Cragne Manor (a Let's Play thread) (see content warning in first post)


#1

Twenty years ago, Michael Gentry published his eldritch horror interactive fiction game Anchorhead–a game so popular and successful, an updated version is now available on Steam. To celebrate this anniversary, he joined more than 80 other authors to create a surprisingly coherent exquisite-corpse-style tribute game. I was thrilled to be able to contribute a room to a work of this staggering magnitude. If you missed my regular comments in the Axe while I was testing this, let me assure you that some of the best available interactive fiction is contained in this monster; it has moments which there are astonishing, and creepy, and gross, and sad, and hilarious. It is also free, and you can play in your browser or download the game file for use with any compatible interpreter.

Cragne Manor is now available.

UPDATE: Since this is now a Let’s Play thread, see the content warning below before proceeding.


#2

You going to tell us which part is yours, m8?


#3

he told us his typos in a different thread, just gotta keep your eye peeled for uh a ‘ladded’ or something


#4

The room I made is on the second floor of the titular manor. During the testing period, I spent maybe three hours playing, and while I was able to find the manor in that time, I was not able to get inside. The guy who actually finished the game during testing said it took him about ten hours to complete it, and he could rely on the rest of us for assistance whenever he got stuck, so this is game is maybe A Bit Much for anybody who’s not already pretty invested in interactive fiction.

My dirty little secret is that, despite having been pretty invested in the IF community since 2001, I barely play these games myself. There haven’t been more than maybe 50 games I spent serious time with, and in this context “serious time” is around two hours. Considering that the annual Interactive Fiction Competition typically gets 70 to 80 entries, it’s pretty galling that I’ve entered the competition twice when I barely even play these games.

What I have played of Cragne Manor really impressed me, though, so to try to expose a wider audience to the things I like about IF, and to make up for my own poor playing habits, this is now a Let’s Play thread. As I play through the game, I’ll post everything that happens here, and maybe I can add interesting tidbits along the way. Or more likely, I’ll get distracted in a few days and this thread will quietly slip into inactivity! Here we go!


#5

Welcome to Cragne Manor! Before we begin, we want to make sure you really understand what you’re getting
yourself into…

Pressing a key brings up a disclaimer.

CONTENT WARNING

Please be warned that this game contains:

cosmic horror, body horror, psychological horror, gore, violence, murder, death, self-harm, suicide, mutilation, decapitation, racism, spiders, snakes, rats, aggressive birds, deceased animals, insects, incest, nonexplicit references to uncomfortable sexual situations involving minors, abusive relationships, domestic violence, pregnancy loss, ghosts, mental illness, homelessness, alcoholism, oppressive religious organizations, bullying, kidnapping, hostile vegetation, fungal overgrowth, creepy dolls, creepy children, references to human/anthropomorphic animal sex, eyeball contact, scatological references, strong language, virgin sacrifice, demon summoning, demon possession, blood, skeletons, viscera, infectious disease…

…and possibly several other types of disturbing content we forgot to include.

Would you still like to continue? (Please type yes or no.)

I know that some of the stuff described above (racism, for one) is specifically being condemned as a negative quality/critique of Lovecraft himself, but it’s probably for the best to err on the side of caution. This content warning should probably apply to the thread itself, so I’ll update the first post with a link to this before I proceed.


#6

I typed YES at the prompt, only to find ANOTHER disclaimer.

CONCEPT WARNING

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Michael Gentry’s Anchorhead, we got more than eighty people together and assigned each of them to create one room of a massive Anchorheadesque world. The authors were given basic information about what their rooms were and how they fit into the game’s puzzle progression; beyond that, we told them to do whatever they wanted. We didn’t tell anybody what was going on in anybody else’s rooms.

This resulted in a game that is ridiculous. The world the authors created is inconsistent and often nonsensical. Commands that are necessary to progress in one room might not work anywhere else. Many of the puzzles are, by ordinary human standards, deeply unfair. By ordinary human standards, this is not a good game.

If you approach Cragne Manor as an conventional work of interactive fiction, you’ll find it confusing and frustrating. Temper your expectations, be prepared for the weirdness you’re diving into. You’ll still end up confused and frustrated at some point. Then you’ll discover that this is completely worth it.

Would you still like to continue? (Please type yes or no.)

Another YES.

Thank you, and enjoy your stay in Cragne Manor! For more information about the game, please type ABOUT or CREDITS at any time.

[press any key to begin]


#7

I think this is true of most creative professionals; life intercedes and you carry your childhood memories and the glimpses you get from trade events and gossip but you struggle to keep up to date on what’s contemporary, never mind the buried gemstones or those in other media.

Keeping up to date is important but it sits alongside inspiration, worldliness, work habits, and all the other factors of a creative process. It’s ok (and common) to feel undeveloped here.


#8

The cold autumn wind makes you shiver. The train station is eerily deserted: no staff, no other passengers. Even the train you arrived on has disappeared into the distance as if it had never been here. Your memory of the trip already seems faded and unreal, like a dream.

The sign hanging overhead catches your eye: “Backwater Station.” Yes: Backwater, Vermont. This is where you need to be. You need to find Peter.

Cragne Manor
An Anchorhead tribute by various authors
Release 10 / Serial number 181208 / Inform 7 build 6M62 (I6/v6.33 lib 6/12N)

Railway Platform (Naomi Hinchen)
The platform is open to the outdoors, but has an overhanging roof with a rusted sign hanging from it. At the back of the platform, to the south, is the entrance to the lobby. Train tracks stretch off into the distance to the east and west; on the other side of the track is a graffitied brick wall. The only other living creature in sight is a rat fixing you with its beady black eyes.

The clock overhead gives the time as 6:20 pm; beneath the clock is a schedule board listing train arrival times. On the platform itself are a wooden bench, a storage locker, and a vending machine.

