Compact disc? HA! That will never catch on!
In the early nineties, a new medium started to emerge, one that would revoluzionize the industry: the compact disc. Indeed, CD-Rom with its incredible 650 MB of space seemed like too much space for the mid 90s, there had to be ways to fill that space. 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 / Mega CD add-on for the Genesis / Mega Drive console, even though one would hardly define that “experiment” as a success. 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 actual CD exclusives were, for the most part, not very good. Naturally, the Turbografx had adopted the CD way before Sega, but it wasn’t a widely owned console, let alone the Philips CD-i.
Gabriel Knight Sins of the Fathers (CD Version)
On PC things were different: a software house would need a pretty good reason to invest money and time to release a game on CD, as opposed to floppies. Sierra seemed to get it right pretty early on, with Sins of the Fathers‘ CD version enhanced with famous actors dubbing the characters, same with 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 was not even much better than the MT-32 version.
Regardless of how you spin the disc, or the tale, the PC-CD version always seemed to offer a superior experience to their floppy counterparts. Or, at least, 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.
Is it an RPG? Is it an Educational game? Is it a point'n'click?
Daughter of Serpents is a graphical adventure/visual novel – way before that particular hybrid even became a thing – with a unique egyptian and lovecraftian flavours. Originally planned for both Amiga and PC, it would come out only for MS-DOS in 1992, designed by Chris Elliot and Richard Edwards, as the second and last title developed by the short lived Eldritch games studio. Previously, the team had released another Lovecraft inspired title: 1989’s The Hound of Shadow.
Their original intentions are made pretty clear in the manual:
[…] Eventually, computer games will become a hybrid art form, borrowing techniques from everything that has gone before them, but doing it in their own unique way. In taking a step towards that, we’ve tried to be realistic. What we are doing in ‘Daughter of Serpents’ is probably closest to the techniques used in graphic novels, although it could also be described as an ‘interactive drama’. Finally, because of the extent to which it controls the operation of the computer, SIGNOS can be described without exaggeration as an operating system. It has been designed and written with as few compromises as possible, as a sophisticated engine driving a new type of game.
Basically, SIGNOS is the system which makes it possible to click on the various subjects in the character’s dialogue and “change” the direction of the conversation. How that exactly works different from any other dialogue trees, I have no real clue. Still, Daughter of Serpents, thirty years later, looks fantastic. The illustrations by Pete Lyon, 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, pretty easy to get stuck in one’s brain, probably also because it has three songs in total. All things considered, the visual / audio compartment, overall, I would say it is pretty strong.
I have been in contact with artist Pete Lyon to ask about the development of the game, he replies it was quite pleasant work: ” I was subcontracted to produce pictures and had little to do with the gameplay. I was at that point sick of working in the very restrictive palettes available on the ST and wanted to do something involving a whole 256 colours, without all the tedious coding restrictions. I think they offered me a generous up front payment and considerable latitude as to imagery. I was using a PC for the first time and enjoying the freedom afforded by the more sophisticated machine.”
Since the manual mentions that Pete went to Egypt to document in first person about the game’s art, I asked him to confirm this and indeed, it was something of a coincidence. “I was offered the game after I’d returned from a holiday [there] and was caught up in the possibilities of using that experience to do more realistic pictures.”
Staying on the positives, the 1920s Egypt atmosphere is perfectly recreated, from most previews in magazines of the time it seems the team went on a rather meticolous research to try and get most details of the era right. Personally, I am no expert but it definitely looks as realistic as a 1992 adventure game could manage.
The adventure opens on a character creation module (which, for some reason, uses a rare EGA high resolution) and a pretty in-depth one at that. Not only it is possible to choose the character’s gender, name and title (whatever for is still not entirely clear), but also age and profession. Most importantly, it is possible to assign points to several abilities, like sleuthing, observation, egyptology, alchemical knowledege, etc. At first glance, it would seem this module serves a fully fledged cRPG. But, a very similar module was also in the studio’s previous game, the textual adventure The Hound of Shadow: too bad that this time the game doesn’t ask what was the player’s role in the war.
