising all night, and Sam is in the minority in assuming it wasn't supernatural. She convinces them to still come tonight and promises she'll research to find out more to help calm their fears, so off to the library she goes. At least she's trying to find out if it IS safe to do the experiment now, which is a step forward from her behavior hoodwinking them into it yesterday!

The library's gorgeous, as always, but it's also very accurate - the Bodleian Library at Oxford looks exactly like this. On the left is the game art, on the right a photo of the real library. The art team does an incredible job with Oxford.

Of course, Sam can’t get into the library because she isn’t a student, so she manages to flag Helena down, who is in here stalking poor Charles again (will you people let this kid live, please?). She won’t let Sam swipe her ID, but it turns out she had a second ID made because she didn’t like her picture in the first one, so Sam filches the old one and does some high school tech to get her picture on it instead.

 

One of the loading screens here namedropped Zoroaster as “the first magician”. That’s straight out of Pliny the Elder’s writings, since most of the Persian writings on Zarathustra, who is the major prophet on which Zoroastrianism is based, focus on his religious visions and teachings.

 

Oof. Oxford’s computer catalog is not especially up to date. This system is a dinosaur even for 2010. It is nice, however, that it can easily pull up digitized newspaper articles, which is the kind of virtual collection synchronization that some libraries are still working on.

 

Sam starts trying to find any notice of Dr. Styles, and he comes up as a handsome, popular, wealthy doctor in 1996, doing television appearances and being referred to popularly as “Stephen Hawking, but for Neurobiology”. His article appears to have been wiped from the archives, which is probably making some digital archivist VERY unhappy, but she’s already read it from his own files. She also finds notes saying he was dating Laura Edmonthorpe, the daughter of a lord, who he married after about a year, and that he was voted the favorite professor by Oxford’s student body. People apparently loved this dude. (For an extra detail, the article says he got married at Westminster Abbey, which means he or his parents [or Laura or her parents] had to be either related by blood to the Royal Family or members of the Order of Bath. They’re the only ones allowed to get married there. It’s so blue in these peoples’ veins.)

 

And then we FINALLY find out what happened in 2002.

Apparently the doctor and his wife were hit by another car while driving home, which smashed both cars and burst them into flame. He was thrown clear but disfigured by the fire, and his wife died in the wreck. This is indeed a pure accident-based disfigurement, a lot like the acid- and fire-burns of the movie Phantoms, and it also says that my assumption that Laura was the Christine figure is wrong.

 

Earlier, I mentioned Dr. Phibes of The Abominable Dr. Phibes in passing as a joke, but… this is totally Dr. Phibes’ backstory, from the car accident to the facial burn scarring to the loss of his wife, although Phibes blamed incompetent doctors for letting his wife die while it looks like Laura died at the scene here. There are a LOT of influences in this game and I’m probably missing as many as I’m picking out; it’s more accurate to call it a Gothic horror/mystery love letter than to say it’s based on any one of them directly.

 

Poor Sam has what looks very much like a PTSD flashback from her childhood when she reads this, and we see that her parents were also killed in a car crash. The scene is heart-wrenching, with her refusing to leave home or believe her parents are gone until the Child Services people forcibly came to drag her away.

 

Sam’s character development is really the most wonderful part of this game. She acts like her usual snarky self a moment later, but she has clearly been affected by the flashback, and one of the first things we can have her do when she gets back to Dread Hill House is put the flowers she bought on the street into the vase next to the picture of her parents. Her feelings are further revealed when she intercepts a phone call from the school and tells them they don’t have to keep hiring for the assistant position - she now genuinely wants to stay and help Dr. Styles, who she suddenly sees as a kindred soul.

As we can see, she’s obviously empathizing with the guy, in whom she now recognizes the same signs of grief, and when she goes downstairs and puts fresh flowers in the creepy lab next to his wife’s picture, just like she did for her parents, I want to hug her.

 

Back at Oxford, Susan the receptionist is still having a grumpy day, but she and Sam bond some over how ridiculous all this is and I love her, too. Sam has to steal her key to the filing cabinet in order to get the experiment documents that Headley wouldn’t give her, which feels bad, but it’s hilarious when Susan says she only has a spare all the way at home, Sam says, “That sucks,” and Susan replies, “It even blows,” in her prim secretary voice.

 

Sam then proceeds to just continue fucking up her entire day by pretending to be injured so she has to run off for a first aid kit and Sam can make photocopies of files while she’s gone. Sorry, Susan.

 

Sam keeps having to run back to Mephistopheles’ shop to buy supplies for her many shenanigans, and I love how embarrassed she is about it. She lies and tells him she’s buying things for someone else who is just starting out, because she doesn’t want him to think she’s just a baby magician. It’s the cutest.

 

The last member of the experiment that Sam didn’t recruit finally makes his appearance here: Mailk, the only one who actually volunteered and a student teacher in the department. He immediately has to be a giant dick about everything, saying dismissively that Styles must have sustained brain damage from the accident because that’s the only reason he’d stop innovating and publishing, and when Sam is shocked and points out that he lost his wife, she becomes my fucking hero when Malik tries to brush that away by saying “you can replace a wife” and she reams him the fuck OUT.

It’s so obvious that she’s responding to feeling her own trauma here, too.

 

Malik tells her he thinks that the current experiment is a disability study, along the lines of what I was thinking earlier - about how thinking hard about and visualizing exercise creates similar impulses in the brain to those generated during actual exercise. This is an actual thing being researched, in the hopes that brains stimulating muscles and nerves could help with recovery from injuries by simulating the positive benefits of exercise, at least a little. It’s nice that he also confirms that the equipment in the basement hell lab is pretty standard and harmless, even if it’s weird to have it in someone’s house. (Of course, why he didn’t tell the other panicking students this is a mystery. Because he’s being a dick, probably.)

 

And you know what, now that we have access to his files, that’s what he submitted, too - his outline says he’s testing the effects of exercise visualization. Of course, with all the psi stuff in his files, we can probably guess he’s lying, but so far Sam is reassured.

 

She prods around in his files some more for clues and finds an (extremely plain, god forbid you guys put effort into this) condolence card for Styles from his department, and in comparing it with the department roster, it’s unsurprising but still obnoxious to discover that everyone signed it except for Linkweller. Sam has suspicions about Linkweller. I personally think he’s just an asshole who happens to be in the general tragedy radius.

 

So at a dead end there, off we go to do some more puzzle solving, traipsing around pubs in Oxford and eventually being sent back to Christ Church College again, this time into the stunningly beautiful church nave.

Once again, this is beautifully done and clearly based on the real Oxford sanctuary (that’s a photo of the real altar on the right there). Combine that detail with the gorgeous shadows and lighting and the lovely atmospheric effects like footsteps, and it’s just a joy to move around in.

 

Sam talks to a random cathedral guide who gives her a ton of history on the place, pretty much just because the game designers wanted to, I think, until she eventually finds the last of the clues under the baptismal font. This is the kind of special interest game I would write. I already said that, but it just keeps getting truer.

 

Now that Sam has collected all the bits of the puzzle, she says she just has to solve it. It’s super easy, but she did use the word “rebus” which I forgot existed since I haven’t heard it since elementary school. Yep, she’s right, that’s a rebus.

Master puzzlers, my eye. There is a literal picture of the phone booth I’m supposed to go to on the clue. I didn’t have to solve anything, even if it hadn’t been basic.

The puzzle isn’t actually what’s interesting here - it’s the article next to the phone, barely readable and not interactable at all. The headline reads “Psychological Trauma Causes Man to Believe Himself Disfigured”, which is exactly what I said earlier when we were talking to Headley and he was weirdly emphasizing that there was nothing physically wrong with Styles. He wouldn’t be the only Phantom who isn’t disfigured - the 1998 Argento/Sands movie is most famous for this, but there are others, too.

 

What’s really puzzling is why this article is here. This phone booth is part of the Daedalus Club game that Sam is playing, and theoretically they don’t care about Styles or her random day job. Do they know about it and are just randomly throwing clues in her path, and if so, why? If not, who put this here and how did they know Sam (or someone else interested in Styles) would see it? Is Styles in the Daedalus Club and running Sam around in circles, and if so, where’s his Great Game?

 

I get no answers, even though Sam has solved the riddle and is officially Very Smart. I just have to stew on  it while she goes back to talk to the other students again, who are now calling themselves the Lambs’ Club, as in the lost lambs that he mentioned in his letter (or, more chillingly, sacrificial lambs). Everyone is still freaked out, but Sam is now passionate in her defense of the doctor, with whose trauma she is identifying sympathetically.

Her heart’s in the right place, but her impassioned speech is kind of a mess. She tells the other students that he’s been through hell and tells them to be sympathetic to a man who had to endure who knows how many skin grafts, but then says, “He’s not mentally damaged!” as part of her argument. It’s ableist, both in language and in implication that if he had psychological problems he’d be somehow dangerous, and also it’s just obviously not accurate. He clearly has trauma. You just SAID so, Sam! He won’t come out of his basement!

 

This is one of those cases where the cultural idea of mental illness and trauma turning a person somehow evil or unstable is so pervasive that Sam actually has to say that Styles isn’t traumatized by the loss of his wife and his own life-changing injuries, even though he obviously is and she just admitted it. I’m begging you, authors. Stop using “was traumatized” or "is mentally ill" as shorthand for “is crazy and could do anything to anyone”.

 

For once, Sam is misleading everyone by accident instead of on purpose; she really honestly believes that the incident at the track has nothing to do with their experiment. Of course, she’s undoubtedly about to be proven hilariously wrong when she cries, “Dr. Styles is perfectly normal!” at them, but she’s trying.

 

And as she does, we immediately have a cut scene to Styles waking up in bed (he sleeps in his mask, y’all… the chafing, the blisters, sir what are you doing) with his hand around his wife’s waist, only to jerk awake in surprise and horror at the feel of touching her and then realize that she isn’t there after all. In a subtle touch to tie his struggle to Sam’s, his clock radio has gone off for his alarm, and is playing a new story about children in orphanages and foster homes suffering abuse.

Chapter 3:

Unexpected but awesome - for this chapter, we switch perspectives to play Dr. Styles himself! The majority of the chapter is just him wandering sadly around his house alone, wearing his mask at all times including when he’s asleep. All he has is a completely blank journal (like Sam’s, this is to keep track of what you’ve done in the game rather than having unique content), a wallet he says he doesn’t know why he bothers carrying because he never leaves the house, and the key to the private lab Sam couldn’t get into.

 

The game wastes no time in letting us know that he is absolutely 100% undiluted incapable of dealing with the loss of his wife. Laura is everywhere in the house and in everything I click on. Laura used to read in that chair; Laura used to brush her hair at that vanity; Laura loved to listen to music; Laura always meant to renovate that part of the house; Laura loved to drink that wine; he hasn’t gone out on that balcony since Laura left, and so on literally into infinity. And that’s not me being euphemistic, by the way - he repeatedly refers to Laura as leaving rather than as dying or even something vague like “being gone”. It all paints a very direct and bleak portrait of a man who never recovered from grief and cannot go even a few minutes without being in consuming pain because of it - which gives us a baseline to start understanding what he does.


It’s very much in line with a lot of versions of the Phantom; of course, Christine is usually alive, but that same kind of pining to the exclusion of other activities and motivations is present, and in derivative works wherein Christine does die, this is a common kind of reaction. There are also a few touches that seem to evoke the Lloyd Webber musical, such as the presence of a walk-in closet that appears to just be for him to be able to go in there and cry over the preserved wedding dress hanging there.

Oh, hello, fabulous fantasy bathroom. While looking at a cabinet full of Laura’s old toiletries, he mentions that he’s never allowed “Stella” to touch them, which I assume must refer to Mrs. Dalton unless things are about to get even sadder than they already are.

 

It’s actually a really great worldbuilding move to have Dr. Styles walk around the same sets that Sam has already explored; it allows the player to see the same things from the perspective of someone who knows more about them, contradicting many of Sam’s expectations and reminding us that she isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but she is an uninformed one. For example, while Sam was just confused by the painting of the lady with the owl, Dr. Styles remarks that he keeps it because Laura had a pet owl at one point; while Sam thought the gargoyles were hilarious Gothic decor by someone trying to be fancy, Dr. Styles just reveals that one of his ancestors salvaged them from a burnt cathedral a century or two ago, and he’s never gotten around to doing anything with it. His casualness and information about Dread Hill House reveals that many of Sam’s (and by extension our) fears and assumptions were just simple unfamiliarity and fear, which naturally raises the question of whether her fears about him were all unfounded, too.

 

It’s hilarious, after Mrs. Dalton’s accommodations, to find out that Dr. Styles hates that Sam is living here and disrupting everything, and is aggravated that she isn’t just staying at the dorms and commuting to work. Guess he wasn’t really consulted about the whole “room and board” thing. Thanks for being thoughtful about Sam when you knew he wouldn’t be, Mrs. Dalton.

 

The loading screens look different during Dr. Styles’ sections, by the way; where Sam’s had playing cards and magic paraphernalia on them, his show images of neurons and brain activity, echoing their different passions and foci.

 

Now, it’s time for Sad Pictures with a Sad Man.

 

Every single photo in here has Laura in them, sometimes with him and sometimes on her own, and he narrates memories for each one that he keeps next to his unused desk. This is not a man who is doing any kind of healthy processing.

 

We also find out that the photos of various disabled folks on the table really are pictures of his old patients, and to him they’re memories of a happier time; he wonders how they’re doing these days, since he hasn’t seen patients in years, which goes a long way to dispel my dislike of Sam’s scaremongering and ableist reaction to them.

 

We find out a lot of information about what a mausoleum shrine the whole house is to Laura as we go - she was a painter, so all those paintings around the area were done by her (interesting to think of her as a Christine figure with a different artform, but Dr. Styles is not an artist at all, only a scientist, and has no mentoring relationship with her), all the CDs in the house belong to her as she was the “music lover in the family” (ironic for a usual Phantom story), and the card for the police inspector on the corkboard is the one who handled the investigation for the accident that killed her. It’s a lot emotionally, especially with the whiplash from Sam’s more upbeat investigative section.

