Compact disc? HA! That will never catch on!
In the early nineties, CD-Rom started to emerge as the medium of the future, thus the gaming industry had to adapt too. Albeit very slowly.
The first time the general public cared enough to buy CDs was with the SEGA CD add-on for the Genesis/Megadrive console, even though perhaps “cared” isn’t the right word. Naturally, the Turbografx adopted a CD reader before Sega, but it wasn’t a widely owned console. Most titles released for Sega/Mega CD were just ordinary Genesis games with a couple of video sequences spliced in or a digital soundtrack, the few Sega CD exclusives were, for the most part, not very good.
On PC things were different: a software house needed a pretty good reason to invest money and time to release a game on CD, as opposed to floppies. Sierra got it right pretty early on: Sins of the Fathers was enhanced with famous actors dubbing the voices and so was Quest for Glory IV – Shadows of Darkness. Other software houses weren’t so quick to catch on, in 1992 The Secret of Monkey Island on CD just added a digitized soundtrack which wasn’t much better than the MT-32 version.
Regardless of how you spin the dis… ehm, the tale, the PC-CD version always offered the better experience. Or so I thought, until I stumbled unto Daughter of Serpents/The Scroll. The one rare case where the “enhanced” version feels like another game altogether with added scenes and features removed.
Let's make an RPG! No... wait, an educational game is better! No, scratch that, an adventure!
Daughter of Serpents is a graphical adventure/visual novel – way before that particular hybrid became a thing – with a unique egyptian/lovecraftian flavour. The game came out in 1992, designed by Chris Elliot and Richard Edwards, as the second and last title developed by the short lived Eldritch games studio. Thirty years later it looks… well, to be honest, fantastic.
The illustrations by Pete Lyon, a veteran of the industry, aged really well and are still wonderful to look at, the desatured tone matching the macabre atmosphere perfectly. The soundtrack is sparse but still catchy and it will get stuck in your brain, probably because it has three songs in total. The game opens with a character creation module (using a rare EGA high resolution) and a pretty detailed one at that. Not only you can choose your character gender, name and title (what for?), but also age and profession; most importantly you assign points to several abilities, like sleuthing, observation, egyptology, alchemical knowledege, etc. It definitely looks almost like a fully fledged rpg.
This made my mouth water, imagining the endless replayability that an in-depth character creation could give to an adventure game. Unfortunately, all this boils down to is some slight changes in the dialogue options. If you’re proficient in alchemy or the Arabic language, your character is gonna suggest what to do next, otherwise someone else shall do it in your stead.
Gaming design sin #1: creating something that promises a deeper gameplay experience that ends up having no practical use in the game.
The quest for the right hotspot
Daughter of Serpents‘ gameplay consists mostly of going from point A to point B, talking with people and following their orders, with perhaps a couple of elementary “puzzles” spliced in. This was the main reason for its poor reception from the press of the time, even though later reviews aren’t much kinder either, JustAdventure called it “the worst adventure ever”. If I had a dime every time I heard something being called the “worst… ever” … I would be three dollars richer, probably. Funny to think that limited interactivity was a problem in 1992, in 2020? Pft, who cares!
Much less funny, JustAdventure’s dear old Randy got one thing right: the interface is one of the worst I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. Eldritch Games’ intention was, probably, to remove all icons from the screen so that the player may interact by finding the “right spot”, while fully enjoying the beautiful art. This means spending a whole minute to open and read a letter, finding the right spot to turn the page or, worst of all, putting things in your inventory. There’s also a peculiar sub-screen in every location used to interact with the floor, which comes into play once in the whole game, I don’t know why they bothered to put it everywhere.
Giving items to people is an excruciating guessing game of “where is the hotspot”, pixel hunting taken to its extreme consequences. Unfortunately I had a whole share of technical problems too: there was no options menu at the start so every time I had to stomach the full one minute introduction to load a game. There was also no game over screen: dying would take me back to a frozen screen. Then, a character took some items and never gave them back, thus creating for me a wonderful dead end. Basically, everything about Daughters’ game design screams: hastily put together.