While I created my character, a female Egyptologist, I was imagining the endless replayability that such an in-depth character creation could give to an adventure game, perhaps even multiple endings and different puzzles. Unfortunately, all the different abilities seem to boil down to are different dialogue options or the ability to solve some puzzles rather than others. For example, if the main character is proficient in alchemy or the Arabic language, then he or she are gonna suggest what to do next, otherwise someone else shall do it instead.
Talking about gaming design sin, this one is pretty huge: creating something that promises a deeper gameplay experience, but ends up having no practical use whatsoever.
The quest for the 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. Those were the main reasons for its poor reception by some of the various magazines of the time (in Italy reviews seemed to be mostly positive). Later reviews do not sound much kinder either, with JustAdventure calling 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 many reviews called out limited interactivity as an actual problem, which indeed it might have been, perhaps, in 1992. Today we know that no one really cares.
Unfortunately, JustAdventure’s dear old Randy got one thing right: the interface is one of the worst I’ve ever had the dis-pleasure of using. Eldritch Games’ intention was, probably, to remove all icons from the screen so that the player may have a clean view of the beatiful art and directly interact by finding the “right spot”, in keeping with their intentions of this being a “computer drama”. But this idea translates into 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 the inventory. There’s also a peculiar sub-screen in every location, which is actually used to interact with the floor to combine items together: it comes into play once in the whole game. I really have no clue why the even bothered to put it in every single location one visits.
Giving items to people turns immediately into an excruciating guessing game of “where is the hotspot”, pixel hunting taken to its extreme consequences. As luck would have it, not only I had to battle with the interface, but also with a whole share of technical problems: there seems to be no options menu at the start, so I had to stomach the unskippable one minute introduction every time only to load a game.
There does not seem to be a game over screen either: dying would take me back to a frozen black and white screen, with no other options than resetting the PC (talk about permadeath). At one moment in the adventure, a character took away some items and never gave them back, thus creating for me a wonderful dead end. While it is easy to blame some of the technical problems on modern computers, I would still say that mostly everything about Daughters’ game design screams: hastily put together.
Thoth says "the CD is not for thee"
Three years after the release of the original Daughter of Serpents, Nova Spring in the US and Psygnosis in the EU released a CD version of the same game. So, right off the bat, I am unsure if any decisions made in the new design, which we will see in detail soon, were actually greenlighted by the original developers. Still, it would be natural to think the new version would fix some of the problems of the original. Naturally, one would be wrong… but, not entirely so.
As the first order of business, Eldritch (or, probably, the publisher) decided to change the title to The Scroll, a bad idea all around since Daughter of Serpents just sounded more enticing and, also, because there is really no point since this is mainly the same game as before. I can only think that, by changing the title, they were trying to avoid some of the not so enthusiastic press from their previous title. Naturally, the interface hasn’t been touched at all, because it was PERFECT to begin with.
The mandatory digitized voices added for the new version are of decent quality, for the mid 90s, the voice actors seem to be mostly average for the time as well, even though hearing an ancient Egyptian demon speak with a normal human voice is a letdown. Gone is the character creation screen, good riddance, in its place there are only two professions to choose: Occultist or Egyptologist. This means only two different paths to be taken, along with different endings; a sensible design choice even though, of course, the main “evil cult” story remains the same.
So far, one would say the CD version is actually the superior one, but here comes the twist. For some godforsaken reason, while The Scroll does feature new scenes compared to the old Daughter, other locations were altogether removed or just slightly altered. Asked about it, artist Pete Lyon says he has no idea what happened but can confirm there were no legal issues between him and the developers, but, as he remembers, ” I believe the two guys that were designing and implementing the game encountered some sort of dispute, either between themselves and/or with the parent company”.
For comparison’ sake, here is the same necromancy scene in the floppy and CD version:
One step forward, two backwards
But the changes do not stop there. In the original Daughter of Serpents there’s a pretty interesting subplot where the player is helping the police find smugglers of ancient relics. Well, The Scroll removes it altogether. Wait, there’s more. A fascinating sequence of an Egyptian god coming out of a portal commanding the player to follow, while giving the horns (as seen in the cover image), was removed as well. The Scroll seems to have a serious problem with the original Daughter art, even going as far as removing the (iconic, since Eldritch used it for all promotions) lovely art of the daughter of serpents herself reacting angrily to the player.