 

Perhaps realizing this, it’s time for the plot to come back in, and he starts quizzing Mrs. Dalton (whose first name is Stella, yes) about whether anything weird has been happening in the house, like a break-in or an intruder. He seems genuinely concerned, which makes it look more and more like he had nothing to do with the attack on the original assistant… so does that mean someone else is stalking him or in the house? The obvious suspects are the professor he didn’t get along with and his old partner Dr. Helborn, who used to also work here, but why would they do that?

 

Amusingly, when he’s trying to get her to do something, he calls Mrs. Dalton “Nana”, which really implies that she’s been with the family since he was a child. Also amusingly, she calls him on the transparent manipulation instantly, even though she also gives in.

 

It takes about five seconds to find out why she didn’t want to say anything: she thought she saw a glimpse of a woman in a mirror, and the instant she does Dr. Styles latches onto the idea, and even though she immediately scolds him and tells him they’re not going to start talking about ghosts in this house, thank you very much, it’s obvious that he immediately thinks she must have seen Laura.

 

So now we have a better idea of what he’s being so weird about. He seems to think that Laura is actually haunting him, and since we don’t know how supernatural things are in this game yet, we have to wonder if he’s delusional from grief, if someone is messing with him psychically, or if he’s actually right.

 

I really love Mrs. Dalton. She’s very observant; when he claims dismissively that he doesn’t plan to keep Sam employed for long, she argues with him, pointing out that Sam was wearing very obviously old and well-worn clothes when she arrived and that she’s probably on a low-income scholarship to be at Oxford and needs the job. She even guesses that Sam probably has no family to fall back on - and here Sam thinks she’s so opaque and mysterious, heh.

 

Once I finally get him down to the basement, Dr. Styles appears to be immune to the ridiculousness of the place, only mentioning that there are a lot more passages and vaults past the locked gates but that he doesn’t use them for anything. Again, seeing his perspective that these are just ancestral holdings long past their usefulness dispels a lot of Sam’s trepidation about the idea of a dude having a literal dungeon under his house.

 

Hilariously, if you look at the same beds that Sam thought looked like torture implements, he thinks, oh yeah, it does kind of look weird when you aren’t here working in the lab all the time, huh.

The good doctor here is getting in on the plague of ancient computer systems, but in fairness to him, I’ve seen a lot of medical software and systems, and they tend to be bare-bones databases and light on UI a LOT, so this is not nearly as weird as the university computers were.

 

I was legitimately terrified of going into the private lab, because I kept having flashbacks to The Climax and The Abominable Dr. Phibes and I was like, more than 60% expecting his wife’s corpse to be in stasis in there, especially when he keeps saying that she just “left” instead of died. And then when I finally got up my nerve to do it… I got faked out, and he was interrupted in the midst of unlocking the door by the doorbell ringing.

 

So there was a brief detour, during which he had to go upstairs and receive a package that turns out to be a weird clunky machine called a “dialogue generator”, which is hilarious in context of an adventure game that has various kinds of dialogues coded into it. But there’s no time to make fun of it, because he finally went into the lab, and EVEN WHEN I KNOW THESE THINGS ARE COMING I’M NEVER PREPARED

DAVID STYLES STOP THAT IMMEDIATELY

 

There’s a lot to unpack in this room, I know, but I started with the giant whiteboard in the back, which turned out to be a carefully dated list of all the ghostly manifestations of Laura that Dr. Styles is yet aware of. Some of them are extremely creepy - for example, one night he found her nightgown laid out on the bed, another day he heard the shower running but found that no one was there and the shower was dry, and yet another night her perfume was out on the counter and he could smell it strongly in the air. He’s added this morning’s manifestation in his bed to the list as well as Mrs. Dalton’s mirrored glimpse.

 

This game plays with the usual Phantom dynamics a lot, and we’re starting to see that here. While Dr. Styles is the one wearing the mask and hiding in his basement, terrifying the students at his university, it’s Laura who is appearing in mirrors and is perhaps not real, begging the question of whether he’s being haunted by something supernatural or a real person, just as Christine didn’t know for sure whether she was being visited by an angel, a ghost, or a living man.

 

Dr. Styles’ real research subjects have been foreshadowed a lot, but now that we’re in his workshop, we can see the details: he’s trying to figure out how to encourage and harness psionic energy in people, believing that human beings have unused psychic capacity. His obvious goal is trying to break through to Laura, which explains why he’s so interested in keeping track of how much she’s been able to affect the world of the living.

 

It’s beyond trope what a bad idea this is, but we’re in a Gothic story, so of course he’s going to do it anyway. Doctor, babe, honey. Are you sure you’re getting contacted by Laura’s ghost? Or are you just getting some nasty supernatural thing pretending to be her? Or are you creating a construct by hallucinating in conjunction with psychic powers? DAVID THIS IS SUCH A BAD IDEA.

 

But he doesn’t care, so he’s busy using this package he just got to set up a machine that will allow Laura to talk to him by exerting her ghostly force on it to spell out words, like a more high-tech version of a ouija board. Unfortunately, as the player, I have to help him set it up.

This minigame is a fucking punishment for all the sketchy shit I did when I was playing Sam, I just know it.

 

Once that’s set up, we get the chance to rummage around in his computer, which has a graphical Windows-esque interface that confirms that his work computer is just running specialized bare-bones software. It’s neat that it very much acts like a normal PC interface, making the player use a computer within a computer; it includes notes on his research and several video logs, which start a couple of months after Laura’s death and are exactly as depressing as you think they are. He confirms that his theory is that the psyche is separate from the physical brain, which he uses to convince himself that if he feels Laura’s presence, that must mean her ghost really is there; and therefore, he tries to help her gain strength by putting himself in sensory deprivation and spending all his time visualizing her and his memories of them together, believing that it will help her gain strength and retain her sense of self.

 

So, on the plus side, the tank is for him and does not contain any corpses. On the minus side, he uses it to lie there trying to psychically will his dead wife’s ghost to manifest, so this is… uh, not going well.

 

So the rest of this chapter involves playing as Dr. Styles while he walks around preparing himself to go into a session in the tank, which is another great move for the player. Forcing the player to be involved in his ritualistic attempts to contact his wife is extremely creepy and uncomfortable, and again you get a neat insight into his psychology by outlining exactly what he’s doing that you couldn’t have with Sam perceiving him as an antagonist. It adds a dimension of sympathy and detail while still highlighting how very much this is not a normal or okay situation.

 

He needs something to trigger a sense memory for each of his five senses, and upon taking her perfume from the bathroom, it turns out that each of those sense memories is a full-fledged cut scene (starting with a repeated graphic of synapses suddenly firing in his brain), taking the player - who becomes unable to interact until the cut scene is over - into a similar helpless experience of the memory, even though to us it’s the first time. Through finding each of the other items - Laura’s swimsuit for touch, the photograph of her at the lakefront cottage where they went swimming for sight,, the specific bottle of wine they were drinking that night for taste, and the music album they were listening to for sound (which, hilariously, is a Scarlet Furies album), the player gets to experience the doctor’s entire memory of the night, which was of a happy time when they went swimming the lake together, talked about what he would get her for her upcoming birthday, and made out.

 

So now he’s going to get into this tank to clutch his dead wife’s swimsuit while he drinks wine and listens to her favorite song, but he’s totally fine, y’all.

 

In case things were not yet horrifying enough, we hit another flashback, but this time it’s to the wreck that killed Laura and disfigured the doctor:

Yes, she survived the impact but was trapped in the wreck and burned to death, and he was burned at least in part trying to get her out. Just to make sure this is the maximum amount of tragic horror. (Again, very Gothic lit. Why do some when you can do the most is the motto of this genre.)

 

Laura’s ghost does indeed speak through this scene - or at least, it seems to him as if she does, though we still don’t know what is actually going on with the supernatural. (Was it Laura who attacked the first assistant, and if so, why? And why was she fine with Sam coming in?) She tells him to pay attention to “blue tiles” and also to “check the cars”, which implies that there was some kind of sabotage that actually caused the car crash, but she hasn’t been able to communicate it until now due to however ghost handicaps work in this story.

 

The dialogue machine does seem to confirm that Laura is haunting the area, since it has spelled out I M since the last time we looked at it. Dr. Styles assumes it’s Laura starting to tell him that she’s coming home, which is well beyond highly optimistic, but at least we have something to investigate now instead of just wandering dolefully around the halls. (The fact that the doctor never leaves the house is nice because you never have to go far for clues, but also has a nicely creepy claustrophobic feeling compared to Sam, who wanders all over Oxford - it feels as though he can’t leave the house, which is a nice touch for the Phantom character.)

 

(At this point, you have to question whether or not Dr. Styles, who hasn’t been seen at his job in forever and never leaves his house or communicates with anyone who isn’t there, might be the ghost himself, keeping himself alive with psychic force of will. Too many people in the living world seem to know about him, but it’s a pretty cool alternate theory.)

 

Following up on the clue about the blue tiles, the doctor manages to find a photo from the night that the crash occurred, of himself and Laura photographed at a benefit in front of a blue tiled wall. He can’t figure out what she means, so he scans it into his computer to get a better look, and yes, I cannot believe I am currently scanning a photo into a computer INSIDE of a computer to use fake second-layer Photoshop on it through a game. I do think that’s neat just because of its time capsule effect as technology advances; you just know that in ten years you’re going to have people playing this game and saying “what in the fuck is a flatbed scanner” and we old people will feel indulgent and wise.

 

After highlighting the tiles above the heads of the doctor and his wife in the picture and then futzing around with it until I have thoroughly fucked up all of the contrast and balance, I get this weird image:

I mean, on the one hand, I’m with you, Dr. Styles, in saying what the fuck is THAT thing. But on the other hand, you can make all kinds of weird photo artifacts appear by fucking with image balances and settings, especially on a scanned copy of a film photo, and it’s entirely possible I could make creepy darkness monsters appear in a lot of pictures by doing what you just did.

 

But of course, I’m the player, so I remember the creepy cloud face from the beginning! Aha! The thing in the pictures is very similar, and is not only crouching over and outlining both Dr. Styles and Laura, it’s also casting a shadow over half of his face - the half that he would later wear the mask over.

 

Okay, so definitely some kind of malevolent spirit or demon, and I’d just like to wave my hands at the dude named MEPHISTOPHELES who is casually selling people fake thumbs just down the road. HEY LOOK OVER THERE

 

Nevertheless, he feels like this is definitely Proof of something, so he calls the inspector who handled the case back in 2002, who very conveniently still has the file and remembers all of the details about it. He tells the doctor that the car that hit his had its gas pedal melted and fused to the floor, so apparently the other driver (who also died immediately on impact and is never identified) couldn’t have avoided hitting him if they’d tried. He goes on to say that the rest of that car didn’t burn, so he has no idea how it got hot enough to melt the gas pedal, but he has that “cop in a supernatural drama who just doesn’t know” shrug perfected even over the phone.

 

So what I’m getting out of that is that there’s some sort of PSYCHIC WAR AFOOT

 

It’s the end of a chapter, which always means a cut scene, so the story jumps straight to this evening’s experiment, where everyone is uncomfortable and worried and he doesn’t even know why, as he doesn’t know about the mysterious incident at the track. This time, he has them visualize the school’s pool and think about swimming there, which made me realize that Sam, who doesn’t go to school here and had never seen this pool or the track before, must not be visualizing the same thing as everyone else. That’s weird. Does that affect the experiment? Is that part of what’s causing the off-the-wall effects?

 

Who knows, but actual students at the pool tonight see some sort of living stain zoom around in the water, looking extremely like the one that attacked the original assistant outside Dread Hill House, and then THIS happens.

WELP

Chapter 4:

So now we’re back with Sam, who is as nonplussed as I am when Dr. Styles barges INTO HER ROOM to yell at her. She calls him out on it, at least, and he’s so embarrassed about it he waits in the hall while she gets ready to leave.

 

As usual, he’s busy skulking around his house, so he sends her out to find out about the pool incident, which he’s just heard about, and she’s off to be the most hands-on research assistant ever.

 

I know I keep going on about how great the background art and lighting and reflections are in this game, but they really are. I’d be impressed with them today, let alone a decade ago. (Water physics, on the other hand, have come a long way since 2010, so the pool shows its age.)

 

Sam notes that a statue by the pool looks like one she saw in Copenhagen; it’s almost certainly meant to be a reference to Edvard Eriksen’s famous sculpture The Little Mermaid, which is displayed at the Copenhagen waterfront. (Fun fact: it’s still under copyright until 2029, so this would be an unauthorized copy of it here and Oxford would probably be sued over it unless they paid a licensing fee.)

 

Sam is as intense about her investigations as usual, and she tracks down the student who was swimming here when she can’t find any physical evidence in the pool. The poor traumatized girl thinks it looked like some invisible yet humanoid shape swam a lap in the water before it was stained, and she claims to have felt its presence and known indisputably that it was evil. Sam has another moment of being fundamentally decent, when she pauses for a minute after talking to the girl to encourage her not to drop out of college out of fear of it as she was planning to, telling her she has to take the opportunity to attend that not everyone gets. (Obviously, she’s referring to herself, but she seems genuinely concerned for the girl, too.)

 

Since Sam doesn’t believe in the supernatural, she isn’t asking whether the students’ thoughts were creating a psychic impression or if the ghost of Laura went swimming (remember, Dr. Styles was thinking about swimming with her in the lake earlier that day) or if some sort of photographable cloud demon was making the place feel evil. No, she thinks someone’s running a Great Game, of course - and I love her, because she’s not impressed. She’s pissed. She’s angry that it’s hurting people, including Dr. Styles and the swimming girl, and she’s beginning to show definite signs of developing a conscience about magic, her own and others’.

