The Arrangement  
by Bacardi Jim
June 5, 2004

 

Developer: Michael B. Clark
Publisher: Got Game

Those of you familiar with the Mystery Manor have probably already heard of my travails in getting a copy of Michael Clark’s The Arrangement (follow-up to his underground indie release Harvest).  For those of you who haven’t heard the story, I’ll just summarize and say that it took twenty-five days and four mailings from Got Game and Clark himself before I successfully got a copy to review.

The game itself took five hours to complete.

To be fair, The Arrangement warns you pretty early on that it is likely to be a short game.  It starts out with a series of flashbacks introducing the character of Annie, a new bride with some sort of bizarre secret in her past.  Once the gameplay begins, you discover that five years have passed since Annie’s wedding and you are playing the character of Annie’s husband, Richard Sullivan, a number-crunching attorney.  It’s your fifth wedding anniversary and you have to finish off a report before meeting Annie at the new house you intend to purchase and then whisking her off for an anniversary retreat to your cabin in the woods.  Upon arriving at the house, you get a phone call from the mysterious and menacing Fortrey, who informs you that he has taken Annie, that she came with him willingly, and that if you ever want to see your wife again you must complete a series of puzzles and challenges within one hour or she will disappear forever.  In an odd bit of self-consciousness, Fortrey admonishes you, “Don’t worry.  This is an adventure game… your hour is limitless.”  It turns out that his warning is more actual fact than plot mechanism.

So the question for the conscientious reviewer quickly becomes, “Is this game good enough to recommend spending the $19.99 Got Game is asking for it when it is so very short?”  When you consider that this is the same "new release" price for much longer and much more polished titles like Aura: Fate of the Ages, Dark Fall and most of the rest of the Adventure Company catalog, the answer, sadly, is "Not really."  (I should point out that Got Game tends to price their new games about $10 higher than TAC does, making this a "budget" release by their standards.  But to a consumer, twenty bucks is twenty bucks, regardless of which distributor is getting their money or what that company normally charges.)

Not that there isn’t much to enjoy in The Arrangement.  The plot alone may be worth the purchase price to some jaded gamers.  It is original, bizarre and twisted, combining elements of horror, science fiction and psychological thrillers.  The only thing I’ve run across even remotely like it in the adventure game world is the online game snippet Sofia's Debt, which may have been inspired by some of Clark ’s early work on The Arrangement.  I can’t tell you more than I already have, other than to say that the plot gets weirder and more improbable every step of the way as you proceed through the game, yet is resolved logically, if not at all satisfyingly.

The puzzles are also generally fun, if not terribly taxing.  They include a trivia quiz, a “Concentration” game, a cryptogram, a put-the-pictures-in-the-right-order puzzle and other standard fare, along with a couple of interesting and original puzzles.  None of them will stump the average adventure game player (or even make him sweat), but they are generally well-presented and entertaining.  The toughest and most time-consuming puzzle involves matching a series of floor plans to the actual layout of a museum-like room.  I spent about fifteen minutes on this puzzle, easily making it the game’s “stumper.”

Despite the easy- to mid-level challenge of the puzzles, I did find myself hitting the walkthrough a couple of times and this also contributed to my short playing time.  Why glance at a walkthrough if the puzzles didn’t stump me?  Because Clark has included an element in his game design that is becoming all too common in games and one that has become a pet peeve of mine.  I call it the There’s-no-more-logical-places-to-go-so-let’s-go-back-and-revisit-illogical-places flaw.  I’m sure you’ve encountered this aggravation before, but I’ll give you a hypothetical example.  Suppose you have a game where one of the places you can visit is a closed newsstand.  You go there and examine the site, picking up all the clues and tools.  You continue merrily on your way until you get to a puzzle that requires an item that you don’t have in your inventory.  There is no clue as to where to find the item.  There is no clue as to how to proceed.  It turns out that, unbeknownst to you, someone has come along and placed the necessary item, say a monkey wrench, in the closed newsstand.  Your only way of discovering this is to go back and revisit every possible location, even though actually doing so is completely illogical!  I mean, it’s a closed newsstand, right?  It’s not like while hunting down your kidnapped wife you would suddenly have the urge to peer at the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue through the barred windows.  Neither would it occur to any sane, rational person that maybe someone wandered along and decided to leave a monkey wrench sitting out in front of the newsstand.  There is absolutely no logical reason to draw you back to this place.  Yet back you go, the only logic being “I have to find something somewhere and these are the only places the game will let me visit.”  This design flaw is particularly inexcusable in The Arrangement because Richard carries around a cell phone on which Fortrey frequently calls to give instructions… except at those times when he illogically doesn’t.  (Every time the cell phone rang, I kept expecting to here a woman’s voice exclaim, “Katie!  Darling!  When are you coming home?”)  Anyway, my point is that there are a couple of places in The Arrangement when one is forced to do this kind of unclued and illogical backtracking.  I managed to trim down the time wasted by glancing at the walkthrough a couple of times, and thereby cut the overall gameplay time a bit.