Why were these changes made? I have no idea, it wasn’t really a issue of saving space or dialogue here, since there was little or none during said scenes. Perhaps issues with the original artist, even though most of the original art is still there. In the end, the CD, by adding new scenes and events, ends up making the game slightly longer. Not only that, but The Scroll actually features one vaguely actually challenging puzzle, to break up the monotonity of going from point A to point B. Still, despite all these new features, still The Scroll does not clock in at more than a couple hours. Overall, it is fair to say the CD version is indeed more streamlined and less dispersive, feeling a tiny bit more like an actually finished adventure game.
What is particularly weird, and readily becomes apparent playing the two versions back to back is that, along with the removed sequences, many of the “new” characters that feature in the CD version are not new at all: they were already present in the floppy version. The locations were there as well, they were just empty and the player would barely interact with the characters. Thus, playing The Scroll feels less like an enhanced version and more like a “director’s cut” that restores the deleted scenes kind of experience. Finally, the player gets to experience the “true” version of Daughter of Serpents. I guess?
I really hope to someday get to interview the people who worked on it, otherwise we might never know what actually transpired. Or care.
From Providence to El Cairo
So, why am I wasting all this time talking about a game which is mostly awful and hastily designed? Because, beyond the graphics, there’s one thing both games do surprisingly right: atmosphere. Browsing (I wouldn’t say walking) the streets of the city of Cairo feels as authentic as 1992 could manage. The player will find heaps of information about Egpytian mythology and deities, which makes one appreciate the amount of research that Eldritch carried out. Which, really, feels even going a bit overboard, this is why I suspect they might have planned for this to be an educational game, only to give up halfway through and hastily designe a couple of puzzles to make it vaguely resemble an adventure.
The back of the box advertises “original 1920s materials from Thomas Cook”, so I guess the educational intent is still intact, even in its final form. The original Daughter release went as far as to include a tabletop RPG designed as a prequel; too bad they forgot to include an actual RPG in the game, besides the character creation screen. The story is suprisingly well written, although concluded hastily; managing to both make sense and enticing the player to think of the actual possibility of Lovecraftian entity Nyarlathotep coming back with the help of Osiris and Thoth. Naturally, the player won’t meet any of the evil divinities but still, the mythology is well researched and the dialogues, while pretty long (especially for the time, many reviews criticized them), never overstay their welcome.
So, which version would be the one to seek out and play today?
That is a difficult question to answer, since both games end up being quite fascinating, for both the wrong and right reasons. Still they do have one thing in common: promising much and delivering little. Truth be told, in the CD version I found no actual deaths (or permadeaths) nor technical problems of sorts, at least. In the end, 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. Too bad about the disappering art.
But is it fair to say they provide the same experience? Of course not. Still, if one wanted to start somewhere in this horrific trip through Egypt, The Scroll would be my personal recommendation.
Sweet sweet Lovecraftian suffering
Why am I bothering to recommend a game which I’ve spent 1500 words dissecting and tearing apart? Well, because frankly Daughter of Serpents really left me feeling bitter, not mad. Indeed this Lovecraftian flavoured experience is strangely effective and I find myself thinking back to it again and again. I find it is an experience that makes more sense now, than thirty years ago, since we have finally stopped caring about games being actually interactive and can sit back and enjoy.
Both games manage to do that “suffusing an ordinary situation with dread transforming it slowly with supernatural events and demons from another age/planet” thing surprisingly well. Trust me, this is no ordinary feature, there are several games/movies inspired by the works of the Providence author that fail miserably in the very same endevaor. If both titles had been designed with a little more time and care, fleshing out the characters and adding a bit of gameplay, The Scroll could have easily been the best Lovecraftian inspired adventure game from the 90s, no doubts about it.
In conclusion, for any fans of the Providence author or just, in genreal, of any weird and obscure adventure games from the 90s, I would say that “Daughter of Scrolls” is worth the little time it asks. It does pay to be careful of the several tech hiccups in the floppy versions, because those could seriously cripple one’s will to live even more than catching a glimpse of Dagon itself.
Since both games have never been re-released in any form, along with being definitely pretty hard to find on the used circuit, this is a useful link that easily allows to play both games without much hassle even on a modern computer.