 

And being Sam, she’s just going to do something about it, so she hatches a plan to catch the prankster at their next attempt by using flash traps, which is audacious and amazing and also Sam, sweetheart, you are a lady alone in a foreign country, please think about your safety occasionally. She wishes she had a camera to catch the person, too, but sadly the only one I know of is currently in Dr. Styles’ private lab where he can use it to record his super weird video diary entries.

 

Since she thinks this is a magic trick extravaganza, it’s a logical next step for Sam to go talk to the next person who could tell her more about it… Mephistopheles, of course. No one ever listens to my instincts. He suggests to her that it has to be one of the students involved in the experiment running it, since otherwise it would be hard to have all the knowledge about what’s supposed to be happening, so she takes that idea and runs with it, heading out to investigate everyone. (She also refers to Styles as “a chump for anything supernatural”, which was hilarious. She’s got your number, bro.)

 

As always seems to happen (HMM) when she goes to see Mephistopheles, though, Sam is distracted by more Daedalus Club riddling. This time, she’s led off to a shop dedicated to Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, but not before frigging Harvey shows up outside the Black Wand to sexually harass Sam some more. I really hate that dude. He claims to just be shooting footage for his film and not to be stalking her, but he also won’t answer her when she asks him if he’s following her, so you’re on NOTICE, Harvey.

 

The Alice shop is great, though

It’s also another real place! Alice’s Shop is a real store in Oxford, dedicated the Alice in Wonderland memorabilia and merchandise and to the celebration of the Alice books and their author, Lewis Carroll, who lived in Oxford near the college for most of his life. The shop was the basis for the Old Sheep Shop, which Alice visits in Through the Looking Glass, and supposedly the real-life shop was often visited by the real Alice upon whom the books were based to buy candy while her father, the dean of Christ Church College (where we were just digging around in the flowerbeds and nave), was at work nearby. Once again, the art is spot-on and someone put in a lot of research and love when it comes to Oxford and its environs in this game.

 

After solving some Alice-themed puzzles, Sam then gets to go to the Oxford museum, and this game is mostly just making me very jealous that she gets to go to all these amazing old places with bus change. The next puzzle - which involved STEALING from the MUSEUM, what are you doing, SAM - ended with a ticket to Hogwarts, the school from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, which is hilarious but also makes perfect sense when you remember that parts of the movies were filmed at Christ Church, most notably the famous Hogwarts dining hall.

 

So off to said dining hall we tried to go, only for Sam to be distracted by running into Angela in the cathedral. She’s sitting alone, making paper figures of fairies, and there’s a sudden unexpected onslaught of emotion as she gives one of them to Sam and it honestly and truly floors her. It obviously doesn’t mean much to Angela, but Sam says that no one ever gives her things - something we know, since she tends to just scrap and scrape and take what she needs - and which overwhelms her with feelings. And me. I am also overwhelmed. I love you, Angela, and I love your character development, Sam.

 

Sam questions her about making fairies in the cathedral, but she’s adamant that they’re fairies rather than angels, and is utterly unconcerned by Sam’s remark that that’s “not very Church of England.” Well, Angela could not be more Scottish, Sam. If she’s anything, it’s probably Presbyterian.

 

The contrast between her, with her rock-solid belief in the supernatural and the fairies and old powers of her homeland, and Sam, who believes there’s no such thing as the supernatural in any dimension and is always looking for the man behind the curtain, really gives us a nice microcosm of the game’s overall questions about illusion, reality, and the supernatural. 

 

And she has a point, actually; she insists that the stained glass angel in the cathedral is a fairy rather than an angel, which sounds ridiculous in this bastion of the Church, but the guide earlier made a point of telling Sam proudly that it was one of the only burning-heart angels in Christian art. But angels are never depicted with the Sacred Heart, the burning and pierced heart that symbolizes Christ’s love for humanity through his sacrificial death, in Christian art, since as messengers of God they don’t have anything to do with the concept. The vast majority of Sacred Hearts appear on images of Christ, and the rest are usually either shown with his mother Mary or occasionally with saints who are considered to make similar sacrifices or embody Christ’s sacrifice in their own devotion.

 

And as far as I can tell, Christ Church does have angels depicted in the cathedral’s stained glass, but none of them are shown with the Sacred Heart. So Angela is right, even though it is there in the game. That’s weird, and it certainly lends some weight to her firm claim that the figure is not an angel. It’s a moment in which she almost seems to know something about the things Sam has so far been interested in alone - the secret riddles of the Daedalus Club, or some folkloric magic that no one else believes in.

 

Sam tries to feel out whether or not she’s the plant in the group who is running the Great Game, but doesn’t get very far; all she finds out is that Angela has a crush on Dr. Styles, who she says she saw on the street once a little after his accident, and she agreed to the experiment in part because she never believed the rumors about him being evil and always thought he looked handsome but sad.

 

Angela being blonde, superstitious about fairies and other magical beings, and being a wide-eyed innocent who has a bit of a crush on Dr. Styles all make her seem sort of like she might take over a new Christine role, except that she has nothing in particular to offer to Styles in his scientific domain, and he doesn’t seem to even notice that she exists. Remember this for later.


Sam goes back to investigating Dr. Linkweller, the skeptical critic in the neuro department (after looking at a phone list that includes a “Dr. Lasarus” - hilarious, but also a nice reference to the Lazarus imagery in the original novel by Leroux, particularly the opera The Resurrection of Lazarus that he mentions being performed). I’m glad she agrees with me in asking how the hell he got such a choice office, because LOOK at it:

I would literally maim someone to have that office. I wouldn’t even be sorry.

 

Sadly, Sam only gets to look around for a second while she plants a bug in Linkweller’s phone, so she’ll be able to listen in later and find out if he’s the one targeting Styles. She does find out that Malik is Linkweller’s research assistant, which he neglected to mention and which shoots him up to the top of the suspicion list, but I can’t focus on anything except the fact that apparently the whole neuro department IS just full of dramatic gothic assholes, since this office has both a display case full of bones and a painting of a bunch of doctors doing a live dissection on its wall. These people have committed to an aesthetic en masse.

 

SIGH. Why must EVERYONE sexually harass Sam? Do I not live through that enough in real life? Yes, she’s trying to get the proctor to illegally let her into Charles’ room to snoop, which is unethical, but nothing excuses this kind of behavior and literally no matter what dialogue option I choose, he’s gross to her. I want her to kick him in the nuts. (Although I laughed a lot when she said she was delivering cookies, he said he didn’t see any, and she said brilliantly, “They’re REALLY small.”)

 

I’ll just have to be mildly comforted by her calling him a pig to his face and then humiliating him at cards. The card game is one of two magic tricks in the game that the player has to actually remember how to perform themselves without the in-game book open in front of them, and I did not enjoy those. They weren’t all that difficult, but they were just stressful and aggravating enough to make me wish they’d just stuck with the magic trick interface.

 

We’ve arrived in Charles’ room! He’s an adorable baby!

Charles, it turns out, is a grade-A nerd, from the X-Files and samurai posters to the Space Invaders alien on the carpet and bedside table to the statues and action figures on his shelves to his enthusiastic conversation with Sam earlier about the works of Homer. He’s darling and I would like him to also stop being harassed, HELENA.

 

Each of the investigations of the other students has included something to make them look suspicious and possibly like they could be the culprit - Harvey’s stalking, Angela’s crush, and now we discover that Charles, who claimed he’d never heard of Dr. Styles, has an issue of Scientific American on his desk with Styles on the cover. It’s a pretty classic mystery move, to add a few red herrings to keep the actual culprit from being too clear too soon.

 

But we could all have done without the obnoxious subplot about Sam finding a photograph of a fat blonde boy with Charles’ mother and tiresomely going off on a trail of suspicions about “who could this be he looks NOTHING like CHARLES who is THIN and HOT”. It’s not a good red herring, because literally everyone knows that weight loss exists, and the boy in the photograph does look like Charles pretty clearly to the player, and the fatphobic obnoxiousness of none of the other characters being able to recognize him or believe their hot hot friend was once heavy is neither funny nor clever. And it drags on for much, much too long.


Sam now sneaks into Harvey’s room, where he has movie posters up for F.W. Murnau’s famous 1922 horror movie Nosferatu, Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 pop hit Pulp Fiction, and “A Razor Head” which is pretty obviously supposed to be David Lynch’s 1977 cult fantasy Eraserhead - in other words, he’s a painfully cliched first-year film student. And if somehow you were not tired enough of Harvey yet, Sam finds a new screenplay on his desk to really solidify it.

Here’s the text:

 

The story’s about a mysterious, disfigured scientist who’s performing unethical experiments on a helpless group of students.

 

Harry Kind, lured into joining this experiment by the freaky, dark-haired Jimmie, soon discovers that she has nefarious ties to the doctor.

 

After many tricks and traps, he finds himself caught with the other student and struggles to learn the truth, as well as making his way out of the labs of terror.

 

As a true hero, he will unravel the mysteries surrounding the experiments and save the other students. Boys will admire him, and girls will love him.

 

I mean, I hate Harvey so much, but I get the impression that I’m supposed to, given that there’s no way this isn’t a self-aware parody of an obnoxious student filmmaker.

 

Sam adds that to her list of reasons to murder the kid - whether or not he’s intentionally harassing Styles for his movie or just being the creepiest, I think we can all agree he deserves it - and she’s off to snoop in Helena’s room now to complete the collection of clues that probably won’t get her anywhere. Helena has a fashion plate of a room, but I kind of love it.

It’s nice that each student’s room had a good amount of art direction put into it; they all visually reinforce and add detail to each student’s personality and interests, which helps a lot since they’re the part of this largeish cast that doesn’t get a lot of individual screen time.

 

Sam, come on, you didn’t expect to find books in Helena’s room? How do you think she got into college? Do you think she just rolled up to Oxford like “Hello, I have great hair, admit me”? I am against this obvious internalized misogyny.

 

And speaking of Helena being smart, she’s the only one of the students to catch Sam red-handed under her bed, trying to get into a locked box. And she proves those street smarts are no joke by trading a promise not to out Sam’s activities in exchange for sharing the dirt with her. Is it the most suspicious? Yes, but do I love her? Also yes.

 

At least she doesn’t waste time telling Sam that of course the picture of the fat boy is Charles, although apparently she can’t do it without saying nasty things about how much less attractive he was when he was fat and how he probably is a virgin if he looked like this recently, which she’s disgustingly excited by. Helena, I want to like you, but I can’t when you act like such a predatory dick.

 

Having gotten caught, Sam goes back to Dread Hill House to report on her findings to the doctor, and I legit got the shock of my life when she walked in the front door and there was a blonde woman walking up the stairs to vanish into the upper floor. VANISHED COMPLETELY. Sam couldn’t find her afterward and no one else ever saw her. I mean it’s not like “this house is hella haunted” hasn’t been telegraphed but EXCUSE ME.

 

Sam has no time to deal with that - and doesn’t really worry about it, because she doesn’t know Dr. Styles has a bizarre fixation on the idea of being haunted by his dead wife and assumes it’s just some person visiting him - because Styles is yelling at her about Houdini, the rabbit, having gotten loose and into his lab somehow. Houdini mysteriously escaping cages all the time is a running joke in this game, which of course is a further professional magic joke, since he’s named after the magician most famous for escaping bonds and cages seemingly miraculously.

 

Mrs. Dalton absolutely does not appreciate Sam mentioning the blonde woman in the white dress on the stairs and also yells at Sam, and unfortunately Sam continues to be a Problematic Fave and blames menopause for her attitude, unaware of Mrs. Dalton’s attempts to keep her employer from fixating on the idea of Laura’s ghost. Sam continues to grow as a person throughout this game, but she has a very real dimension of still being an ass about some things, and you can see she might get there but will probably need a while to make it.

 

I do really love it when Sam and Dr. Styles get into fights, though, because she is not even slightly awed by him and refuses to ever let him talk down to her, and when he yells at her for her “rationalist bias” in her investigations, she says, you know what, asshole? Your eyes and ears work just fine, you could always leave the house and do it if you don’t like her reports. Her report that the other students are getting scared and might not come back also results in him bellowing about how that’s her job, so sigh, back off to the student commons we go.

 

After Sam works on them for a while, doing her damndest to manipulate them into staying in the experiment in spite of their misgivings, they all agree to vote on whether they’ll continue, committing to all doing whatever the vote decides. Sam, ever opportunistic, gets them to pull the answer out of a hat so that she can rig the game, although even she seems to know at this point that she’s on thin ice as far as keeping them involved for the duration of the whole experiment goes.

In spite of Sam’s duplicity, the Lambs’ Club, including her, really is adorable as a group. They barely know each other and got into this as strangers, but they still decide to stick together and support each other, and there’s a real sense of friendship and support.

Chapter 5:

Our opening cut scene for this shower is the creepiest one yet. Dr. Styles is in the shower - the only time in the entire game we’ll see him without his mask on in the present day, although the art intentionally prevents us from getting a good look at him. After all my theorizing about the possibility that he might not actually have a physical injury or scarring, the close-ups seem to suggest that there is injury around his eye.

 

Then it’s time to be terrified, as someone unseen comes into the bathroom and runs hands down the outside of the shower, leaving trails on the steamed-up glass, only the impression of an indistinct face behind the doctor where he can’t see it. If that wasn’t terrifying enough, when he soaps up his front, a hand suddenly appears and leaves a mark in the soap suds.

 

Dr. Styles freaks out - AS WOULD WE ALL I THINK - but he’s also so sad as he desperately calls out for his wife, wondering if that’s her ghost, and all the rest of us just have to watch this terror from the outside, waiting for the horrifying moment that we suspect is coming in which we discover that NO, IT IS NOT. But that moment does not come, and all we do get is a panicked Styles rushing to the mirror - again, so sad, because he’s hoping to see Laura and Mrs. Dalton told him she saw her in the mirror - and we finally get a confirmation that he does in fact have a huge amount of scarring - not only his face but his shoulder and chest on the same side, briefly glimpsed in the mirror.