>

Here is the first official command prompt of the game. If I’d been playing on an interpreter that supported graphics, the cover art above would have shown up under the game’s bibliographic data, I suspect. Beneath that, the game officially begins in a room written by Naomi Hinchen. Before I really dig in, let’s follow the game’s earlier suggestion:

> ABOUT
Cragne Manor commemorates the 20th anniversary of Michael Gentry’s Anchorhead. More than eighty authors wrote one room each. We didn’t tell them what was going on in each other’s rooms.

The project organizers were Jenni Polodna and Ryan Veeder. (Contact them jointly at cragne@jennipolodna.com.)

The authors were Adam Whybray, Adri, Andrew Plotkin, Andy Holloway, Austin Auclair, Baldur Brückner, Ben Collins-Sussman, Bill Maya, Brian Rushton, Buster Hudson, Caleb Wilson, Carl Muckenhoupt, Chandler Groover, Chris Jones, Christopher Conley, Damon L. Wakes, Daniel Ravipinto, Daniel Stelzer, David Jose, David Petrocco, David Sturgis, Drew Mochak, Edward B, Emily Short, Erica Newman, Feneric, Finn Rosenloev, Gary Butterfield, Gavin Inglis, Greg Frost, Hanon Ondricek, Harkness Munt, Harrison Gerard, Ian Holmes, Ivan Roth, Jack Welch, Jacqueline Ashwell, James Eagle, Jason Dyer, Jason Lautzenheiser, Jason Love, Jenni Polodna, Jeremy Freese, Joey Jones, Joshua Porch, Justin de Vesine, Justin Melvin, Katherine Morayati, Kenneth Pedersen, Lane Puetz, Llew Mason, Lucian Smith, Marco Innocenti, Marius Müller, Mark Britton, Mark Sample, Marshal Tenner Winter, Matt Schneider, Matt Weiner, Matthew Korson, Michael Fessler, Michael Gentry, Michael Hilborn, Michael Lin, Mike Spivey, Molly Ying, Monique Padelis, Naomi Hinchen, Nate Edwards, Petter Sjölund, Q Pheevr, Rachel Spitler, Reed Lockwood, Reina Adair, Riff Conner, Roberto Colnaghi, Rowan Lipkovits, Ryan Veeder, Sam Kabo Ashwell, Scott Hammack, Sean M. Shore, Wade Clarke, Zach Hodgens, and Zack Johnson.

Special beta testing thanks to Andrew Schultz. Special being a baby thanks to production baby Fionn Collins. Extra special having written Anchorhead thanks to Michael Gentry.

Typing CREDITS provides the exact same text. This list of authors shows up in a variety of places online now, and sometimes I count 84 names, and sometimes I count 85. This time I got 84.

Let’s run through some typical text adventure commands to start things off:

> EXAMINE ME
You feel uncertain and disoriented, as if you are not quite real. Are you real? Maybe you’re a fictional character in a text adventure.

> X CLOCK
The clock face seems almost to be staring at you, as the second hand sweeps hypnotically around it. The time shown is 6:22 pm. You can’t see the clock very closely from down here.

The wind blows stray leaves across the tracks.

> INVENTORY
You are carrying nothing.

> XYZZY
The world falls silent for a moment, as if holding its breath for something to happen… but nothing does. You don’t know what you expected, really.

A low hum comes from the PA system, growing slowly louder until it crescendoes in a screech and falls suddenly silent.

The convention among most modern IF games is that common commands like “EXAMINE”, “INVENTORY” or “GO EAST” can be shortened to single letters such as X, I, or E. “XYZZY” is one of the magic words from the very first text adventure, and it’s become something of an emblem for the community—there are annual XYZZY Awards provided to the most outstanding games in the preceding year, and XYZZY is a common command implemented as an easter egg, even if it usually doesn’t do anything (as we see here).


#9

One of the nice things about transcribing my play session into another window like this is that I can more easily refer to things that have already happened. My usual habit while playing is to reexamine things and LOOK again every third or fourth command just because I hate to scroll up while playing, and I don’t read closely enough or remember long enough to thoroughly explore an area without relying on the room description. For once, that’s not a problem!

Let’s get some more commands out of the way:

> X RUSTED SIGN
Through the rust, you can make out the words “Backwater Station.”

> X TRACKS
The tracks extend east and west to the horizon, but there is no sign of the train that brought you here.

> X BRICK WALL
A crumbling brick wall with some strange graffiti painted on it.

> READ GRAFFITI
Someone has scrawled the word “Vaadignephod” on the wall in lime-green paint.

That seems awfully specific. I wonder if that word will come up again?

> X RAT
Startled by your attention, the rat scurries away, leaving behind a brass winding key.

You shiver for no reason at all, as if someone has just walked over your grave.

> TAKE BRASS KEY
Taken.

The clock gives a deep, booming chime on the half hour.

> X KEY
A small brass key used for winding a clock.

> X CLOCK
The clock face seems almost to be staring at you, as the second hand sweeps hypnotically around it. The time shown is 6:32 pm. You can’t see the clock very closely from down here.

> X SCHEDULE BOARD
The board lists a schedule of train times:
Providence CANCELLED
Dunwich CANCELLED
Innsmouth CANCELLED
Anchorhead 13:37
Arkham CANCELLED

So we have a clock, a key for winding a clock, and a time of some importance. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

> X BENCH
A weathered wooden bench. On the bench is a familiar gold wristwatch.

> TAKE WRISTWATCH
Taken.

The wind blows stray leaves across the tracks.

> X IT
You gave this to Peter as an anniversary present. It seems to have stopped. There is an inscription on the back.

A leak in the ceiling drips water into a puddle.

> READ INSCRIPTION
On the back of the watch is engraved
N + P
March 19th

The wind blows stray leaves across the tracks.

As you can see, the weather effects are getting a little repetitive. Rest assured they’re going to continue as long as we’re here, but I’m going to start omitting repeated text like this and making other editorial changes for the benefit of readability.


