I thought I'd like to continue writing random opinion pieces on games that I played recently and continue sharing my experience without any clear recommendations on whether or not someone else should play them. A sly way to escape the responsibility! These posts are all a part of my gaming diary where I keep track of every single game I play, whether I finish it or not, so when the end of the year comes I can look back and see what games I preferred in that period of my life, what great releases I played, what games I tried and dropped. Since videogames are such a big part of my life, keeping track of everything I play and analyzing all of that information is actually one of the ways to self-reflect. Or I just like analyzing things, I don't know :D
So, I was on Twitter some time ago, and I don't usually spend my time on social networks but that was that rare day. And all of a sudden I stumbled upon a tweet from a developer about their game that had just released, and the game is called "The Excavation of Hob's Barrow". I became somehow intrigued by the title and went on to see what this game was.
The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is a point-and-click adventure horror game about Thomasina Bateman, an adventurous young lady who is writing a book on the barrows of England. She is an antiquarian who travels the land, explores ancient barrows and tries to dig up some treasures. She gets invited to the small village of Bewlay to excavate the so-called "Hob's Barrow".
I must say, I used to play a lot of point-and-click games. One of the first games that I can remember little me playing was The Neverhood from 1996, and it was blowing my mind. Then there were all the Daedalic titles, from The Whispered World to Deponia franchise, to Silence, and then The Room franchise by Fireproof games, and then whatever Amanita Design developed, and some other games that jumped on my radar like Tormentum, which is not really all that puzzly but more like an art gallery, and Unforeseen Incidents, and LUNA the Shadow Dust (a great game by the way) and so on. But then I felt like I kind of burnt out on point-and-click puzzles and my interest in that genre decreased significantly. It's been some time since I played a point-and click adventure. I'm sure it was sheer luck that I came across The Excavation of Hob's Barrow at the time of its release and had the time to play it because I just finished A Plague Tale: Innocence, and Requiem hadn't come out yet so I kinda had some gaming downtime. I've also been on and off reading Lovecraft this year and the game promised me "Lovecraftian Horror" so there was also that. The post will be spoiler-free so don't worry, it won't prevent you from playing the game yourself if you'd like to.
Confession time: I rarely like female protagonists in videogames because of how one-dimensional they often are, however, I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the company of miss Thomasina Bateman. And I remember her name well because she pronounces it so often during the game: she fearlessly approaches people to make an acquaintance - something that I never do in my life, the mere thought of it makes me sweat. Even when people don't want to talk to her and it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Bewlay don't like newcomers who try to shake the place from top to bottom, she is absolutely unyielding. People often don't take her seriously, a single young woman wearing trousers, traveling the countryside all alone, spending her time shoveling dirt and stones in pursuit of some ancient garbage, and yet it never shakes her spirit even once. She knows who she is, "a woman of logic and reason", she's found her life calling - digging up barrows and searching for treasures - and she never backs down, even if the circumstances are not on her side. Thomasina, having come from London where she leads quite a busy life of an antiquarian, is such a contrast to the quiet, measured life of Bewlay, a tiny village lost in the moors that stretch as far as the eye can see. However, at the same time she is exceptionally well-mannered, she is never rude to people even if people are rude to her, she recognizes when she gets too carried away by the exciting prospect of excavation and hurts someone's feelings and she'll apologize immediately. You can see how desperate she is in finding the Hob's Barrow and how much she wants to excavate it - for various reasons - but at the same time she realizes that however annoying the delay may be, she is just a guest here, she is an outsider, and she needs to get on the good side of the villagers if she wants her mission to be successful.
The thing that impressed me the most was how differently The Excavation of Hob's Barrow flows as a point-and-click-adventure compared to other games I've played of that genre. It is very... real. Thomasina arrives in Bewlay but the man who invited her there to excavate the barrow is nowhere to be seen so she starts searching for him. The NPCs in this game are not just talking heads to bounce your questions off of, they are all people with their own lives and occupations, you can't just go around asking everyone the same questions and expect them to answer you. You approach someone, make an acquaintance, tell them a bit about yourself, do small talk and then you can ask whatever it is you'd like to know. Just how it usually happens in real life: you don't go around firing questions at people you don't know. It might sound boring but I promise it's not, and it adds quite a lot to an already immersive story.