 

And now we’re back to playing him for this chapter, and I don’t know about all of you but my nerves were already shot and he hasn’t even done anything yet.

 

I’d like to mention that, very much like the Phantom story, Styles has a full-length, ornate mirror on the wall in his bedroom. Clicking on it allows him to walk over to it and get a close-up of himself looking into it, and the shot is framed in such a way as to leave open a blank space over his shoulder, every time making the player wonder if this will be the time that Laura does appear in the mirror. But she never does, which is somehow one of the most heartbreaking decisions of the game.

 

The first thing to discover is that Laura’s wedding dress is now missing from the closet. Like Sam, I just have to say if this is someone being an asshole for whatever purposes of pranking or revenge or Great Gameage, I am with her on being ready to punch someone in the face over destroying this poor guy’s life and memories of his dead wife. “Your science is bad” is nowhere near a good enough reason for this.

 

But it might in fact be Laura, whom Sam glimpsed on the stairs - down in the basement, the communicator machine now says I-M-P-O, two more letters than last time. Styles is optimistic that this spells “I’m po--”, some message not yet complete, but I feel like it’s more likely she’s trying to tell him “Impossible”, because what does he even think this poor dead woman is going to be able to do here?

 

Speaking of the communication machine, the doctor who invented it and sent it over has apparently been a correspondent of Dr. Styles’ for some time, although he hasn’t seen him since the accident. It makes sense that he’d have fellow paranormal phenomena scientists to trade theories and information with, and for the first time he leaves the house to go and speak to the man. Considering that whatever he’s experimenting on is now molesting him in the shower, I would also be looking for professional help to handle it.

For the first time ever, it seems, Dr. Styles is laying out all of his research and conclusions to this guy, which is of course for purposes of infodumping for the player but also represents some character development on his part, too; this is the first intentional outreach to someone for professional or social purposes he’s really had since the accident, and it’s a big deal that he’s even out of the house.

 

The consulting doctor’s origins are not delved into, by the way, but he has an accent that sounds Indian or Pakistani to me and there’s a painting of the Hindu goddess Durga riding her lion over his fireplace, so he would seem to have some ties to that part of the world. This is probably because paranormal stories love to use the mysterious East as a trope - magical Tibetan monks, evil Japanese demons, or wise Indian philosophical masters, and this guy probably falls into the last category. It’s a lazy writing device held over from colonialism that equates being from Asia to being vaguely magical, and it’s unfortunate but not surprising here, since it’s so common in the genre. (Even Leroux’s novel does the same thing, with the character of the Persian and his knowledge and Erik’s powers being credited as coming from training in India and Persia.)

 

But then, it’s nice to see a character of color in a game where Malik has been our only other non-white character, and he’s a respected expert being sought for information that no one else has, so at least there are upsides.

 

It’s a neat touch to have Dr. Styles ask him not to light a fire when he gets chilly; presumably, he still has some trauma response to fires from the accident.

 

According to styles, he isn’t sure if Laura is trying to tell him something about the accident or if she’s just stuck fixating on it because it killed her, and since the visions have involved heat - fire, steam - he discusses the idea of psychic powers generating heat. It was all fun and games until they started slinging around a case of an “east African shaman” who naturally had no name or cultural affiliation and was just an example of a random person from an Exotic Location who had Strange Powers, in this case pyrokinesis. I guess it could have been worse, but this is not a good trope to carry forward from the original works in this genre.

 

Apparently, Styles’ official theory is that brains create space and time by organizing reality via their perceptions; and therefore, being able to reorganize the brain to a different time or place could theoretically put a person in the past or present and thus transcend petty things like time and death. The other doctor points out that this is not a coherent theory and Styles ignores him. He then goes on to describe all the ghostly incidents, and FINALLY someone points out what I’ve been saying all along, because the doctor says that those don’t sound like examples of his wife trying to reach him, but rather a potpurri of things including haunting, psychic powers, and maybe physical intervention from someone. Styles tells him to shut up and use Occam’s Razor.

 

The doctor refers to ghosts here as “earthbound spirits”. Is that... a Ghost Whisperer reference?

 

The best thing about all this is that when Dr. Styles explains he thinks he can get his wife back… the doctor straight up calls him out on what a bad and impractical idea that is, pointing out that it doesn’t make any sense to try to bring a ghost back to life, and even if her consciousness is still hanging around, how would she come back, and what body would she live in, and if she hasn’t succeeded now, years later, why does he think she can? He also points out that Styles might focus on helping Laura move on instead of holding onto her, for her own good, which pisses him off into leaving.

 

Styles is being a pain in the ass about it, but honestly, because Laura can’t communicate or stand up for herself, he’s bringing up a really important point. Does she want to come back? Does she think it’s possible? Is she haunting her husband because she wants to or because his incessant visualizing exercises force her to, and if not, what would she want instead? What does Laura actually think about all this?

 

We don’t know, and the fact that her husband, who is absolutely convinced that she really is present and haunting the house, doesn’t really think about it is pretty damning.

For reasons which escape me until he starts angsting about them later, Dr. Styles now goes off to a park, where I’m dying laughing when a small child points at him and exclaims, “Look, Mummy, it’s a monster!” Seriously, Dr. Styles’ injury is so well camouflaged we’re having legitimate difficulty figuring out if he even has one, but you want me to think that a random child, seeing a dude wearing a white mask, says not, “Hey, a clown!” or “That guy’s weird,” like most human children, but calls him a monster? Dr. Styles, you are not Quasimodo. You look like a dapper man in fashionable fall clothes wearing a Halloween mask. The children are not running screaming.

 

As usual, it’s neat to walk around with him, though, because the player gets to see parts of his previous life but only in memories; it’s a nice narrative device, since the player really only gets to experience the same flashbacks he himself does, both defining how they see his past and revealing it more organically than a full traditional flashback would.

 

He finds a tree on which he carved his and Laura’s initials, which triggers a memory of making out with her. It’s very similar to his previous flashbacks, which honestly begs the question: are these the only memories of Laura he has? Where are the memories of their arguments and fights, the times they disagreed about something, the times they couldn’t make up their minds? More importantly, if he’s trying to psychically help her hold onto her shape and give her strength, what’s helping the part of her personality that wasn’t just being the doctor’s romantic partner? How is Laura - the real, full Laura - supposed to come back if he only remembers the parts he liked the most?

 

The question of what he might get back if he only pulls on part of Laura is incredibly creepy, and the game never addresses it, even once. I’m offended on Laura’s behalf.


Of course, because this game pushes us feeling sympathetic toward Dr. Styles to an almost caricatured degree, the child who was so afraid of him is a plot point and has run off with the only gardenia in this entire garden that he can use for his next round of meditating deeply on his wife, so he starts getting very sketchy about bothering a strangers’ child. Obviously, I’m playing him so I know his intent is just to get the flower and go home so he can huff it and be sad about his lost spouse, but I feel like other adults should be intervening here nonetheless.

The scene in which he tries to convince the girl to trust him plays a little bit like a traditional unmasking scene in a Phantom story adaptation, with him explaining to her that it’s a sort of bandage and inviting her to hesitantly touch it to see for herself. She doesn’t actually unmask him, though, which is hilarious considering she was the one calling him a monster a minute ago. Nothing about this child makes sense except for the fact that she still won’t give him her flower.

 

I think she may actually be intended to be part of a Frankenstein parallel here - the 1931 film adaptation is famous for its controversial and painful scene in which a little girl befriends the monster only to be accidentally killed by him, and the image of her offering him a flower is an iconic one. We’ve had multiple allusions to Frankenstein in this game along with a lot of other Gothic lit (although of course the scene with the girl is from the movie only, not Shelley’s original novel).

 

Hilariously, when David thinks morosely, “Sorry, Laura, I can’t get the flower,” something unseen hits him in the head with an apple. I like to think Laura has a lot of opinions on what’s going on. She should honestly be pelting him and everyone else with apples. He takes it as a reminder that she taught him to juggle, however (which really begs the question of whether it’s LAURA who’s running the Great Game around here - is she even really dead? Did you people check?), and he manages to impress the kid enough to get the flower from her. Her mother shows up in time to whisk her away with a very reasonably distrustful look for the strange man trying to cajole her into something, which is honestly extremely fair.

 

The smell from the gardenia gives us another quick cut scene memory of Laura, being sexy in the sunset as she luxuriates in a boat, and again I’m just starting to get… so uncomfortable about this? These are obviously memories of Laura he treasures, in which she was beautiful and carefree and they were engaged in romantic and sexual bliss, and I get that. But they are all so clearly constructed by someone else looking at Laura, and they’re all moments when who Laura is isn’t even in play. These are moments when he is experiencing Laura - the way she looked, the taste of ice cream in her mouth when he kissed her - and the pleasure he gets from her attention and beauty, but Laura herself is doing nothing. She’s just existing as an object for him to have feelings about.

 

And okay, maybe their relationship wasn’t like that at all, and these are just cherry-picked memories of certain moments, but if the goal is to help Laura reconstruct and hold onto her very existence and psyche… what are we ending up with here? What are Laura’s favorite memories? What are the things that she would think are most core to her being and personality - surely not “looks sexy in the sunlight”, right? What were the things that she felt most strongly about herself, and how could we ever expect an outside party, even one as intimate as her husband, to be able to even conceive of them, much less carry on thinking them for her?

 

He keeps saying that he wants to reconstruct memories of her favorite places, but what he’s really making are his own memories of her in places she told him she loved - his memories, his feelings, his experiences, not hers. He literally can’t remember Laura without the filter of his own consciousness. Laura is in these memories, but they are not memories of Laura.

 

And if that’s the case, what is he calling up, with his endless sessions in the tank, bending all his nascent psychic energy to trying to make this memory of his real? He can’t possibly know enough about the real Laura - no one could - to recreate her or hold onto her, so is he just creating a Laura-shaped entity that is only as real as his memories? Is Laura’s ghost here at all, and if so, does she struggle to hold onto who she was, with all her husband’s energy going into only hammering on the parts of her that were for him?

 

What I’m saying is that this is a very scary psychological horror story in a lot of ways this game isn’t engaging with, and that makes me very sad.

 

In much more hilarious news, they reuse the same animation for him slowly bringing the gardenia to his face as they do for him slowly bringing the orange ice cream he uses for his taste memory to his face. It is six hundred times funnier to watch a man slowly raise an orange popsicle to his face with an expression of deepest pained tragedy.

 

Once Styles has successfully convinced an old accordion player to play the same song he and Laura heard the last time they were here, he rents a boat, lies down in the bottom of it, and drifts sadly off into the lake. This is a man whose angstiness knows no bounds. And as he lies there, thinking really hard thoughts about his dead wife...

Oh, dear god, there she is. She gives him a message - a student and the date October 21st - and that’s all before he wakes back up. I think it’s meant to be ambiguous whether or not he fell asleep and dreamed that and whether or not the message is actually from Laura, but it seems pretty clear that the game would like us to believe that it is.

 

Obviously, now Styles has to rack his brains trying to remember exactly what happened on October 21st, 2002, which I would definitely fail at so I feel his struggle. (Although it never occurs to him that maybe she meant October 21st THIS year, or any other one. Styles, I know she’s dead, but if you think she’s been haunting you the whole time, she has multiple years to choose from!) He has trauma-induced memory loss of several days surrounding the accident, but his appointment book says he had dinner with Dr. Helborn and his wife, so at least he has somewhere to start.

 

And hey, time to meet Dr. Helborn, or Simon as his old friend more easily calls him. The visual contrast between his office and David’s dungeon workspaces is stunning and very intentional, highlighting not only that Simon is much less tormented than his former research partner but also much less inclined to poke around with the supernatural.

The sign at the top of the room is not especially subtle, is it?

Yes, it’s time for some regressive memory hypnosis therapy to try to get back those lost memories (after the X-Files shoutout in Charles’ room, I’m not prepared to say it has nothing to do with a certain Spooky agent who frigging loves hypnotic memory recovery). Styles’ submission to the treatment says he feels like he’s getting close to succeeding - and that he’s desperate, given the recent events and Laura’s warnings, which becomes especially clear when Simon remarks that he’d have done this sooner but Styles kept pushing him away when he reached out after the accident.

 

Naturally, we get some visuals of the recovered memories, but they’re just dark grey snow, like a TV screen with bad reception. It’s a really neat visual image to have, showing how incomplete and vague the memories are even with Simon’s help, and the voices are similarly indistinct. Every time Styles remembers something new, the vague scene flickers into view like he just barely caught the edge of a station before sputtering out again soon after.

 

He vaguely remembers that the accident was the day after Linkweller’s article was published, so he was in a bad mood about life, and that a student had mocked him about the supernatural during his lecture, he assumes because Linkweller planted them there. It’s worth noting that the “plant in the audience” is a time-honored magician’s strategy to make sure a “volunteer” among the common people pops up and does exactly the right thing at the right time, and that’s not the first parallel to magician conventions in Styles’ history, even though he isn’t the magician - hiring Sam and frequently referring to her as his assistant also echoes the tradition of a lovely (usually female) assistant to help the magician with their tricks and be sawed in half or vanished as needed.

 

Fun though the bad-reception-TV visual conceit is, this indistinct and menacing black shape he remembers is not fun for anyone.

It looks hideously similar to the indistinct scary shape that attacked the first assistant and appeared in the swimming pool, doesn’t it? It’s slightly more humanoid, but only barely.

 

The shape is apparently a female student who came to him for help, claiming she had psychic powers she couldn’t control. He blew her off because, already pissed off at Linkweller’s antics, he assumed she was here to make fun of him as well.

