What shall we call traditional point-and-click adventure games that make their way to iOS? “Point-and-tap” adventure games, perhaps? Whatever the nomenclature, Hollywood Monsters is an exemplar of that well-worn genre, in which characters navigate across evocative 2D backgrounds, collect items from the world and through their sundry combinations advance the plot for your amusement. The developers at Pendulo Studios could easily have satisfied the basic demands of the genre with a familiar, workmanlike effort, but to their credit they insist on novelty. However, genre conventions exist for a reason; if you’re going to toy with them, you’d better know what you’re doing, and the Pendulo team doesn’t quite always.
Hollywood Monsters is set in classic studio-era Hollywood with a twist: all the campy old movie monsters are real, and they act (playing themselves) in their own monster movies. Knock-off superheroes, mastermind villains, mad scientists, space aliens, ancient terrors and bizarre mutants: these beings are all real, but they don’t always behave as their on-screen personae would suggest. When the cameras aren’t rolling they attend posh soirees, get drunk and worry over their next starring role. The game satirizes with equal ease the behind-the-scenes machinations of real Hollywood studios as well as the tropes of the cheap horror and sci-fi films those studios once churned out. The result is an impressive pastiche of tongue-in-cheek motifs, crafted with adoring detail and served with aplomb.
You play not as one but as two characters: Liz Allaire and Dan Murray, reporters for a newspaper tasked with covering a grand post-awards-ceremony party at the opulent mansion of a movie magnate. The night’s assignment is right up Liz’s alley since she writes for the entertainment section. Dan, though, is properly a sports columnist and he chafes at the notion of fawning over movie celebrities (as though his trade’s celebrities were any worthier!). So he pouts in his convertible sipping a flask while Liz does all the hard work. At one point Liz comes outside to argue with him, and she notices the monster/actor named Big Albert sneaking suspiciously about the premises of the mansion. What nefarious thing is he up to? Thus begins the adventure.
Liz and Dan are deliberate stereotypes, and the game does well to make so many jokes at their expense. Liz is kooky, forward and enthusiastic to the point of obsession. Dan is recalcitrant, sardonic, determined never to be too gleeful. Liz is somewhere between Annie Hall and Hildy Johnson; Dan, between Sam Spade and Ash from Army of Darkness. Naturally they profess to hate each other, but early clues abound as to their repressed feelings. These characters and their interactions are predictable but well executed. The game switches between Liz’s and Dan’s perspectives as the narrative unfolds.
Well, the narrative doesn’t exactly “unfold” neatly. Rather, it explodes in fits and starts, pirouettes clumsily and staggers about quite unaware of its own spectacle. The opening cut-scene is immediately confusing. It begins with a stilted and unfunny narrator whose connection to the events in the game is mysterious; the narrator begins his tale, and the scene fades to show Dan engaged in dangerous-looking work in a Frankenstein’s laboratory—but then the narrator corrects himself. That’s not where the story starts! Silly me. It starts with Dan and Liz in the parking lot outside the celebrity party, when Liz first noticed Big Albert up to no good. But who are Dan and Liz? Why should we find them appealing? In the first sixty seconds we’re thrust into narrator-mediated intrigue, then the plug is pulled, our characters reappear sans introduction and are thrust into intrigue again. But as any high school Shakespeare student knows, the complication is supposed to start in Act 2. What happened to the exposition in Act 1? The game cries out for a new, more traditional first half hour.
The narrative problems continue, alas. The switches between characters are a bit jarring, though I can forgive them since they afford some dramatic irony. But why must the game suffer interruptions every so often by that aforementioned narrator, who struggles to remember the details of the story (that I’m putatively playing out!) as though it had all already happened? His awkward mediation of the events in the tale only separates me, the player, from the world in which I’m supposed to be comfortably immersed. Our high school student might chime in again, this time recalling her creative writing lesson: it’s always better to show than to tell…
Other aspects of the game further suggest that its creators were only partly interested in settling into a patient storyteller’s groove. When you tap to interact with an object, Liz or Dan teleports instantly alongside it. Sure, this saves a few seconds, but it also undermines the coherence of the geography of the game world. Instead of a contiguous world full of spaces to explore, we get one comprised of discrete puzzles to teleport between. Even the game’s near-constant barrage of irreverent jokes has an ironic, distancing effect between player and character. I never really came to care about Liz or Dan, though I admit I was always interested in hearing their next quip.
Still, there is much here to laud. The game is visually exquisite. All the backgrounds, animations, and characters are evocative and splashy. In each scene the moody music suggests all the right notes of mystery or comedy, as appropriate. The voice actors show superb talent, though their director often lets them stress the wrong syllable. The controls are exactly as they ought to be, an adventurer gamer’s comfort food. Most of the puzzles could only ever make sense from the perspective of their zany game-world, but a nice hint system spares any lasting frustration.
The basic framework is all in place for an important contribution to the genre, but Hollywood Monsters never quite coheres into the game it should. I have to try to lose myself in it. That I’m nevertheless willing to try is a testament to its promise.
3 out of 5
- iOS Universal edition: Hollywood Monsters, $5.99