#10

> X STORAGE LOCKER
A storage locker painted a drab industrial gray. Attached to the front are a card swiper and a peeling label reading “Lost and Found.”

> X VENDING MACHINE
Similar to a gumball machine, but it’s the kind that dispenses toys in little plastic bubbles. At the bottom is a chute where the contents come out. There is a coin slot, but instead of a price next to it, there is a strange squiggled glyph.

In the vending machine is a plastic bubble.

> X BUBBLE
A small transparent plastic capsule with a lid.

In the plastic bubble is a golden eyepiece.

> X EYEPIECE
A misshapen golden disc, studded with lenses. It looks like it could fit flush with your eye socket. On its surfaces are a round button, a triangular button, and a small rectangular slot.

The golden eyepiece is currently switched off.

> SWITCH EYEPIECE ON
The plastic bubble isn’t open.

> TAKE BUBBLE
The vending machine isn’t open.

> OPEN MACHINE
It isn’t something you can open.

This is the kind of fumbling that typifies my usual involvement with IF games; I’ll spare you the bulk of it in this playthrough at least. Let’s see if we can’t make use of that key we picked up.

> STAND ON BENCH
You get onto the bench.

The clock gives a deep, booming chime on the quarter hour.

> X CLOCK
The clock face seems almost to be staring at you, as the second hand sweeps hypnotically around it. The time shown is 6:46 pm. Standing on the bench, you can see a small keyhole on one side of the clock.

> PUT WINDING KEY IN KEYHOLE
The winding key fits neatly into the hole, ready to be turned.

> TURN WINDING KEY
Turning the key will change the time on the clock. You should pick a time to set it to.

> SET CLOCK TO 13:37
The clock is now set to 1:37 pm.
You blink at the sudden light–has the sun just come up? Hard to tell with the cloud cover, but it seems suddenly much lighter.

An old-fashioned steam locomotive comes hurtling down the tracks from the west. It appears translucent, almost insubstantial, but the rush of wind and noise created by its passage fills the station: the clatter of the wheels, the chugging of the engine, the clanging of the bell, and the mournful blowing of the whistle. It whooshes through the station without stopping, and then is gone as swiftly as it appeared. In the sudden silence, you look down the tracks to the east, but can see no sign of it.

We have officially encountered a ghost train! It doesn’t stick around long enough for us to do anything with it, but it may prove useful to remember how we brought this about for later—phantom horror dream-logic abounds in this town. (I also have the benefit of having played through a bunch of these early rooms once already.)

The funny thing about standing on this bench is that Inform isn’t very sophisticated when it comes to objects that can support your body. I’m pretty sure sitting on the bench would have worked just as well as standing on the bench, and the “offical” verbs for interacting with supporter objects are ENTER and EXIT.

Just for the sake of thoroughness, let’s see what happens when we get hit by the train:

> SET CLOCK TO 13:30
The clock is now set to 1:30 pm.

The clock gives a deep, booming chime on the half hour.

> STAND ON TRACKS
(getting off the bench)
You get onto the tracks.

> Z
Time passes.

Z is a shortcut command for “WAIT”. I spend several turns waiting, and then—

> Z
Time passes.

Is it your imagination, or do you see something approaching down the track?

> Z
Time passes.

Yes… there’s definitely something coming, though you can’t seem to see it clearly…

> Z
Time passes.

There is a sudden gust of wind and a headlight shining in your face. You can just make out the translucent shape of an old-fashioned steam locomotive bearing down on you as you stand frozen on the tracks. You close your eyes, expecting it to hit you at any moment, but instead of a solid impact you feel a rushing current like a hurricane wind. There is no time even to scream as it tears the very soul from your body, carrying you along on its spectral journey.
 
 
    *** You have been claimed by the Ghost Train. ***
 
 
Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT, UNDO the last command or TAKE BACK the action that sealed your fate (for when UNDO is not enough)?
>

Holy shit, properly rendering death text on discourse is tough. Don’t expect nice formatting like that next time it happens!

> UNDO
Railway Platform (Naomi Hinchen)
[Previous turn undone.]

> EXIT TRACKS
You get off the tracks.

You step back just in time, as an old-fashioned steam locomotive comes hurtling down the tracks from the west. It appears translucent, almost insubstantial, but the rush of wind and noise created by its passage fills the station: the clatter of the wheels, the chugging of the engine, the clanging of the bell, and the mournful blowing of the whistle. It whooshes through the station without stopping, and then is gone as swiftly as it appeared. In the sudden silence, you look down the tracks to the east, but can see no sign of it.

I’m impressed that author-Naomi wrote custom text specifically for the situation in which protagonist-Naomi gets off the tracks at the last possible second! That’s the kind of attention-to-detail that I typically overlook.

At the moment, I think we’ve progressed as far as we can in this room, but we’ll be back. Let’s see what’s next!

> GO SOUTH

Train Station Lobby (Shin)
The evening light trickles through the dirty, cobweb-covered windows on either side of the station exit to the south, dimly illuminating your surroundings. To the north is the platform on which you arrived. To the east, a large mirror decorates the wall next to a green door. To the west, there is a brown door. The overall appearanceis one of general neglect and decay. You regard your surroundings with a deep sense of foreboding.

A styrofoam coffee cup sits on the floor next to the entrance to the bathroom.

>

If y’all have ideas for actions you want me to try (in this or any other room), let me know. This has been pretty fun so far, so I’ll tackle the train station lobby tomorrow!


#11

I tend to find the best way to add these is to playtest the game and look at what people are doing, or the jokes you’re making as they play, or the interesting dead ends they hit that can be filled out. Stanley Parable is the epitome of this: a coupla jokesters building an ever-more elaborate series of “what if I…?” choices with the help of their subjects.