 

So the plot is finally coming together, since it now seems pretty clear that this woman is probably the one who caused the crash that killed Laura and is harassing him and his experiments now, and as his less addled-with-grief friend said, Laura is completely separate from the psychic phenomena and is just trying to warn him.

 

Wouldn’t it be a kick in the head if Sam was the student all those years ago, and he just doesn’t remember her? That would explain why she seems to have completely not cared about the other student’s attack and breezily taken her place without ever thinking of it again, certainly. Of course, we’ve been in Sam’s head, so unless she’s acting for the omniscient third-person camera, we know better, but it’s still a fun theory.

 

Man, Styles’ hair length changes more than anything else in this entire game. It’s long in the solo art, it’s short on his moving model, it’s even LONGER in the cut scenes, it’s even SHORTER on his dialogue model… too fabulous to be confined, I guess.

 

Since he can’t remember who the student was and can’t do much about it, Styles goes back to the lab to pore through the data from the experiments, which yields the revelation that right when the bizarre incidents occurred, all six students’ brain activity spiked way beyond the normal level. He has no clue what that means and has never seen it before, but like all responsible scientists he figures the thing to do is poke the exploding thing to see if it explodes again and tries the experiment again tonight.

 

...except Sam is missing, because as she told us before, she’s lying in wait in the gym at the school to catch the saboteur red-handed. Unfortunately for her, a person in a balaclava does not sneak into the room, and even though she springs her trap, she can’t see anyone around before heavy weights are just FLYING THROUGH THE AIR and she barely manages to get pictures of the incident before one of them fucking creams her.

OW.  Stop that, you leave my problematic baby girl who tries her best alone!

 

Once the dust settles, she discovers that the room is still locked and no one has come in, and that all the weights have been neatly stacked in a pyramid in the middle of the room. She tries to put them all back before anyone can see them, I assume to avoid more panic in the Lambs’ Club since she’s the only witness this time, but unfortunately for her, Styles now knows to rush over and check, so he gets there in time to see it and she only barely manages to dive out of the way and hide in the locker room.

Chapter 6:

Look, Styles, when an adorable fluffy bun crawls into your bed in the morning to comfort you from your constant angsty grief nightmares, you should appreciate that it’s trying to make you feel better. You don’t need to yell at Sam for having a thoughtful rabbit friend.

 

We’re back to playing Sam, just in time for Styles to start reaming her out for skipping out on the experiment. Fortunately, the fact that she has a GIANT HEAD INJURY stops him before he can get too far, and he gets all doctory about it instead, which is pretty cute. Weirdly enough, she lies and tells him that she just fell by accident, which is why she didn’t show up for the experiment. She doesn’t explain, really, even to the player, why she did this; so he wouldn’t know she skipped on purpose, even though she was trying to find out what was going on? Because she thinks maybe he’s involved? It’s super weird. It feels like one of those moments when the character is doing something for no reason other than because it helps the plot.

 

Downstairs, who of all people should come out of Styles’ locked private lab but Simon, who Sam has never met but is understandably instantly suspicious of. The ensuing conversation is creepy as shit, with Mrs. Dalton clearly upset and regretful that she let him talk her into letting him in and him being creepy about refusing to explain why he’s here.

 

It’s probably not surprising anyone that Sam is absolutely not having his shit, so he tries to bury her in psychiatric theory.

I think I kind of had some feelings about this idea that identifying closely with loved ones achieves a similar feeling to grieving over the loss of yourself. I don’t know anything about psychology, but it’s an evocative idea for sure. It also goes very well with both the game’s concept of minds being like psychic impressions that hold onto each other, and my many disgruntled theories about how Styles is really focusing on himself even when he thinks he’s focusing on Laura.

 

Simon clearly stole some papers out of Styles’ office, and when he refuses to give them back or tell Sam what they are even after she confronts him… well, she’s Sam, so she just pickpockets them off him before he leaves. I really love her. They turn out to be handwritten copies he’s made of the paranormal incidents Styles has been writing on the whiteboard. Sam, who still doesn’t believe in supernatural bullshit, is appalled to think that people have pranked this poor guy so hard he honestly believes his dead wife is communicating with him. Sadly, she does not race up the stairs and brain Simon with anything, but I’m pretty sure she wants to.

 

(Incidentally, Simon suggested that Styles might be faithfully recording hallucinations that he’s having from stress or lack of sleep. It makes sense that a psychologist would think of that, just like it makes sense that Sam as a magician would think it’s a trick and Styles as a psychic researcher would think it’s a real ghost.)

 

In case I wasn’t pissed off enough at the male characters in this game yet, Sam’s bug on Linkweller’s phone reveals that he’s super fucking gross and is having an affair with a student behind his wife’s back, strongly implied that he’s promising her good grades in exchange for sexual favors. The game really annoyingly goes out of its way to try to make the girl sound obnoxious, because obviously it’s important that she be the one vilified when a guy with power over her puts pressure on her future to force her to sleep with him. I’m not particularly jazzed about Sam’s decision to blackmail him, either - yeah, I mean, I’m glad he’s having a bad day, but that’s not going to help any other students he decides to sexually harass in the future. Turn the fucker in, Sam!

 

Anyway, Sam is STILL determinedly on the no-supernatural-explanation detective path, so she investigates some more and figures out that the old folly tower behind Dread Hill House has windows that overlook Styles’ room. When she goes to check it out, the inside looks like this:

In case I had the same instincts as a tiny dog raised exclusively to think it’s a human baby, the music instantly gets approximately three thousand times more ominous and I absolutely do NOT want to climb to the top of this tower and suddenly start starring in The Woman in Black.

 

But someone has definitely been here, because Sam can see a path in the dust on the stairs, so UP WE GO IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH.

I am definitely going to die up here. Laura’s ghost is going to eat me and I’m going to have to haunt the shitty motorcycle in the garage as the focal point where everything went wrong.

 

Actually, what happens instead is that Sam discovers that there’s a handprint on the glass, showing that someone has most definitely been looking right into Styles’ bedroom from up here. She is royally pissed about it, and it’s a solid piece of evidence for her belief that it must be a real, solid human being targeting him - although then again, Styles seems to think that Laura’s ghost can produce physical effects and also I already invoked The Woman in Black, which has a very famous ghostly window handprint in it.

 

In much more adorable news, Sam discovers that her motorcycle has been repaired and is very touched that Styles would do such a thing for her. We know from Styles’ parts of the game that he mostly did it to make sure he can get rid of her, but I wouldn’t burst her bubble even if I could reach across the game reality barrier.

 

Sam tries to enlist Mrs. Dalton to help her figure out who’s targeting Styles, but the housekeeper doesn’t believe anyone is; she seems sure it’s actually just that he’s psychologically unstable from grief and that the problem shouldn’t be made worse. It’s especially notable that when Sam says that Styles must have been in a lot of pain after the accident due to all the burns, Mrs. Dalton replies with, “There, you don’t know anything about it!” which again implies that he wasn’t burned and that his supposed scars are all in his head. Of course, we SAW the scars in the shower cut scene, but that was also from his perspective, so it’s possible that he hallucinated them or was delusional about his own reflection.

 

Since the handprint on the window was very small, Sam assumes it must belong to a woman and begins suspecting Helena, who is the only person she wasn’t really able to investigate. She still steps up investigating the guys, too, and she’s getting uncharacteristically direct and even bullying about it. Her reign of terror includes blackmailing Linkweller into telling her everything he knows (which isn’t much), finding out that Malik was actually not working for Linkweller and didn’t even tell him he was participating in the experiment, and threatening to destroy Harvey’s final paper hours before it’s due if he doesn’t confess (he doesn’t and she eventually gives it back).

 

An interesting interlude in there has a frustrated Harvey yelling at Sam, telling her that it doesn’t need to be her versus the rest of the Lambs’ Club and that they all want to like her. Sam’s automatic response to lash out at him is another really good example of the defensiveness that she’s built up as a self-sufficient child of the foster system - she can’t really conceive of that kind of intimacy and trust with strangers, and her conviction that she can’t have friends (or that friends isn’t really even a real concept) is the exact thing stopping her from making any. Poor Sam.

 

It’s been obvious that Sam’s precarious house of lies could only hold up for so long, but it’s somehow still a surprise to see her start having trouble. In this case, the guard at the dorms cards her and looks a little too closely at her forged ID, and it’s pretty clear she can’t pull this off for much longer.

 

...and no sooner did I have that thought than the game made a point of showing us, even though Sam didn’t see it, that Angela came along and spoke to the guard after Sam left. Ruh-roh, Shaggy. (I guess it’s possible she’s helping Sam’s cover, but she’d have to know Sam HAD a cover for that to work, so this isn’t promising.)

 

The investigation in Helena’s room takes an unexpected and definitely not encouraging turn.

Once again, the revelation that Helena has a drug problem isn’t super surprising - she’s very about instant gratification, is rich and bored and looking for things to distract her, and seems like she has both an addictive personality and problems thinking about consequences - but the most interesting part is Sam’s reaction. She sounds genuinely sad about it and worried for Helena, even as she tries to maintain her conviction that this isn’t her problem - right after the incident with Harvey, it’s clearer than ever that Sam may not understand or believe in friendship, but she’s still feeling a connection to the rest of the Lambs’ Club that she can’t just shrug off.

 

More concerning to the plot is the fact that Sam also finds a program for a show that took place in London in 2002, meaning that Helena was actually within driving distance of Oxford when the accident happened.

 

The plot gets kind of crossed here, though. Sam thinks this is suspicious, and it IS - but only because, as the player, we know that a female student with a reason to hate Styles was in Oxford just before the accident and that Laura warned him about her. The problem is that we know that because we played through Styles’ part of the game, but Sam doesn’t - and she thinks that someone is pranking him right here and now, so why is she focused on what happened in 2002? As far as I can tell, her theory is that someone is using his grief over the loss of his wife in 2002 as a way to torment and trick him, not that someone actually KILLED her.

 

To be honest, by this point in the game there were so many individual plot threads and red herrings flying around that I actually didn’t notice that this didn’t make sense until I looked at it later for this review, but it’s a pretty big hole now that I am. I suppose Sam could be theorizing that the prankster has been playing their Great Game since 2002 and caused the accident as part of it, but you’d think she’d actually reference or say that at some point, and she never seems to suspect that the prankster was involved in causing the accident, just in using it for their own ends.

 

Most of the game’s items make sense for where they’re found and used, but Sam conveniently finds an actual cups-and-ball game just on the floor in a hallway next to where she needs a distraction to get rid of the guy who can unlock the fuse box. It’s even more jarring than usual because it would be weird and obviously over-convenient in any game, but in this one it looks like Sam is being bizarrely dense not to wonder who put it there and whether or not the rival prankster magician has been here.

 

Also, playing the cups-and-ball game is miserable. It’s got the worst interface in the game by far, and like the card game, it’s the only other one that doesn’t use the magic trick interface and forces the player to perform the trick on their own from memory.

 

Oops. Sam runs into Malik and finds out that Linkweller just fired him, which is probably because she outed him as being in Styles’ experiment without permission. Again, you can see her struggling with foreign feelings of strong attachment - she tries to rationalize away feeling bad about it by saying he probably doesn’t need the money, and he corrects her that he actually has lots of younger siblings and therefore can’t put any pressure on parents who are already stretched thin trying to support them all. It’s really nice to see the game make it clear that there are consequences when Sam does unethical things, and furthermore to see Sam realize this and develop as a person when she recognizes that she maybe doesn’t want to do that anymore.

The only student whose room Sam hasn’t been in yet is Angela, and she finally makes it into the grad student wing to remedy that. Angela’s room is absolutely adorable, with a pink bed, dolls, and fairy artwork everywhere. She wasn’t kidding about being very into the folklore of her native islands, which she obviously takes very seriously (although the pink sugary fairies in her room are much more of a mainstream pop culture idea; traditional Scottish fairies would probably be considerably less attractive, on the whole).

 

Her roommate is there, though, so since she needs to get rid of her with a magic trick, Sam goes off to see Mephistopheles again. Poor Sam is so hungry to get her professional magician cred that she doesn’t even realize how intensely suspicious it is when he gives her a “magic lantern”, an old-fashioned magic trick prop that allows the user to “project” ghostly images from one place to another. It could absolutely be used for some of the apparitions of “Laura”, but this doesn’t occur to Sam; no, she’s just emotionally bowled over when he gives it to her for free, saying he just thought that she would like it. Once again, she’s just so thrilled and shocked that someone would care about her for no reason that she doesn’t know how to respond.

 

Which makes the blow even worse when her trust is betrayed a few minutes later when she sees Helena furtively go into the Black Wand soon after she’s left it. She guesses that she must be working with Mephistopheles on the Great Game centering on Dr. Styles, and Helena certainly does have the savvy and smarts to pull that kind of thing off, not to mention looking like a traditional magician’s assistant. (Although of course, that’s just a sexist assumption - it could easily be Helena who is the master magician and Mephistopheles who is her assistant. Except that he’s a literal demon, though.)

 

Speaking of sexism, she has an amazing line of dialogue here when she’s talking about the saboteur:

Sam, I both feel you and laughed so much.

 

Her conversation with Mephistopheles is really telling; he says that there are only two options when she wonders who would be skilled enough to pull off the supposed “hauntings”. The implication is clearly that he means either himself or Sam, and since we play Sam, we know it isn’t her… but it also could mean that the two possibilities are whether the hauntings are real or not.

 

Sam has an excellent plan here: she proposes changing the time of the next experiment so that it won’t match the plan Styles submitted to the university, thus preventing anyone who only knows what’s happening from the school from knowing when to perform a synced-up prank. They also won’t tell the Lambs’ Club until the last minute to rule out anyone outside the group from being given the information.