Let’s leave off talking about the value of The Arrangement for a minute and look at the meat and potatoes… the intrinsic gameplay features that matter to gamers regardless of how long a game lasts.  Graphically, The Arrangement is a mixed bag.  It uses the time-tested first-person node-based movement system.  Panning is not available at the nodes.  Some of the artwork was quite attractive… even striking in places.  There are a series of close-ups of Annie’s father that really caught my eye and made me say, “Cool!”  The spider motif that runs through the game was quite well presented.  In other places, the graphics are, frankly, amateurish; blocky and unrealistically simplistic.  I was reminded at times of the worst of the screenshots from Lighthouse or even earlier Sierra games.  And the “jabbering jaw” when characters speak was cartoonish enough to make me laugh.  It is easy to say that Clark is an entirely one-man operation and it is unfair to expect top-notch (or even medium-notch) graphical presentation given the financial and technical limitations of such a “garage” product.  However, when a game is released by a major publisher and priced the same as other major new releases, that is the standard one must judge against, and The Arrangement certainly doesn’t stack up.  With the one-man-production bar having been raised by such games as Dark Fall and Alida, Clark’s work doesn’t even measure up by those standards.  However, one feature The Arrangement does share with Dark Fall is that upon exiting both games, you will find your monitor’s refresh rate set at a migraine-inducing 60 Hz, requiring a manual reset.

I hesitate to get into the voice acting because, frankly, I don’t want to be burned at the stake.  At least one of the voices was performed by someone who is well-known and much-beloved in the adventure game community.  And… well… she stank.  The voice acting in general through the game was laughably poor.  It didn’t reach the depths of Black Mirror or The Watchmaker, but it was pretty awful; largely toneless and uninflected.  John Bell provides most of the male voices and he is the one shining spot.  His characters were at least passable, and his portrayal of the evil Fortrey was right on target and actually quite delightful.  Got Game may want to consider spending a little of their own money to re-record the other voices before the game’s release, however.  The rest of the sound effects were very well done, and the music was generally quite good, unobtrusively creating an atmosphere of slow suspense without ever being noticeable for its own sake.

The game mechanics were generally fair to good.  Movement and manipulation were accomplished by the standard arrow cursor that turns into a pointing hand when you pass it over a hotspot and a direction arrow when you are near the edge of the screen, indicating which directions you can turn.  The Save/Load/Options menu is accessed by a right-click, and there are unlimited save slots.  A red box in the upper left of the screen holds your inventory; rolling the cursor over it makes your inventory items drop down from the top of the screen.  You click-and-drag an item to drop it on a “use” spot.  (This is an annoyance in one location where the hotspot is so high on the screen that it nearly overlaps your inventory item box.)  There was one serious flaw with the navigation interface: in a few locations it is necessary to move diagonally.  The arrow cursor to let you know this isn’t near the edge of the screen like the standard right and left arrows, but is usually inset well into the screen area.  Thus the only way to know that such diagonal movement is possible in some places is to do the old “scan the cursor back-and-forth over the entire screen” trick.  There is also one and only one item which can be rotated in close-up view by finding this non-intuitive movement cursor.

One aspect of The Arrangement guaranteed to please the TLJ-haters is the absence of conversation trees.  Though there are numerous conversations, you have no choice in your dialogue.  A character speaks to Richard and then the text of what he will say in response appears beside the picture of the character to which Richard is speaking.  Clicking on the text makes the character go on with their next bit of dialogue.  “You” have no voice yourself, your dialogue being presented only in the text.  You can “click through” the shorter bits of character dialogue if you are replaying a portion of the game.

Looking back over this review, I can see that it might look like I hated The Arrangement.  That is absolutely not the case.  Overall, I found it good cheesy fun.  Being a puzzle fan, I enjoyed even the familiar puzzles and the plot was interesting and intriguing to say the least, if occasionally unintentionally (?) humorous.  But low production values (to be expected from a one-man show but still unforgivable in a major release), some annoying flaws in game design, a logical but completely unsatisfying ending (à la Black Mirror) and an amazingly short length combine to make me recommend that you wait to buy this one until it hits the $5-10 bargain bin.  Think of it like a cheesy-but-fun B-movie and spend your money accordingly.

SCORE:  6.5 (out of 10)

[Ed.: This review has been revised slightly from its original version.  The revision was made due to revised information provided by the publisher and solely in our desire to correct any factual errors on our part.]

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