#12

love that the time is a LEET joke


#13

Train Station Lobby (Shin)
The evening light trickles through the dirty, cobweb-covered windows on either side of the station exit to the south, dimly illuminating your surroundings. To the north is the platform on which you arrived. To the east, a large mirror decorates the wall next to a green door. To the west, there is a brown door. The overall appearance is one of general neglect and decay. You regard your surroundings with a deep sense of foreboding.

A styrofoam coffee cup sits on the floor next to the entrance to the bathroom.

> TAKE COFFEE CUP
Taken.

> X IT
A half-full styrofoam cup of doubtless very unpleasant coffee that you found on the floor of a train station. It must have had cream in it at some point, because there are definitely some clouds swirling around in there.

> X CLOUDS
A half-full styrofoam cup of doubtless very unpleasant coffee that you found on the floor of a train station. It must have had cream in it at some point, because there are definitely some clouds swirling around in there.

> DRINK COFFEE
A lot of people in your situation would probably drink the half-empty cup of abandoned coffee that they found on the floor of a train station, but you just aren’t there yet, mentally, and that’s a great sign.

> SWIRL COFFEE
That verb doesn’t work here, or, at least, not right now, but it might work somewhere later.

> READ COFFEE
A half-full styrofoam cup of doubtless very unpleasant coffee that you found on the floor of a train station. It must have had cream in it at some point, because there are definitely some clouds swirling around in there.

> STIR COFFEE
That verb doesn’t work here, or, at least, not right now, but it might work somewhere later.

If I seem unusually focused on the coffee, that’s because it’s this game’s hint system. I need a hint for how to make the hint system work.

> X MIRROR
You take a long look in the mirror. Even in these dim and dingy surroundings, you are as good-looking as ever.

> X WINDOWS
The dirty, cobweb-covered windows permit scant illumination within the station lobby. They appear not to have been cleaned in a long time.

> X ME
Even in these dim and dingy surroundings, you are as good-looking as ever.

> XYZZY
That verb doesn’t work here, or, at least, not right now, but it might work somewhere later.

I’m gonna come back to the lobby later. I actually know how to deal with the next room.

> WEST
(first opening the brown door)

Train Station Restroom (David Petrocco)
As you enter the restroom you hear creak of a faucet being turned off and the rough scraping of metal upon metal from the far end of the restroom. Finally the automatic lights kick on revealing the restroom but there’s no sign of who, or what, could have caused the noise.

A harshly lit pay restroom. Dust and grime mar the once white tiles and marble of the facilities: A small showerstall with the curtain closed, a bathroom stall with a single dirty toilet (there are mounts for a door, but it is nowhere to be seen), a small storage closet for janitorial supplies, a four by four row of small lockers, and an extremely dirty dual basin sink.

The train station is EAST.

> X ME
Looking at yourself in the dim restroom light you take note of the physical toll of your trip so far. You’re covered from head to toe in dirt, sweat and god knows what else. You could use a good scrub up, or even better a long hot shower.

None of the facilities present tempt you into taking a break but the desire to be clean again lingers on.

> XYZZY
That verb doesn’t work here, or, at least, not right now, but it might work somewhere later.

> X SINK
The train station restroom sink is currently switched off.

> SWITCH SINK ON
As you turn on the sink it begins to shake violently.

> X SINK
The train station restroom sink is currently switched on.

> SWITCH SINK OFF
The shaking subsides as soon as you turn off the sink.

> X SHOWER
The shower curtain is a stained yellow sheet of plastic covering the entrance.

While examining the shower you hear the loud WOOOSH of a toilet flushing behind you.

> X TOILET
The toilet is filled with a murky brown, and foul smelling, water. The surface of the water ripples as the toilet finishes flushing.

The loud crash of something falling near the closet door shatters the silence of the bathroom along with what’s left of your nerve.

> LOOK
Train Station Restroom (David Petrocco)
A harshly lit pay restroom. Dust and grime mar the once white tiles and marble of the facilities: A small showerstall with the curtain closed, a bathroom stall with a single dirty toilet (there are mounts for a door, but it is nowhere to be seen), a small storage closet for janitorial supplies, a four by four row of small lockers, and an extremely dirty dual basin sink.

The train station is EAST.

A haunted bathroom! Spoooooooky.

> OPEN SHOWER
You open the train station shower.

> X SHOWER
The shower is covered in fresh droplets of dirty brown water, as if someone had just recently turned it on after months of neglect. Small droplets of water drip from the shower head to the floor below.

> X CLOSET
A small storage closet where several shelves have collaped, their supports seemingly rotten away, and have buried what appears to be a long wooden handled tool, a mop or broom perhaps.

A small note taped to the wall says Locker 3 7113.

> X TOOL
You can’t see any such thing.

> X LOCKERS
Sixteen lockers in a four by four pattern. The few that still have doors are flung open and battered, save for one still secured by a large combination lock, the kind that you can set to a four-digit number.

> SET LOCK TO 7113
The lock slides open. You remove it from the hinges of the locker and open it to find a glass jar containing an insect.

> X JAR
Which do you mean, the cleaning supplies or the glass jar containing an insect?

> GLASS
A clear glass jar containing a hideous green insect. It’s either dead or doing a very good job of playing dead and you have no desire to find out which. The number of legs and eyes appear to change every time you look at it.

It currently has nine legs and four eyes.

> X GLASS JAR
A clear glass jar containing a hideous green insect. It’s either dead or doing a very good job of playing dead and you have no desire to find out which. The number of legs and eyes appear to change every time you look at it.

It currently has four legs and four eyes.

> G
A clear glass jar containing a hideous green insect. It’s either dead or doing a very good job of playing dead and you have no desire to find out which. The number of legs and eyes appear to change every time you look at it.

It currently has twelve legs and two eyes.

> TAKE IT
Taken.

There’s probably more to see here, but the glass jar containing an insect is the thing we specifically need for an upcoming challenge, so I’m going to leave for now. I fully expect to revisit every single room at least once before I’m finished.