 

Back in Angela’s room, the last round of investigations suddenly gets very, very ominous. Not only does she have an old gossip magazine about Styles’ marriage to Laura, but Sam finds out that she enrolled at Oxford as a nursing student… in 2002 as an undergrad, rather than only this year in the grad school. I suppose Sam is a little more justified in thinking this is weird since Angela didn’t mention having been at Oxford before, and since she clearly knows not only about Styles himself but about his accident; but then again, she already told Sam that she’d seen him before after his accident and knew who he was, and she still doesn’t know there was anything weird about the accident itself. It’s another place where Sam seems to have access to Styles’ suspicions somehow, which is annoying because the player only knows both sets of information outside the confines of the characters.

Angela’s got blonde hair dye, too, implying that she isn’t a natural blonde. This is supposed to be another clue, and it’s actually a more sinister one, I think; anybody can dye their hair for any reason, of course, but given Angela’s obvious little crush on Styles, she might be trying to look more like dead blonde Laura, whose pictures are in this magazine on her desk.

 

The most damning evidence in here is also the least clear: she has a picture of her father on her desk, and he’s creepy and looks a whole lot like a stereotypical magician, complete with pointy facial hair and eccentrically patterned clothes. If Angela’s father is a magician - and this is totally conjecture, since we only have a picture to go on, but the game made a point of including it - then he might be the one playing the Great Game, or else Angela might be following in his footsteps.

Oh, shush, Sam, stop whining about the pink everywhere. Haven’t you ever heard of pastel goth?

 

I resent the fact that Angela is now the frontrunner for best suspect, because I love her. Her fairy shelf is everything my fourteen-year-old self could ever have wanted.

Angela’s roommate comes back and confirms that the picture is Angela’s father, and explains that he owned a pub on their home island that burned down a few years ago, killing him in the process. Angela thus has a parallel tragedy to Dr. Styles’ - she also lost a beloved family member somewhere around a few years ago in a similar senseless and fiery tragedy, which probably explains at least partly why she’s imprinted so strongly on him.

 

Oh my GOD, Sam, why are you still harping on the Strange Case of Charles and the Fat Kid? Helena already told you that that was Charles himself, and people sometimes just change weight, for God’s sake. No, he doesn’t have a secret fat brother because it’s just so impossible that a fat kid and a thin kid could in fact be the same kid at different points in time. This is the worst subplot of all time, and we have to suffer through Sam calling his mother and posing as a school official to find out that he did in fact lose a lot of weight recently to finally put it to bed.

 

When Sam reports on her findings to Styles, I really appreciate that he points out that Helena’s syringes may be prescription and that it’s none of their business, even though Sam tries to argue about it. This is not Sam’s finest hour, as she also seems convinced that something is mentally wrong with Angela due to her love of pink and belief in fairies, claiming that she is “too old” for that. There’s no age limit on the color pink, Sam, and she comes from a place famous for its supernatural folklore.

Sam’s investigation in the Christ Church dining hall is pretty fun, because yep, that sure IS the Harry Potter dining hall from the movies!

Clearly the game designers are Harry Potter fans, since we can also look at this adorable certificate on the wall:

I really love how much this game has a sense that the team, from designer to artists to editors, really loves the stories and places and history involved. It makes it so much more immersive and engaging than if it were a generic setting.

 

Okay, we’ve moved on in the problem-solving and sweet God, Sam, NO, do not CRAWL into a DIRT TUNNEL IN A FIELD, I don’t CARE if you think the magic riddle club is a good idea! This is how people become part of a serial killer count!

 

Interestingly, it looks like the Daedalus Club included Lewis Carroll as one of its members, which implies that either he was a magician or that his word and puzzle play in literature was complex and impressive enough for him to gain entry. Sadly, the puzzles in this part grabbed me less, and I found myself wishing we were hearing more about Carroll’s secret history instead of dealing with this annoying bunny machine nonsense.


So they finally get around to the next night of the experiment, and they’re having it out at the track where the first incident happened, which frankly seems like bad science considering they should ideally be doing it at a control location, but whatever, the game makers may have been trying to conserve art. No one asked me, though. Sam, who has decided that Helena must be the plant due to her secret association with Mephistopheles, intentionally sabotages her so that she won’t show up, but Angela is there and is getting very, very weird.

It becomes clear that she’s intentionally trying to out Sam as the impostor she is; she recites half a poem before saying that the author is very popular at the school and challenging Sam to finish it, obviously expecting her not to be able to since she’s lying about being an English literature major. Sam, because she’s my hero, busts it right out (lucky she knew it!), but Angela clearly has suspicions of her own. It’s hard to argue with them, since Sam looks sketchy as fuck because Sam IS sketchy as fuck - just not about this particular thing.

(The poem, by the way, is "Ave atque Vale" by Algernon Charles Swinburne, and is a melancholy ode to a loved one who has died, which is appropriate to Sam's loss of her parents, Angela's loss of her father, and Styles' loss of Laura.)

 

As the chapter closes out, we’re left to ponder where exactly our Phantom story parallel is, since we’ve veered wildly in a lot of directions at this point. Dr. Styles is the one wearing the mask, but honestly he more fits the role of Christine at this point in the story - haunted by the idea and perhaps the spirit of a lost loved one while in reality perhaps being manipulated by an unscrupulous unknown prankster. Sam in her investigative role and attempts to protect him is similar to the Persian, trying to uncover and stop the prankster’s cruelty. And, of course, Mephistopheles and his Faust connection is still here, lurking in an indistinct background where he seems potentially connected somehow to everything.

 

After the experiment, it turns out that moving the location did nothing - the dining hall they were originally going to use for it still suffered a horrifying attack, this time leaving blood on the walls and students taken away in ambulances. This is an investigation win - it seems that changing the location of the experiment really did make it suddenly diverge from the events, which suggests someone else outside the group is trying to do these things to line them up - but not without a cost.

Chapter 7:

We’re switching back, for the next-to-last chapter, to playing Dr. Styles again, because Sam has taken her now functional motorcycle to London to answer the invitation she has finally received to the Daedalus Club. So she can’t be reached as the Lambs’ Club all start panicking in earnest, because not only did another disaster happen, but people were badly hurt and no one has any clues with Sam not around to fill them in.

 

So it falls to Styles to face the true horror: personally leaving his house again and going into Oxford. His life is suffering.

 

By the way, if you weren’t aware that the Oxford University Constables are traditionally referred to as “bulldogs”, you might have been very, very confused, like me, by why these random security guard looking guys were always labeled “bulldog”. I’m here to educate with my own foolishness.


So the dining hall, which was where the experiment was supposed to focus on before it was changed at the last minute to keep a saboteur from being able to predict what they were doing, is a complete disaster.

Tables are broken in half, walls are full of holes, ancient statues and vintage paintings have been destroyed, and a little surreptitious sleuthing reveals that the damage matches the size and shape of the discuses that Styles had the kids envisioning throwing during the experiment. Of course, he had them visualizing doing it at the track, where nothing happened at all, so he’s baffled because now it doesn’t match the ideas of either Laura interfering in his saga or the experiment somehow causing psychic phenomena. (It does perfectly match the idea of a saboteur who didn’t know about the change in location in time to move their prank, but Styles is not interested in your pedestrian non-supernatural explanations.)

 

The detective on the scene here is the same one who investigated Styles’ accident years ago, which is somewhat convenient but is probably necessary to help explain why he’s being so incredibly fucking bad at his job and telling Styles all kinds of case details and witness statements. He says that the witnesses thought the room was bombarded by some kind of missiles but didn’t know what they were, and that while everyone survived, six people had to be hospitalized. I feel like it’s not a coincidence that there are six members of the Lambs’ Club - Angela, Charles, Harvey, Helena, Malik, and Sam.

 

Styles angsts. Bro, does this sound like something your wife would do? You are seriously going to need to start entertaining possibilities that aren’t the return of your dead spouse.

 

At this point, Angela accosts Styles in the hall and blames Sam for everything, somewhat hysterically. This is my FAVORITE part of the game, because it really shows how well it was plotted and how thoroughly the writing leaves different possibilities open. Of course, we’ve played as Sam, and we have an emotional attachment to Sam, but as the other characters suddenly begin to ask questions about her, we are forced as the player to question whether or not she really might be the one playing the Great Game and fooling everyone - including us.

 

And then like a ton of bricks, the player gets to suddenly realize how monumental the evidence pointing toward Sam really is.

 

  • Someone attacked the original assistant exactly when Sam arrived, and Sam appears to have either forgotten about it or not to care at all. She has never addressed or wondered about it.
     

  • Sam lied her way into working for Styles, posing as a student hired for him through Oxford. She isn’t a student there and never has been, and lied to the student employment office as well to make sure they didn’t send anyone else. No one has any idea where she came from.
     

  • Sam concealed the fact that she is a street magician from everyone, including the students and Styles, possibly implying that she needed to make sure they didn’t know she was involved in anything magic-related.
     

  • Sam has a convenient local contact in Mephistopheles, who appears to have decided to help and support her for no reason besides goodwill, even to the point of giving her free gifts from his shop.
     

  • Sam has access to all of Styles’ files, all of his current experiment information, the details of his accident and subsequent withdrawal, the names of his friends and colleagues, and his current activities. There is nothing he’s doing she doesn’t know about.
     

  • It was Sam who claimed to have seen an apparition of Laura walking around on the stairs in the house, convincing Styles that his dead wife was manifesting as a ghost. This was right before Laura’s wedding dress disappeared from her closet, too.
     

  • The other “haunting” incidents Styles has been experiencing - thinking his wife was in the bed beside him, being touched while he was in the shower - have all involved being touched by a woman’s hands, but he’s never seen her face or been able to catch her, and has always assumed it must be Laura. These incidents started the night after Sam arrived.
     

  • All of Styles’ information about what’s going on has come filtered through Sam, since she’s been doing all the investigating for him. As a result, he didn’t hear about the first incident at all and has only been told what Sam repeats to him about the others until now.
     

  • Sam has pointed the finger at a huge number of other people - Linkweller, Helborn, Mephistopheles, and every single member of the Lambs’ Club - to the point of gathering “evidence” about all of them and spreading rumors between them about it, even though some of this evidence is extremely questionable.
     

  • Styles almost caught Sam at the scene of the incident in the weight room, but she hid from him and later lied to him, claiming she was somewhere else and that her injury was unrelated, even though she was ostensibly trying to find out more about the incident and it doesn’t make sense for her to hide that after the fact.
     

  • Sam, of course, does know that the experiment was changed at the last minute. It was her idea.

 

It’s an incredible moment to suddenly realize that Sam really is the best suspect. As the player, we never suspect her, because she’s us.


Of course, after a moment of thought, it’s also pretty clear that Sam isn’t the culprit, or at least not the culprit as far as everything fishy going on goes. We know the broken signpost sent her in the wrong direction at the very beginning of the game; we saw her experience the phenomenon in the weight room and we know she really was injured by it rather than doing it herself, and we saw her investigation of the folly tower and her anger that someone might use it to target Styles when there were no other characters around then for her to be performing for.

Having the same realizations, Styles finally gets suspicious enough to ransack Sam’s room, where he finds the stolen fake ID that still says “Helena” on it, which does not look good at all, and furthermore the letter from the foster agency in the US informing her that she will stop receiving support checks if she doesn’t check in with them, addressed to her in Rome. (We also find out that she must be around 21 years old or so, since the letter reminds her that she’ll stop receiving those payments after she turns 21, and the letter isn’t that old.)

 

As before, having Styles’ perspective on things is still a lot of fun after Sam’s. Sam just says her bed is great and calls it the best bed she ever slept in. Styles offhanded says that they’ve had the bed in the house for centuries and it’s family lore that it was once slept in by Henry VIII, although he doesn’t seem to believe it and says his ancestors were also frequently liars.

 

Here’s a nice moment of horror that I experienced as Styles went off to call the American foster agency to find out more: Sam’s parents died in a car accident, too, didn’t they? She was a child at the time, we’ll be told seven years old. The car accident that killed Laura took place in 2002, and we have never heard anything about the people in the other car except that they were killed instantly upon impact.

 

So suddenly, not only could Sam be playing the Great Game, but if her parents happened to die in the UK instead of the US, she could also be secretly trying to get revenge for the deaths of her parents on the man who survived the accident, or if the game really is going with a supernatural angle, she could have some sort of psychic link to him as a result of the accident that one or both of them is unaware of.

 

ANYWAY, the call to the foster agency is hilarious. First of all, yeah, sure, you called a branch of the American foster care system and got a human being after two rings instead of a machine after thirty minutes of waiting music hell. Yeah, okay, fine, you need to get the game moving. But second of all, he says “oh I’m a professor from Oxford doing a background check” and this woman on the phone just literally gives him all of Sam’s background information, up to and including reading him her last psych exam over the goddamn phone.

 

Honestly, I was super mad and yelling at the screen already and I was only vindicated when Styles then completely tore this woman a new one and told her never to ever give out information like that over the phone to anyone. I’m glad SOMEONE has some MEDICAL ETHICS around here, JESUS CHRIST.

 

I feel like the dialogue is sort of veering around here, like different parts of it were written out of order. Styles sounds all sympathetic about Sam’s childhood on the phone, and then a second later says “I refuse to feel sorry for that Jezebel!”, which sounds both out of tune and just bizarre, since as far as I remember Sam never like… hit on him or anything. Maybe he’s having the same sudden uncomfortable thoughts about “Laura’s” hand in the shower that I am, but it’s not clear enough if so.

 

Down in the creepy Lab of Sadness, the ghost communicator has now added a couple more letters, spelling I - M - P - O - S.  Styles guesses that Laura is maybe trying to tell him that it’s impossible for her to come back, which is what I said originally, but he doesn’t have much time for it since he has to track down what Sam has been up to.

 

I then have to spend a LOT of time reliving my graduate school career by paging through endless computer files, looking for interesting things to categorize. What Styles finally discovers is that during the experiments, at exactly the time that the weird phenomena have been happening, one of the student participants has been falling asleep, causing the brain to light up in an area he isn’t used to seeing activity in.