Thoth says "the CD is not for you"
One might think the developers would fix some of the problems for the CD release, but one might be wrong… but not entirely so. The main point to consider is that the updated version didn’t come out a few months later – as I initially found online – but three years later, in 1995.
They changed the title to The Scroll, a bad idea all around since Daughter of Serpents just sounded more enticing and, also, because the game stays the same. I can only think they tried to avoid some of the bad press from their previous title. The mandatory digitized voices are of decent quality for 95, the actors aren’t bad either, even though hearing a demon speak with a normal voice is a letdown. Gone is the character creation screen, good riddance, in its place two professions you can choose: Occultist or Egyptologist. This means two different paths to be taken, along with different endings; a sensible design choice even though, of course, the main “evil cult” story stays the same.
Still, for some godforsaken reason, while the CD version had new scenes, others were removed or just slightly altered. Here is the same necromancy scene in the floppy and CD version:
One step forward, two steps backwards
In the first game there’s a pretty interesting subplot where the player is helping the police find smugglers of ancient relics. The Scroll removes it altogether. Again, a fascinating sequence of an Egyptian god coming out of a portal telling you to follow him, while giving you the horns! Well, The Scroll does away with it, along with the daughter of serpents reacting angrily. Both gone.
Why? I have no idea, it wasn’t really a issue of saving space or dialogue here since there was little or none.
Still, the CD adds various sequences and makes the game longer (even though it remains a 2 hours thing), along with more locations to explore and, finally, at least it introduces one vaguely serious puzzle. The Scroll is indeed more streamlined and less dispersive, feeling a tiny bit more like an adventure game.
The weird thing though, along with the removed sequences, is that many of the characters were already present in the floppy version, along with the locations, but you barely interacted with them. Thus, playing The Scroll feels less like an enhanced version and more like a “director’s cut” kind of thing.
If I don’t get to interview the people who worked on it, we might never know what happened here.
From Providence to El Cairo
Still, beyond the graphics, there’s one thing both games do surprisingly right: atmosphere.
Browsing (not really walking) through the streets of Cairo feels as authentic as 1992 could manage. The player will find heaps of information about Egpytian mythology and deities, which makes one think that Eldritch had plans for an educational game then gave up halfway through and hastily designed a couple of puzzles to make it play vaguely like an adventure.
The back of the box advertises “original 1920s materials from Thomas Cook”, so I guess the educational intent is still intact in its final form. The original Daughter release also included a tabletop RPG designed as a prequel; too bad they forgot to include one IN the game…
The story is well written, although concluded hastily; managing to both make sense and enticing the player to think of Nyarlathotep coming back with the help of Osiris and Thoth. Naturally, you won’t meet any of them but still, the mythology is well researched and the dialogues, while long, never overstay their welcome.
So, which version is the real deal?
Well… both games are fascinating, for wrong and right reasons, promising so much and delivering little. In the CD version there were no game overs or technical problems, at least. Naturally, the interface hasn’t been touched at all, because it was PERFECT to begin with. Basically The Scroll is the same game as Daughter for a good 70%, sharing the main plot and most of the characters, along with the gameplay. But is it fair to say they provide the same experience? Of course not.
Ten out of ten, would suffer through again
Still, if one wanted to start somewhere in this horrific trip through Egypt, The Scroll would be my personal recommendation. As a Lovecraftian flavoured experience, it is strangely effective, especially in 2020 where we stopped caring about games being interactive.
It does that “suffusing an ordinary situation with dread transforming it slowly with supernatural events and demons from another age/planet” thing surprisingly well. If it had been designed with a little more time and care, this would have been the best Lovecraftian inspired adventure game from the 90s, no doubts about it.
For any fans of the Providence author or just of weird and obscure 90s adventure games, Daughter of Scrolls is worth the little time it asks. Just be careful of the tech hiccups in the floppy versions because those could seriously cripple your will to live. The game has never been re-released in any form and it is also pretty hard to find on the used circuit. Thus I give you a link that will allow you to play both games without much hassle.