#14

Question: if this was written as an exquisite corpse, each author writing their own little room, then how do any puzzles involve items or gamestates that cross rooms?


#15

This was a bit of a structural trick by the coordinators. In addition to the basic overarching concept (“You are Naomi Cragne, searching for your husband Peter, who came out to Backwater, Vermont, to take possession of his newly inherited home, Cragne Manor. He is missing, and you must find him.”), they set up a series of puzzle tracks which authors could sign up for. Authors gave some indication of what kind of room they wanted to make, and Ryan and Jenni determined what room you were responsible for making (somewhere in the layout of Backwater or the Manor itself), as well as the specific details of any items you needed to incorporate into your room to permit those puzzle tracks to work the way they were intended. Strong signs that the room we’re in is part of a particular puzzle track include a lot of biographic details about a particular Cragne, the presence of a library book, the presence of a key that’s not used within the same room, or the presence of a non-key item that is somehow used somewhere else.


#16

> E

Train Station Lobby (Shin)
The surroundings are as dim and dingy as ever. The platform is to the north. The dirty, cobweb-covered windows and the station exit are to the south. The large mirror and the green door are to the east. The restroom door is to the west. You are unsure what you should do.

> EAST
(first opening the green door)
It seems to be locked.

> SOUTH

Exterior of Train Station (Emily Short with additions from Graham Nelson)
To the north is the vast windowless bulk of the train station. A metal trash can squats beneath its carved facade. The town itself is downhill, on the other side of a ravine. Somewhere down there, you can get a bath and a meal.

A woman stands in the center of the bridge, preventing traffic in both directions.

If you aren’t pretty close to the interactive fiction community, you should know that the authors of this room are Kind of a Big Deal. Emily Short is among the most celebrated authors of interactive fiction. Her spouse Graham Nelson created Inform, the programming language Cragne Manor is written in. (On a personal note, given a time machine, I would go back in time to 2003 to stop myself from sending a fan email to one of these authors. Can you guess which??)

> X WOMAN
She is wearing a long red scarf and a tattered skirt. Her hair is wild, grey in the same color as the train tracks, twisted by the wind. She keeps shooting uncomfortable glances at the town.

The sky is oppressively dark.

> GREET WOMAN
You say hello to the woman.

The sky above is a preternatural greenish tint.

> ASK WOMAN ABOUT TOWN
“Surely even you can see its nature.”

> ASK WOMAN ABOUT BRIDGE
She says, “I have not the power to destroy it, or I certainly would.”

The clouds move fast across the sky.

> X STATION
It is at least three stories tall, with no exterior windows. Carved on the outside are a series of figures, as though it were the outside of Notre Dame.

Positioned in front is a trash can.

An artifact of the exquisite corpse nature of this project: in the lobby, windows line the south wall. Outside, the train station is windowless.

> X FIGURES
Sculpted men and women, very muscular, engage in the work of building a train station. Most carry blocks of stone on their backs. Overseeing them is an inhuman figure carrying a whip.

The clouds continue to race across the sky, lower than before.

> X CLOUDS
(the clouds)
The clouds are dim, gloomy, and tinged with green.

> X TRASH CAN
It is a closed metal can from which issues an undiscoverable stench.

Fat, repulsive raindrops begin to fall.

> OPEN CAN
You open the trash can and peer into its tenebrous depths. Within you discern a pull-string doll and a dog-eared book.

> TAKE DOLL
Taken.

> TAKE DOG-EARED BOOK
Taken.

It is raining harder now, and the street is already slick.

> READ IT
You flip past the title page, looking for something interesting…

Corn on the Cob Castings
If your parents are anything like our parents, they really suck at predicting the future… but they might have a kernel of truth for you! The next time you’re at a family barbecue, slip this potion into your mom’s potato salad, then wait for her to finish her corn on the cob–

What.

[You can continue to READ the divination handbook; this is excerpt 1/3.]

Rain falls as it did in Noah’s day.

> G
You continue to thumb through the book…

Teddy Rux-Possession
Did you learn about history from a creepy animatronic bear when you were a kid, and now he’s just gathering dust? Good news! With a little bit of sage smudging and energy cleansing, Teddy Ruxpin makes the perfect home for a wandering spirit–

Nope nope nope.

[You can continue to READ the divination handbook; this is excerpt 2/3.]

The downpour continues, drenching everything.

> G
You flip past a lot of terrible ideas to the very last page of the book…

Coffee Scrying
Ever wonder if the little heart in your latte means the barista’s crushing on you? Well, now you can find out for sure! All you need is a cold cup of coffee with some cream in it–

Huh. Unlike everything else in the book, this seems like it might actually prove useful. There aren’t that many possible readings, so you quickly memorize them and slam the book closed.

[This is the end of the divination handbook, but if you have no respect for your own intelligence, you can READ it again.]

> X COFFEE
The clouds in your cup form a single cherry. Botanical images mean that while there is much left to accomplish in the present situation, your immediate environment sustains you, and you have everything that you need.

The cup of coffee and the divination handbook is actually a late addition by one of our coordinators, Jenni Polodna. This is a sort of in-game hint system, without which we’d need to rely almost entirely on asking other players for help.

A fun fact about Jenni: IMDB tells me she’s one of the writers on Glittermitten Grove, a.k.a. Frog Fractions 2! The coffee itself is a callback to the original Anchorhead, which likewise included a half-filled cup of disgusting coffee which players were prone to carrying for the entire game. So far as I am aware, that cup didn’t have any oracular powers. The parallel with Deadly Premonition is mostly coincidental, I think.

> X DOLL
The doll has an inane smile on its face and a pull-string in the middle of its back.

It has the sort of head with two faces, one of which is hidden by its hair. Rotate the head and the other face will be forward.

> PULL STRING
The doll chirps, “I like the train tracks! Antiquarian! Yay!”

There is a tinny sound of applause.