What do you MEAN you don’t know what part of the brain that is, Mr. Neurobiologist? He eventually remembers that it’s called the massa intermedia, but he still can’t remember what it does for reasons of plot convenience and also because he’s a loser.

 

It’s not Sam’s brain. It’s Angela’s. So we now have the Science Proof to show us that she is definitely psychic and probably the one causing the bizarre incidents that line up with Styles experimenting on her brain, and it lines up nicely with Sam’s discovery that she was admitted back in 2002 as an undergraduate student. It’s now clear to the player that Angela must be the student that Styles blew off in his office just before the accident, although he doesn’t have all the information, so he still doesn’t know that and just thinks he’s making the scientific find of a lifetime.

 

After thoroughly freaking out the rest of the Lambs’ Club by not only revealing lots of Sam’s shadiness but letting them know that he is as clueless about her as the rest of them, he gets a call back from the foster department, where a grumpy-sounding lady tells him that he left her assistant in tears. Look, your assistant needs to not give out PRIVILEGED MEDICAL INFORMATION ON THE PHONE. I am seldom on the side of the asshole yelling at a secretary but really, ma’am, this is on you for not training her.

 

Styles tries to find Sam at the Black Wand, but all he comes up with is a poster for her upcoming performance at the Daedalus Club. He also gets to find out her stage name, and “Lady Byron” will just never not be funny to me no matter how many times they say it.

I notice that he’s totally fine with badgering the police into unethically releasing information to him, though. I get that you’re a doctor but you should probably care about everyone else’s ethics, too, bro.

 

He manages to get the address of the Daedalus Club in London, so he’s OFF FOR INVESTIGATION. This is honestly almost a romance meet-cute, except for the fact that he thinks she’s an evil infiltrator come to ruin his life.

Well, this looks terrifying. Now I’m all worried about Sam again. If this is a Hostel-style situation, I’m going to need you to rescue her ASAP, doc.

 

What is up with the decor? Why the barred dungeon window? What’s the derelict club marquee about, with the name The Negative One Pulse seeming like a reference to something but who knows what? These are questions we’re never getting answers to, so don’t hold your breath. From here to the end of the game, there’s a lot of this; these last two chapters have a lot of areas that seem like they were meant to have more interactivity and gameplay but don’t. I have theories, but no real information about why.

 

The guy who answers the door is wearing a creepy harlequin-esque mask, and he has a super weird interaction with Styles, who he thinks is here to attend the club, too, because why would you assume this was just a random guy wearing a mask because he does that? He only lets him in once he namedrops Lady Byron (ahahaha), but once he does, the doorman instantly calls him by name, so either Sam told folks he might be coming, he’s already known in the magician community, or he really is the subject of a Great Game. (Or the designer just wants things to seem mysterious and supernatural.)

 

Once Styles gets inside, literally every single person not onstage is wearing a mask - we’ve arrived at this game’s version of the masquerade ball! As in Leroux’s novel, the masks don’t really conceal most peoples’ identities too much, but the fact that everyone is wearing one lets Styles move among them freely without drawing attention, blending him into the crowd for this one event out of a life of barefaced social interactions.

Sam’s show is the main attraction of the night, and Styles sits in the audience - again, very much like the Phantom watching Christine’s debut show from hiding - to see it. She does a few neat tricks in her compressed sequence, including having a mask fly around her and then turn into birds, and it’s a nice touch that she’s obviously using the “magic” lantern that Mephistopheles gave her to create the projections. Like Christine, she completes her surprise debut performance to thunderous applause.

 

His confrontation of her in her dressing room right after the show is similar to the original story, too, but that’s where the parallels stop. He confronts her with all her shenanigans, furious that she deceived him and convinced that she’s the one who’s been pulling the dangerous pranks and interfering with his experiments; he even points out, which I forgot, that when she first came to work for him, she was wearing his mother’s necklace, which he thinks is another way she intentionally stacked the deck to get him to hire her. (Honestly, that is a super sketchy coincidence, Sam, and your explanation of “I bought it at some flea market, I like old stuff” doesn’t make it any less so.) He’s understandably bitter, now that the members of the club have told him about how the Great Game works, that she used him to gain membership.

 

Of course, Sam protests that it’s not her Great Game - yes, everyone seems to think it is, but she just accepted the opportunity to get in, and claims she did none of those things. It has no effect on him and he tells her IF she’s out of his house by morning, he’ll CONSIDER not calling the police on her.

 

The heartbreaking end of the scene has Sam crying, which causes the makeup on her face to run in a harlequin mask of her own - a nice touch, since this is both about her being exposed (or “unmasked”?) for her misbehavior but also being “re-masked” with the incorrect image of her that Styles now has. His parting line, that he never wants to see her face again, is phrased exactly that way, again playing with the idea of faces and identity.

Chapter 8:

And then we open for the final chapter on Sam alone in the lobby of the Daedalus club.

The Daedalus Club proper is just as into the Greek mythology imagery as their clues and puzzles have been; in particular, the statue of Daedalus himself in the middle with wings outspread is really neat, especially since he is almost never depicted with his wings. (His son Icarus is, but that’s because he flew too high with them and fell to his death, a cautionary tale that doesn’t fit the club’s frankly hubristic mood.) The carpet with the club’s logo is a chance to see its labyrinth structure, referencing the Minotaur’s prison, in much better detail, which only further reinforces the feeling that the club had to be involved in the experiment pranks somehow, what with the track being redrawn as a maze for the first one.

 

Of course, we know Sam didn’t do it, in spite of Styles’ suspicions, which leaves only one suspect: Mephistopheles, who is also a magician who knows about the Great Game, who refused to confirm or deny whether he was a member of the club already, and in whom Sam has been confiding what she’s up to. It very much feels like someone else running a game, either to get into the club themself or because they intentionally want to implicate Sam - and given Mephistopheles’ oddly paternal behavior toward her, perhaps even with good intentions, since everyone believing it was her Game is the reason she finally got her coveted membership.

 

The same creepy masked figure that let Styles into the building in the last chapter is in the club’s bar impersonating a Zoltar fortune-telling machine, and he’s a weird figure, since he’s only ever referred to as “the Trickster” by both characters and the game engine, and he never appears before or after this. Again, it feels like he ties into some sort of supernatural background concerns involving Mephistopheles and his Faustian activities. But Sam is Sam, so she talks to him, even when he’s super creepy and responds to her statement that she doesn’t have another show tonight by disagreeing. He refers to himself as merely a pawn in all this, suggesting that Sam is, too.

 

By the way, he has a very Irish accent, which combined with the slightly sinister weirdness and hilarious clothes just constantly makes me think he’s going to burst into “Something Sort of Grandish” like the leprechaun from Finian’s Rainbow.

 

To add to the tension for the player, the map has gone dark, so apparently Sam won’t be leaving the club grounds for the remainder of the game.

 

Anyway, Sam figures out from the Trickster’s annoying riddles that there’s a secret part of the club that she still hasn’t gotten access to, only findable by those who are truly puzzle savants, and she manages to get in by playing weird slot machines in the lobby until the floor opens up and dumps her there. If that sounds like a lazy prosaic way of describing things, I’d like you to know that this section almost feels that way - unlike earlier parts of the game, where progression and plot and atmosphere felt closely tied together, this part feels a lot more like Do A to Get B, which is less interesting. Which is a shame, given how interesting it looks like it SHOULD be.

The whole area is very evocative of the Phantom’s lair, if also super pink. It’s down under the main performance hall and only accessible via clever mechanical shenanigans, it’s full of artwork, masks, and a frigging harpsichord, for goodness’ sake. The picture on the wall is of the same four magicians that Sam saw portraits of upstairs, which implies that they’re probably the founders of the club. To my eternal disappointment, we will never find out anything about them, not even their names.

They very much do look like traditional magician archetypes - the suave Houdini-esque one, the turbaned mystic, the sexy lady with the snake, the eccentric nobleman - but that's all we'll ever get about htem.

This chapter honestly feels like it could have been an entire game on its own; it has a very rushed quality, as if there are tons of things that should have been investigatable or part of the story that were cut or glossed past.

Obviously, this would be the other half of being in a Phantom lair. The torture equipment all seems decorative, but you never know. Honestly, having to stop and solve riddles whilst surrounded by torture equipment is not a restful kind of situation.

 

A jack in the box offers the clue “Cherchez la femme”, which Sam remembers enough French to translate as “look for the woman”. This is a clue in a lot of ways - it’s referring to Laura, who is the motivator for Styles’ actions and behavior, and to the mysterious student he only vaguely remembers who probably caused the accident, and to whomever in the here-and-now is causing all the chaos, and also to an upcoming puzzle in the hall of mirrors, but what Sam doesn’t appear to realize is that it’s a commonly used phrase in mystery and crime fiction, used to mean that whatever happened, there’s usually a woman at the bottom of it. (Obviously, noir pulp crime fiction is not and never has been on the cutting edge of feminism.)

I really appreciate that at this point, Sam's focus has narrowed to exactly one thing: finding Mephistopheles and kicking his ass. He's the only real suspect anymore, and here at the culmination of her struggle with developing a sense of conscience and friendships with others, she's not willing to trade the people she's come to care about even for the lifelong dream of being part of the club. I'm cheering for you, Sam. Kick him in his demonic butt.

 

You know, there are eleven fucking doors out of this and almost every room down here, and they all mostly just lead to different parts of the same room (yes, I’m aware of the Daedalus/labyrinth irony, ha ha, very hilarious magician club), but once in a while you hit one that goes somewhere else and then HOLY SHIT.

COME ON. I’m having flashbacks to playing American McGee’s Alice as a teenager, which given the Alice in Wonderland Oxford connection and intentional callouts in this game is probably an intentional homage. I regret invoking the Phantom’s torture chamber from the original novel a moment ago, because this is just a murder chamber.  EXTREME BAD NEWS. THE CEILING IS COMING DOWN AND IT IS COVERED IN SPIKES.

Frankly, the fact that at the last minute the floor opened up and dumped Sam into another room just feels insulting. Murder me like real magicians, you cowards.

At this point, the game has become completely bonkers and there is no plot left except “solve the puzzles” - which again is disappointing and much less interesting than the rest of the game - and Sam has discovered what can only be termed the Chessboard Swamps, and the game is sort of giving up on trying to pretend that it isn’t a fantasy game.

This area especially suggests another homage to me, since the combination of the swamp design and the whimsical Alice in Wonderland touches and chessboards are all present on the Isle of Wonder in Sierra’s popular old-school adventure game King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow. Of course, that’s absolutely not a surprise, because Jane Jensen co-designed that game along with King’s Quest series superstar Roberta Williams.

 

Sam, as a weird goth kid, pretty much loves everything going on down here, and apart from being almost murdered by the splat room (huh, what do you know… there was a splat room in KQVI, too!), I’m there with her. I would immediately go to any attraction that looked like this one.

 

It’s a neat move for the game to have two “modes” here - in Alice in Wonderland fashion, there’s a giant button in one room that has a sign that says “don’t press me”, but if you do, it instantly converts all the lushly colored rooms into black and white. This enables the designers to have rooms basically double up, with clues that are only visible in color and vice versa, getting as much mileage out of these sets as they can.

 

Going through a secret door is always dicey, but I should have known better in a Phantom-related game. Now Sam is in a room covered with mirrors with no exits and only theatre curtains to break up the reflections; even though we haven’t seen a Phantom down here, he’s obviously influencing the decor.

Really lovely reflection work on the mirrors, as always. I can’t fault this game’s graphics.

 

After wandering fruitlessly for approximately ten thousand years, Sam finds the key but also… Helena? Her voice is echoing through the maze, sounding panicked and lost and calling for help. Obviously, yes, Sam is going to go save her, even though this is the oldest fucking trick in the book and she already suspects Helena is acting as Mephistopheles’ assistant. As the earlier cherchez la femme clue indicated, finding Helena pretty much involves running toward her through the maze constantly forever until getting lucky, but I am equipped for that kind of nonsense.

 

Ah, nothing like asking what someone is doing here and having them straight up refuse to say. Always nice. Very smooth misdirect there, Helena, with the “just get us out of here” in response to a direct question. But once Sam gets her out of the maze and she calms down, she explains that she was trying to find her to warn her that Styles had found out about her impostor act and got lost looking for her. In spite of her earlier anger, Helena confirms that they’re still friends and that she still cares about Sam, and plays on her loneliness by asking, “Haven’t you ever had real friends before?”

 

This all sounds like utter bullshit, which is frustrating because it’s another red herring; Helena has nothing to do with anything, isn’t working with Mephistopheles, and really did just get lost looking for Sam to warn her. The problem is that this doesn’t really make sense, which makes it not a real red herring but rather an annoying assumption that the player isn’t too bright. Helena should have no way of knowing that Sam is at the Daedalus Club in the first place - she didn’t know she had anything to do with it and had never heard of the place, and Styles took the Lady Byron poster with him, so she couldn’t even have found out the same way he did. Even if she did, she wouldn’t know here it was, and if somehow she ALSO had a police hookup like Styles to tell her, they probably wouldn’t let her in, and if she ALSO somehow got inside even without having Sam’s stage name to drop, she would have to figure out the secret puzzles with the slot machines to get dropped down into the underground part of the club.

 

Basically, there’s no way she should be here by accident, and the game demands that the player simply swallow that she is, causing a feeling of being betrayed later when not only does her sketchy-seeming involvement come to nothing but the game doesn’t bother explaining any of it beyond her dismissively saying, “I’m a paying customer,” like that fixes any of this. A good red herring is explained at some point so that the reader can see why it wasn’t a real clue; otherwise, it just looks like lazy and dishonest writing.