Every character in the game is well-rounded, and little by little you learn about every single one of them: what they do in the village, where you can find them and what potentially valuable expertise they possess. The game is fully voiced, the voice actors have done a fantastic job and because of their efforts the game is on a whole other level. Voices truly make these characters come to life. The incredible, detailed storybuilding within the village of Bewlay lays ground for probably the most logical progression that I've ever seen in a point-and-click game. If there is an obstacle in your way, if you cannot find someone or you need a specific item, or you need to get somewhere, you always know where to seek help from because you know the villagers well. I don't think there was ever a moment when I had no clue where to go or just started clicking on everyone without purpose hoping to randomly find an answer, like I did many times in some other games. In The Excavation of Hob's Barrow you solve incoming problems exactly how you'd solve them in real life. This leads to yet another merit, which is clear item-combining. No more using grandpa's pantaloons on cogwheels and levers. Probably the most annoying thing for me in point-and-click puzzles is trying to combine everything with everything because I've exhausted all logical options and ran out of ideas so I hope to move forward by just randomly clicking. Not in Hob's Barrow though! Because most problems Thomasina encounters are quite real, you, as a real human being, can employ your life experience and find a way out. And it will work.
The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is well-paced - a praise I rarely give - even though its slow but steady unraveling might deter some of the more impatient players. It builds, and builds, and builds, until the suspense becomes hard to bear, but when the point is reached, the story unravels and ends, which is a very difficult timing to catch. I played many games that couldn't handle the transition between the tension and the release successfully and it was so tantalizing to wait for the conclusion that it ultimately led to me losing interest and then becoming indifferent. The Excavation of Hob's Barrow handles this step very well: it's not drawn out to the point that you stop caring about what happens to Thomasina, and it doesn't unnecessarily torture you by stealing your time with irrelevant activities just to keep you in suspense for longer.
I can't say I've played many Lovecraftian Horror games, it isn't really something I'm specifically looking for, but I played SOME. Usually it's a bunch of mysterious notes, some type of Cthulhu cult that tries to summon him into the world, a bunch of fish people, a hamlet, probably a few sacrifices sprinkled throughout and, again, a pile of Cthulhu images and references. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, but I feel like very often games try to reference Lovecraft by names, items and imagery rather then the tone and atmosphere that his stories possess, the things that make them different from other types of horror. I think the Excavation of Hob's Barrow does a remarkable job capturing the slowburn insidious feeling of horror that you often experience while reading the works of H.P. Lovecraft. It is a feeling of something bigger than you, something dangerous lurking about - not necessarily Cthulhu - but also a feeling of being drawn in, almost seduced by this great dangerous unknown and the realization that if you could just walk away everything would probably be fine but you can't walk away. The inevitability of horror. Another thing that I think is rarely captured in games that build on Lovecraftian Horror is the unreliable narrator. Sometimes when reading Lovacraft's short stories you can't help but wonder if all these events happened at all, if there is a logical reasoning as opposed to cosmic powers beyond human understanding being the cause of it all.
The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is a great game that doesn't outstay its welcome and it puts all the time it has to good use - it's about 7 to 8 hours long. Its initially unassuming pixel art really shines in gorgeous and frightening cutscenes, it slowly but steadily builds a great horror story set in a remote village surrounded by moors. The characters are, without a doubt, Hob's Barrow's strongest suit not only because the voice actors did a fantastic job, but also because they were given enough story time. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bewlay under an endless drizzle of rain coming down from leaden skies in the most pleasant company of Ms. Thomasina Bateman.
As usual, stay tuned here and on the Lair's YouTube channel not to miss out on anything.
Thank you for your time.