Heaven vomits forth streams and rivers and lakes.

> X TRAIN TRACKS
The rain comes between you and the train tracks like a curtain of silver. No details are visible.

> ROTATE HEAD
You rotate the doll’s head. Its alternate face appears, scowling fiercely.

> PULL STRING
A voice comes from within the doll’s body, squamous and gravelly: “Avoid the glass jar containing an insect! It is ugly! Green is the hue of poison and untamed growth!”

The woman looks alarmed.

So the doll comments on objects in our vicinity—what’s surprising is that it does this regardless of location, thanks to a look-up table including a comprehensive set of adjectives typically used in eldritch horror settings. Before the addition of the coffee cup, it was probably the single most useful object in the game, thanks to its ability to draw your attention to overlooked scenery objects and other hidden items. (To say nothing of the occasional invisible programming object which the player isn’t supposed to be aware of.)

> GIVE JAR TO WOMAN
The woman goes white. From behind you on the tracks comes a curious noise, mechanical and screeching, as though something were coming along the tracks. When you turn back, the woman has gone.

> X RAVINE
The rain comes between you and the ravine like a curtain of silver. No details are visible.

> LOOK
Exterior of Train Station (Emily Short with additions from Graham Nelson)
To the north is the gigantic windowless bulk of the train station. A metal trash can squats beneath its carved facade. The town itself is downhill, on the other side of a ravine. Somewhere down there, you can get a bath and a meal.

> SOUTH
You pass over the bridge. The ravine has become a white river, teeming with creatures: you see a fin, a gill, a plaintive upturned face, before each is swept away.

Milkweed (Caleb Wilson)
It is possible to feel claustrophobia out of doors. Sunlight fills the sky but somehow doesn’t reach you here. Steep banks of bramble rise to the east and west, trapping you within a gloomy trough a dozen yards wide. A poorly-surfaced road leads north and south along the trough’s nadir. Just west of it, camouflaged with rust, is the train track.

A tremendous patch of milkweed, the stems abnormally thick and tall, grows on the east side of the road beneath the thorn bank.

A giant milkweed leaf dangles just within reach from the mass of stems.

Almost hidden within the milkweed is a dilapidated shack built more of splinters than of planks.

>


#17

Now that we have the doll and the coffee, I want to review some of the rooms we’ve seen so far, just to confirm my beliefs about which rooms are not yet ready to be solved.

> NORTH. NORTH. NORTH.

Exterior of Train Station (Emily Short with additions from Graham Nelson)
To the north is the vast windowless bulk of the train station. A metal trash can squats beneath its carved facade. The town itself is downhill, on the other side of a ravine.

Train Station Lobby (Shin)
The surroundings are as dim and dingy as ever. The platform is to the north. The dirty, cobweb-covered windows and the station exit are to the south. The large mirror and the green door are to the east. The restroom door is to the west. You are unsure what you should do.

Railway Platform (Naomi Hinchen)
The platform is open to the outdoors, but has an overhanging roof with a rusted sign hanging from it. At the back of the platform, to the south, is the entrance to the lobby. Train tracks stretch off into the distance to the east and west; on the other side of the track is a graffitied brick wall.

The clock overhead gives the time as 2:44 pm; beneath the clock is a schedule board listing train arrival times. On the platform itself are a wooden bench, a storage locker, and a vending machine.

> PULL STRING
The doll intones: “Guard against the risk of the roof!”

> X ROOF
An overhang to shield the platform from the elements.

> X COFFEE
The clouds in your cup form a biplane. Modes of transportation mean that your current environment presents challenges that can only be overcome by seeking fresh perspectives elsewhere until you’re ready to return.

As expected, I need something for the vending machine here.

> SOUTH

Train Station Lobby (Shin)
The surroundings are as dim and dingy as ever. The platform is to the north. The dirty, cobweb-covered windows and the station exit are to the south. The large mirror and the green door are to the east. The restroom door is to the west. You are unsure what you should do.

> PULL STRING
The doll intones: “Avoid the dirty, cobweb-covered windows! To see cobwebs indicates that you have not reached your full potential!”

> X COFFEE
The swirls in your cup form a bactrian camel. Modes of transportation mean that your current environment presents challenges that can only be overcome by seeking fresh perspectives elsewhere until you’re ready to return.

Pretty sure this just refers to the fact that we need a key to get into the office to the east.

> W

Train Station Restroom (David Petrocco)
A harshly lit pay restroom. Dust and grime mar the once white tiles and marble of the facilities: A small shower stall with the curtain open, a bathroom stall with a single dirty toilet (there are mounts for a door, but it is nowhere to be seen), a small storage closet for janitorial supplies, a four by four row of small lockers, and an extremely dirty dual basin sink.

The train station is EAST.

> PULL STRING
The doll intones: “Shun the omen of the train station restroom sink!”

> X COFFEE
The swirls in your cup form no discernible pattern. Lack of a symbolic image means that you have accomplished everything you must in your current environment and should move on to find new challenges in order to grow as a person.

I forgot to make note of this the first time we were here—

BATHROOM COUNT: 1

> EAST. SOUTH

Train Station Lobby (Shin)
The surroundings are as dim and dingy as ever. The platform is to the north. The dirty, cobweb-covered windows and the station exit are to the south. The large mirror and the green door are to the east. The restroom door is to the west. You are unsure what you should do.

Exterior of Train Station (Emily Short with additions from Graham Nelson)
To the north is the gigantic windowless bulk of the train station. A metal trash can squats beneath its carved facade. The town itself is downhill, on the other side of a ravine.

> PULL STRING
The doll intones: “Beware the train tracks! Euclid has no power here!”

> X COFFEE
The clouds in your cup form concentric circles. Lack of a symbolic image means that you have accomplished everything you must in your current environment and should move on to find new challenges in order to grow as a person.