 

Back in the basement, the new lighting has caused various concerning things to happen, such as the chainsaw box in the torture chamber now having FEET sticking out of it and the statue in the pink room having transformed into one of Eros and Psyche. Eros (or Cupid) and Psyche is another very resonant Greek myth for the Phantom story; in it, Psyche marries Eros, god of love, but he visits her only at night in pitch darkness and forbids her to ever look at his face. She obeys for a while, but eventually, goaded on by her family who believes she is married to a horrible monster, she sneaks a lamp into the bedroom to see his face while he’s sleeping, and he flees from her, forcing her to spend the next several years doing penance until they’re reunited. Obviously, the lover only in darkness whose unmasking has terrible consequences is an easy tale to relate to the Phantom story, especially in versions interested in the emotional connection between Christine and Erik.

 

You know, way early in the game, there were loading screens that mentioned the myth of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, and they all lead here, to where Sam pushes a statue of Atlas into the murderous splat room so that he can hold up the ceiling. Also hilarious is the fact that another minor clue involved a picture of someone holding a copy of Atlas Shrugged by “Ann Rand”.

 

And finally, after all these trials and tribulations, Sam finds the inner sanctum of the club, where Mephistopheles, also masked, is sitting with a smug goddamn look on his face that I don’t think any of us appreciate.

Can you feel Sam’s thousand-yard stare from the door back there? I can. Also, how creepy is it that when Sam enters, Mephistopheles is looking not at her but at the player?

 

The book prominently displayed in the front of that shelf, by the way, is titled Alexandron Psueodomanteis, usually translated to English as Alexander the False Prophet. Lucian of Samosata wrote it about the man who founded the cult of Glycon, a serpent god that could dispense wisdom and healing to his worshipers; the title refers to the fact that Lucian claims that the god was a hoax and Alexander a huckster, and that all of Alexander’s so-called prophetic and magical feats were accomplished by trickery. Obviously, the implication is that he was either a member of the Club - which would date it to very long ago, since he was active in the second century - or more likely is just a famous magician that the members study.

 

Sam has had enough of all this, so get out of the way, fuckers. She has a GUN.

 

(She does, actually. She stole it out of one of the display cases in the torture chamber. Although it said it was the former gun of Derren Brown, who was a real magician who famously played Russian Roulette on live television, so I don’t know how helpful this gun will actually be in a scuffle.)

 

I support her anyway. As she said, “there are several people I’d like to shoot right now.”

 

Mephistopheles has the gall to get huffy about her threatening him, claiming he thought better of her and pointing out that he sponsored her membership, and very annoyingly only relents after she yells that she’s not going to let him torment Styles any longer and he thinks she’s doing this “for love”. I mean, she IS, but not in the romantic tomfoolery sense he’s implying. Just stop being an asshole and explain yourself already, man.

 

Instead, he seems honestly baffled by her anger because he, like everyone else, was assuming that Styles’ troubles were her Great Game and bid for membership and he’s knocked for a loop by realizing she doesn’t know any more about it than he does. (Honestly, it makes sense from his point of view - this strange girl has been coming to him to tell him all about this mysterious nonsense going on over at the college, and it makes more sense that she’s trying to get him to pass the word on to the club than that she just wanted to confide.)

 

So clearly, the solution is home movies. He drags Sam off to show her a VHS recording of an old performance by the Enigma, a former great magician, which Sam is super excited by, adorably forgetting she’s holding a man at gunpoint for a minute, because she has no idea how he accomplishes his illusion of transforming snowflakes and fairies onstage at the time.

 

He’s also recognizable, even though the cut scenes try to keep his face from being too obvious. It’s Angela’s father, and I’m mad at this point even though the psychic brain readings had pretty much already confirmed this because god damn it, I LIKE Angela and I will need some convincing for this slander upon her to go over. Mephistopheles confirms that he believes that the Enigma had actual telekinetic powers and was performing real magic in his shows, which implies that Angela inherited his talents.

Sam has a quick Realization Montage as she relates each of the tricks to being in some way related to the Enigma, meaning that Angela was running a Great Game herself in honor of her father - but unlike the games played by the club, she has no interest in membership. The only thing here that is annoying is the fact that it's revealed that the maze pattern on the track was because the Enigma wore a maze pattern on some of his clothing, causing Sam to remember that the tie he was wearing in the picture in Angela's room has the same pattern... but this is another one of those badly done tie-ins, because the player couldn't see that when looking at the picture in Angela's room, so it's not a clue, just an after-the-fact justification. It makes it seem as though the red herring of the Daedalus Club logo also being a labyrinth couldn't stand on its own unless the real source of the pattern was unfairly hidden from the player so that they couldn't make any guesses based on it.

 

As soon as the player confirms that Angela is the source of everything, the game smash cuts over to Dread Hill House, where Laura's ghost writer finally finishes writing out the word she's been trying to say for days: I - M - P - O - S - T - O - R. It's an awesomely creepy moment that lets the player know that things are about to happen, and even though Laura's ghost is real... she has no power to help her husband beyond warning him, and that has failed.

This is also a really great slow shot to use next, because we’ve already established that Styles never takes his mask off, even in bed. The fact that it’s lying emptily on the bedside table ramps the suspense up by telling us that something terrible must be happening to make him break his routine.

 

In a scene that is utterly fucking gross, Angela attempts to seduce Dr. Styles; having performed several ghostly “phenomena” around the house, dyed her hair blonde, and now sneaked in in the middle of the night wearing Laura’s dress, she has convinced him that he’s seeing the apparition of his dead wife and is making out with him when Sam manages to barge in in time to stop them. It’s again very in line with the Phantom story, although Angela’s impersonation of Laura has much more overtly sexual overtones than Erik’s impersonation of the Angel of Music (and its connection to Christine’s father).

 

What’s different is Angela’s motivation. While both she and Erik seem to share genuine crushes on the objects of their affection, Angela’s connection to Styles’ past is a lot more immediate and gruesome, with his rejection of her shortly followed by her murder (or accidental killing, it’s hard to tell) of his wife. Angela certainly seems to have some reason to feel like she’s set apart from humanity, what with having scary powers she can’t control, but she doesn’t have Erik’s yearning to be accepted back into it; in fact, it looks more like, having taken Laura away from Styles, she’s in some twisted way trying to repair the damage by giving her back. (Again, no one asked Laura’s opinion, which is a crying shame. Angela is actually psychic. She could maybe actually help her in ways Styles can’t!)

 

Angela does not appreciate the interruption and pyrokinetically sets Sam on fire. As you do.

 

This doesn’t come out of nowhere; earlier, during his long conversation with the doctor whose house he visited, Styles confirmed that psychic powers often have an association with heat and flame, so it’s not surprising that being super pissed off can cause Angela to light things up. It does, however, suggest that her father’s death when his pub burned down was probably her fault, which would further add to the mess of emotional scars she’s dealing with. I wish we had a better idea of the timeline; if the pub burned down before Styles rejected Angela, she might have been grief-stricken and desperately searching for help, explaining more why she lashed out at him and caused the accident and why she’s so guilty now over having taken one of his loved ones away the way she lost her own. On the other hand, if it burned down after, she might blame Styles for her father’s death, since if he’d helped her instead of blowing her off, she might have been able to control the incident. (Of course, the Enigma himself could have caused the fire. He was psychic, too, and while probably better able to control himself than Angela, he could have had a lapse. But the game really wants to pin it on Angela and it doesn’t really matter, since her feelings are what’s important and she certainly seems to blame herself.)

 

Thankfully, Styles escapes any more sexual assault as he goes to help rescue Sam from burning to death and then try to put out the fire in the rest of the room, and in a slightly unorthodox masking scene, she sees his face for the first time only halfway through this process. His question when he catches her looking is, “It’s bad, isn’t it?”, and her response of “Yeah, pretty bad,” seems to be somewhat ironic, since we can finally see it clearly and it’s not nearly as bad as it was in the shower scene. Or maybe the art department just didn’t commit. It actually turns out that, according to Jensen herself, Dr. Styles suffers from dysmorphia from the accident and while he is scarred, it’s not as severe as he thinks it is. So while the confusion probably wasn’t intended, the different presentations of how injured he really is definitely were.

 

I… kind of don’t know what the intent is with that? It feels like a lot of other Phantom adaptations, where the creator wants the title character to be a romantic lead and therefore can’t have him be too physically disabled because That Would Be Unsexy, but since there isn’t a romantic subplot in this game really, I’m at a loss. It could be a desire to explore the psychological misery Styles suffers from more than the physical, but honestly, everything else the game was doing already did that much better and this doesn’t seem to be adding anything. Maybe I don’t get it. I don’t know.

 

Poor Angela really and honestly seems confused about what’s going on, which suggests she’s dealing with mental illnesses and/or trauma of her own. She seems almost not to know what she herself did, and I want someone to rescue this poor kid and get her into the therapy she so desperately and obviously needs.

 

Also, my heart broke a little when Sam used the magic lantern to project a picture of a dancing fairy - the same one that Angela made out of paper and gave to her - to distract her. It’s such a lovely moment showing that Angela’s own friendship with her still mattered.

 

It’s a very neat move to have the player control both Sam and Styles alternately during the finale of the game; that way, both of them get to work together to survive and stop Angela’s meltdown, but the player still gets to perform all the tasks for them both. It’s a nice continuation from switching between them more slowly for the entire game, not to mention a confirmation that the rift between the two characters is now mended.

 

As we established via infodumps earlier in the game, wet psychics can’t psychic, so they trick Angela into standing in the baptismal font and then fill it with water while she’s in there, effectively preventing her from toasting anyone else. I did NOT appreciate the fact that Sam is summarily kicked out of the finale at the last minute; I can understand that Styles needs to confront Angela both as the figure who can help her where he once rejected her and also for his own closure, but literally removing Sam from the scene already grated when she was the main character and the one who saved these people multiple times.

 

It was foreshadowed earlier but Angela outright states it here: she believes that the psychic powers come from malicious fairies, which is very in line with Scottish folklore surrounding the shenanigans of bored fairy folk, throwing her interest in fairies and some of her throwaway lines about insisting they were around or calling them cruel into very sad relief. Even though she thinks the fairies have somehow cursed her with these powers, she’s still tortured with guilt for her part in killing her own father, causing the car accident that killed Laura and scarred Styles, and now injuring more people with her uncontrolled power.

 

It’s really a touching moment when Styles tries to expiate his original sin of rejecting Angela when she was in need by reaching out to her now, telling her he knows she didn’t mean for any of that to happen and that he can help her now. But it’s too late; Angela jumps to her death off the church balcony.

 

I have to ask: why have Angela commit suicide? The game frames it as her being so mad with grief and confusion that it’s ambiguous whether she even knew the fall would kill her - her last words are “fairies can fly” - but I’m not talking about Angela’s reasons for doing it. I’m talking about the designer’s; why did Jensen decide to kill Angela off? It doesn’t have any real additional comment coming off of the plot, except perhaps to suggest that some mistakes can’t be walked back, which we were already getting through the vehicle of Styles’ doomed attempts to resurrect his wife. It feels like a cheap and easy way to “conquer” the villain and tie up all the loose ends, but one that comes at the expense of the much more compelling idea of Styles actually helping Angela, as he should have so long ago, and Angela being able to recover and atone for her own sins somehow. Angela joins Laura as a woman killed for the convenience of the plot and to tug at our heartstrings, but where Laura only appears in the backstory, Angela’s death feels more egregious because it didn’t need to happen. This wasn’t necessary. It’s a sour note in an otherwise thoughtful coming together of plot elements at the end.


The game closes out by confirming that Sam will stay on as Styles’ assistant and that at least some of her friends in the Lambs’ Club still want to hang out with her, starting with Helena, who teases her that she must be in love with Styles to want to stick around after all that. I actually really appreciate that Sam, at least visibly in this game, isn’t; she never shows any particular romantic inclination toward him, and that makes the game’s message of found family and Sam’s recovery from her isolationist and traumatic childhood stronger by letting her find connections and love in a variety of ways and places.

And that's the end. Overall, the Phantom connection is more tenuous than in a lot of these games, but I'm including it because while I think the game was intended more as a love letter to several different Gothic tales, it definitely includes Leroux's novel and there's more than enough evidence of it throughout.

However, here at the end, it's time for me to stop and ask if any of y'all have questions. BECAUSE I HAVE FUCKING QUESTIONS.

This game is the WORST about dangling plot elements that went nowhere - if they're supposed to be red herrings, they were never explained, which is super bad form in a mystery. What was up with the hovering demonic entity that Styles was able to get an image of from messing with the picture of himself and his wife, and why would Laura tell him to do that if it was nothing? For that matter, what was the similar face in the clouds in the opening cut scene supposed to signify? Why did everyone insist they felt an "evil presence" at the sites of the experiments if the actual perpetrator was just a troubled young girl who was asleep and dreaming of her father? AND PLEASE, WHAT ABOUT THE ORIGINAL ASSISTANT?

Here's my totally baseless theory: I think this was originally supposed to be a longer game, and that what we've ended up with is a truncated version of the plot. Not only do we have all those dangling nonsenses up there (and a few others I complained about throughout the review), but there are several areas where it seems like the game should have allowed a player to eventually enter them or interact with them, but don't - for example, Brasenose College, which has a guard out front to prevent Sam from going inside but is fully interactive and seems like a place she should be going later by the unspoken rules of adventure games, or the gated off parts of Styles' basement near the labs.

If you combine the cloud monster, the weird photograph, the evil sensations, the psychic phenomena, the presence of Mephistopheles and the Trickster, the tacked-on feeling of the last chapter of the game, and Angela's repeated invocation of fairies, it sounds a lot like there was a draft of this plot somewhere in which an actual supernatural entity - probably a demon or astral something or other - was possessing or using Angela and/or her powers to wreak havoc, and there might have been some sort of literal Faustian bargain involved for either Styles or Sam. The game was shrunk down, the extra supernatural plots were cut, and Angela became the source of the evil instead of the conduit - but weird artifacts of other things that were originally supposed to happen remain.

I have absolutely no proof of this, but I'm still putting it out there. The game is still gorgeous and amazing to play, so it still gets a high grade, but I still have to wonder.

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