Don’t go into that sawmill: some thoughts on Anna

I’ve just finished – well, in the early hours of the morning – Dreampainters’ game Anna. The timing was probably pretty suitable because it’s considered a survival horror, though really it’s better described as some manner of walking simulator set in an increasingly weird sawmill.

The story is fairly twisted and unclear – it follows the death of a woman named Anna (yes, she of the title), whose relation to you is as yet unclear. It becomes more clear through the game, though not much more, as madness is a bit of a feature, and there’s not really any such thing as a reliable narrator here.

The Extended version features a possible eight endings, which increase in terrible-ness as the game continues. So it’s possible to NOPE out of the game soon after solving a desultory door-opening puzzle and receive what amounts to the ‘good’ ending, while pursuing the story to its end guarantees a Pretty Bad Time.

Though it’s a three-dimensional thing – and nicely rendered, too – this is essentially a point-and-click adventure. Use x on y and progress the story. There’s a series of premonition tiles you earn from observing particular things, and these unlock achievements (including an award for following the tale of a clog-maker, no less) but often are confusing. There’s a couple of masks with universe-altering capabilities to throw some more WTFsauce on the game, which already, when it moves further into the bonkers side of things, is already a world of watchful eyes, moving mannequins and not enough goddamned light anywhere.

SERIOUSLY.

The major problem with this game is that is suffers pretty hard from a case of Moon Logic. This comes on the heels of a lack of description of how to drive the game (WASD plus C and I, plus some mouse gestures, if you’re interested) but it’s the most irritating part of the endeavour. It’s expected that adventure games will contain some irrational problems, completed only with half-arsed solutions. But Anna features a lot more of these than I’d figured on, and the result is that where previously I’d have relentlessly used every item on every other item in the hope that some kind of logical static electricity would kick in and reveal the answer, this time around I just alt-tabbed to an online walkthrough.

Yes, it pains me to think that I’ve had to resort to a walkthrough to complete an adventure game – something that pains me, as I’d completed Sierra and Lucasfilm games without the aid of such fripperies, back in the day of charged information lines – but there was a lot here that frustrated. It wasn’t that the solutions were hard – it is basically point-and-click/use inventory thing on another thing – but just that they didn’t necessarily fit the story. Sure, there’s documents you can pick up that give you some clues what to do – an equivalent of verbose text-adventure parser passages designed to point you in the right direction – but this always felt like a bit of a cop-out. So, alt-tab it was, which proved particularly useful when I tried to get the ultimate ending – that is, the one which explained the most story to me.

I don’t know if it’s a function of the game being produced by an Italian design team, but there’s a lot of clunkiness with the story, and I suspect there’s a bunch of it which hasn’t travelled well at all. The story is serviceable (though as noted, notes seem to bulk out the tale with backstory and much-needed problem-solving pointers, which seems to speak to bad design more than anything else) but it also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The motivations and reactions of the player character are not always believeable, which is a crucial flaw in a game like this. Here, you need the player to completely buy the story, no matter how OTT it may be. I always accepted the logic of Silent Hill 2, say, because James’s story there is completely solid. It’s off the wall, sure, but the key parts are strong enough (and respected enough) to ensure you stay with it. It doesn’t happen here.

Pleasant dreams.

Anna is a pretty interesting exercise in atmospheric frustration. I feel there’s so much more could have been done with it, and while some of the art is truly freaky, there’s only so much of giant artist’s dummies I can take. I’d like for it to have affected me more than it did, though I did see it through to its conclusion, which I suppose speaks to some ability to worm into the brain.

If you like these sort of games and see it in a bundle or for a couple of bucks – and most importantly, are very forgiving of design missteps – then it’s worth a play. Otherwise? Go find some Silent Hill instead.

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