> S
You pass over the bridge. The ravine has become a white river, teeming with creatures: you see a fin, a gill, a plaintive upturned face, before each is swept away.

Milkweed (Caleb Wilson)
It is possible to feel claustrophobia out of doors. Sunlight fills the sky but somehow doesn’t reach you here. Steep banks of bramble rise to the east and west, trapping you within a gloomy trough a dozen yards wide. A poorly-surfaced road leads north and south along the trough’s nadir. Just west of it, camouflaged with rust, is the train track.

A tremendous patch of milkweed, the stems abnormally thick and tall, grows on the east side of the road beneath the thorn bank.

A giant milkweed leaf dangles just within reach from the mass of stems.

Almost hidden within the milkweed is a dilapidated shack built more of splinters than of planks.

> PULL STRING
The doll intones: “Guard against the thing that isn’t here!”

> X COFFEE
The clouds in your cup form a pair of dandelions. Botanical images mean that while there is much left to accomplish in the present situation, your immediate environment sustains you, and you have everything that you need.

Quite an ominous hint from the doll. Let’s dig in a little deeper.

> X BRAMBLES
The brambles are overgrown and yet sickly, with yellowed leaves and black-spotted stems. Thorns are plentiful, though apparently this isn’t the kind of bramble that produces an edible berry. Or perhaps berries are out of season.

> X TRACK
The tracks run north and south beneath mats of dead grass and bramble, bringing to mind an impossible serpent banded with the black of the resinous ties. Are the tracks in use? Could a train actually traverse them? Who knows.

The position of the ravine in the previous area means the layout of the train tracks here don’t make a lot of sense, unless we accept the implication that this is an unconnected segment of track that isn’t in use.

> EAST
You’re too tired for bushwhacking; better stick to the road, which runs north and south.

> X PATCH
Does milkweed normally grow to a height of eight feet? You’re doubtful. This variety’s leaves are ragged ovals the size of Halloween masks, notches rimmed with milky sap where they’ve been gnawed. The stems, a-crawl with ants, clatter in the breeze like rattling spears.

One huge curled leaf dangles by a green thread, just within reach.

> TAKE LEAF
Taken.

> X IT
A giant milkweed leaf, curled in such a way that it could cling to your face like a mask. It even has two milk-ringed holes for your eyes.

> X SHACK
A hateful structure less than five feet high. The wood frame of the shack has tilted, twisting subtly out of true. The angles itch at your eyes, somehow uncomfortable to look at. No windows. The low doorway, lacking a door, hisses at you open-mouthed. Or would that just be the standard summer susurrus of Vermont?

“Hateful” might an odd way to describe a building, but you can’t escape the impression that the shack is capable of such an emotion. It’s got to be a death-trap, anyway: take a step inside, or even give the shack a push, and surely it will just collapse.

I can’t resist testing that suggestion.

> ENTER SHACK
You have to crouch to enter the shack. The interior is still and dark and reeks of dry rot. Before you’re even all the way inside your elbow bumps the doorframe and something cracks. The walls and roof fall in, crushing you dead under a heap of splintery old wood, tar paper, and rusty nails.

Hungry mosquitoes gather, not unwilling to harvest a few last sips of blood before your body cools.

Ants gather, and flies.
 
 
    *** Death, Sudden and Awful ***
 
 
Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT, UNDO the last command or TAKE BACK the action that sealed your fate (for when UNDO is not enough)?
> UNDO
Milkweed (Caleb Wilson)
[Previous turn undone.]


#18

(I’ve updated my avatar for the duration of this play-through! Should you be reading this after the cats have resumed their normal place by my name, it’s shown below.)

cragne

> PUSH SHACK
You set your shoulder to the corner of the shack and give it a shove. The whole structure slumps, then leans, then falls over with a sound of splintering wood and tearing tar paper.

The walls fall back and outward, somehow not falling onto the (what is that?) stone altar that once stood inside the shack.

A swathe of milkweeds are knocked down, and a cloud of dust drifts up from the shadows, seeming to turn more solid in the sunlight far above.

“Knocked down…” Oh no; it happens just that easily. The lyrics of a song pop into your head unbidden: I get knocked down / But I get up again / You’re never going to keep me down!

> LISTEN
You hear nothing unexpected.

> I
You are carrying:
  a giant milkweed leaf
  a dog-eared book
  a pull-string doll
  a glass jar containing an insect
  a half-full styrofoam coffee cup
  a familiar gold wristwatch

An earworm is lodged deeply in your head.

> X EARWORM
You have a strange and terrible fancy that an earworm is attached to your brain with a thin tendril.

The earworm is seemingly resistant to all forms of interaction, and simply acknowledging it gives it strength:

I get knocked down / but I get up again / you’re never going to keep me down! Well, Chumbawamba is still stuck in your head.

[Author’s note: messing with the earworm is entirely optional. Not that I would try to dissuade you from it!]

> SING
Your lips sing along, almost involuntarily, to the earworm in your head:

He drinks a whiskey drink / he drinks a vodka drink / he drinks a lager drink / he drinks a cider drink! Damn it, Chumbawamba is still stuck in your head.

Look, the earworm-as-harmful-sensation/metaphysical parasite thing is pretty amusing, but it strikes just a little bit too close to home for me to mess around with much. It’s an optional puzzle, and it mercifully confines itself to this one spot, so I’m going to let 1/84th of Naomi’s spectrum of existence just live with the damn thing.

> X ALTAR
A six-foot long and three-foot high altar of pale green stone, polished smooth. The sides are humped and bulged, suggesting poreless coral. The top is flat, and bears a shallow impression in the shape of a human body, with a slightly deeper cavity at the top for the face.

~I HAVE A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS~

> LIE ON ALTAR
You get onto the stone altar.

You lie down, settling your body into the impression and your face into the cavity at the end. Is it even you doing this? It feels like the most natural action in the world.

