Last month I wrote about expectations and how they have an impact on the emotional response you have with stories, games or any other form of entertainment. I wrote about how my expectations for a light-hearted romp made two Nancy Drew titles get to me. They managed to create tense atmospheres and even managed to scare me.
When I published that article, someone commented that I should have waited to play Nancy Drew: Ghost of Thornton Hall, as it was the scariest of all Nancy Drew games.
Having recently finished this title—on my way to play all the games in the Nancy Drew series, a goal I’m very close to achieving—I thought it might be a good idea to tell you about my experience with Nancy Drew: Ghost of Thornton Hall.
When I played the scary Nancy Drew games, Shadow at the Water’s Edge and the Captive Curse, I didn’t expect to find them scary, I didn’t think HeR Interactive could achieve such a tense atmosphere and use horror tropes so effectively.
While Ghost of Thornton hall is decidedly eerie and has some wonderfully creepy moments, it didn’t scare me at all. There’s of course the matter of my expectations. For this title in the Nancy Drew series I came ready to face scary situations, so that’s one hurdle the game had to overcome to engender that intense emotional response.
But the second reason is perhaps the most important and which carries the greatest lesson when it comes to horror storytelling and gaming. That reason is a lack of subtlety.
Shadow at the Water’s edge is incredibly subtle, using shadows and things you can’t see to its advantage. After all, if you can’t see the creature or give it a name, then your mind takes over and the truth about the haunting is never as scary as what your mind cooks up trying to explain the situation.
The Ghost of Thornton hall shows its ghostly hand too soon and too often. There are some subtle details, like shadows moving when you open doors, strange creatures scurrying about and statues and monuments moving their heads in your direction, but the problem is they happen too many times. The first time they’re effective but by the 5th, I didn’t feel anything beyond mild curiosity.
It’s the same with the titular spectre
What I will give Nancy Drew: Ghost of Thornton Hall is that it’s incredibly subtle in giving you explanation for what’s really behind the haunting. The signs are there and you can pick them from the beginning. They give you the big reveal at the end of course, but you can piece it together on your own and I really loved that. The reason itself is logical but also leaves plenty open for your own interpretation.
In my earlier article on expectations and the Nancy Drew series, I said the games had to scale a big wall to affect me, my shifting expectation and turns out I was right. I was ready for the scares and the atmosphere now, I was counting on it and so the game couldn’t create that wonderful terror in me.
Nancy Drew: Ghost of Thornton Hall was still a blast, but new games in the series must up their scare game to get me to shiver and subtlety is a very good way to get there!