As you press your face down into the cavity, you feel something wet; your skin has met a tangle of slimy, orange strands that were growing inside the cavity.

Your face turns numb. You are overtaken with convulsions, and the involuntary flailing of your limbs causes you to fall from the altar. The numbness spreads down your neck and across your torso as you lie frozen, body askew, at the base of the altar.

It takes but a few hours for your whole body to be sheathed in wet, orange strands.

Your breathing slows as your lungs gradually fill with fruiting bodies. Perhaps the slime reacts poorly to tears, as the last part to be overgrown with mold is your eyes, though eventually, as dusk falls, blurred orange tendrils knit themselves together at the edges of your vision. Their intricacy strikes you as ghastly and beautiful all at once.
 
 
    *** Death, Slow and Awful ***
 
 
Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT, UNDO the last command or TAKE BACK the action that sealed your fate (for when UNDO is not enough)?
>

A not-so-fun fact: during Cragne Manor production, our coordinator Jenni found her home tainted by black mold such that they had to evacuate the building. Then, they had to evacuate the next building in which they tried to take up residence, because they were now unwittingly a vector for mold transmission.

The prevalence of this topic on the group’s Slack channel was such that this game features—at an even higher frequency than one might ordinarily expect—various malicious molds, fungi, plants, and other terrestrial antagonists originating from outside the animal kingdom.


#19

> WEAR LEAF
You put on the giant milkweed leaf.

> LIE ON ALTAR
You get onto the stone altar.

You lie down, settling your body into the impression and your face into the cavity at the end. The milkweed leaf mask protects your face from the strands of orange slime that you belatedly notice fill the cavity. Is it even you doing this? It feels like the most natural action in the world.

As you press your face deeper into the cavity, your vision warps. The world seems to fold and buckle: what was convex becomes concave and what was concave becomes convex.

The altar wobbles and inverts, giving you the bizarre sensation of lying atop a smooth green hole that floats in midair. Deeper within the hole is a shelf of green stone with several items resting (how?) on it.

> X SHELF
On the shelf are a postcard of Big Ben, a diary and an imaginary basalt sphere.

> X POSTCARD
A faded postcard with a picture of Big Ben on it. You’d guess the picture dates from the first quarter of the century.

> READ POSTCARD
(first taking the postcard of Big Ben)
“18th of June, 1923

Dear Freddy,

You’ll never guess where I am: Paris! Ha ha.

Today I broke into the mausoleum of a notorious baronet and pocketed an amulet interred, in 1627, next to his heart. Tomorrow I must liberate an unspeakably ancient mammoth-bone idol, purported to portray a coeval of Vaadignephod, from the prison in which it languishes (the British Museum).

Such excitements make up my life now. If only you were allowed to know about such things, I would tell you that I am now a member of the Variegated Court, and that I have been granted the position of Cesious Alderman in this ‘august order’.

How I wish I could actually mail you this postcard, and that afterwards we could laugh together over such a stuffy phrase.

Much Love,
Phyl”

There’s that “Vaadignephod” name again! Let’s see if we can learn a little more about our Phyl, here.

> X DIARY
A small brown book with embossed letters on the front, mostly worn away, spelling “DIARY”. Inside it’s filled with spidery letters in faded ink. According to the name inscribed inside the cover, this belonged to Phyllis Cragne.

You think you remember your husband speaking of a “Great Aunt Phyl,” a sprightly old lady who haunted his earliest memories and always wore tartan trousers.

> READ DIARY
(first taking the diary of Phyllis Cragne)
You read a few passages from near the beginning of the diary:

“Danced with Freddy Morgan tonight. He’s not the most graceful, but I’m hopeful he will improve. Tomorrow I leave for college.”

“How the professors scowl when they learn I’m a Cragne! I’m sure it would hurt my feelings, if they weren’t all crusty old throwbacks with beards full of toast crumbs anyway.”

“Today in the sealed archives I found a most wonderful secret: evidence that the Court truly exists! One day I will join it – I will make them let me – and I will work harder than all the others who came before.”

You skim back and forth a bit, gathering that Phyllis Cragne was probably born around 1890, and that she started her archaeology studies at Ompompanoousuc College in 1918; she also seems to have become engaged to a local by the name of Frederick Morgan at around that same time.

There’s still a fair amount of the diary left; you could read more if you wanted to.

> G
You read a few passages from the middle of the diary:

“It has finally happened! They extended an offer, and this morning, I accepted. I am looking forward to the fulfillment of my duties, particularly the travel necessitated by my new position. I wish I could persuade Freddy to come with me on at least one trip, but he’s terrified of the ocean. I shall leave him to the calm waters of Vermont, with the promise to bring back a ‘priceless antique’ from each city I visit.”

“Received word of Freddy’s accident.”

“Finished Prague. Turin, too. Magdeburg will wait until spring.”

You skim back and forth, gathering that during the 1920s and 30s Phyllis Cragne was often away from home on extended work trips. It was while she was on one such trip to London that Frederick Morgan was killed in a canoeing accident. Afterwards, and on through the 1950s, she spent even more time abroad, working tirelessly for the Court.

There’s still a small amount of the diary left; you could read more if you wanted to.

> G
You read a few passages from near the end of the diary:

“Bristletail greatly prefers the climate of Barcelona to that of Stockholm. I haven’t informed her yet that next we must visit a ruined Norse colony in Greenland, where, it is rumored, the colonists briefly, and in desperation, worshipped Vaadignephod before all succumbing to the Black Death.”

“Bristletail shows an increasingly superb comprehension of Ancient Akkadian. Twice she has caught an error in my translations, saving me from not insignificant embarrassment.”

“Bristletail has grown stubborn in her old age, refusing to communicate with feral insects. She claims the act to be beneath her dignity. Still, I have never known a more capable archive assistant.”

You skim the text, reading of Phyllis Cragne’s research. Throughout the 1960s she wrote frequently of Bristletail, her cunning familiar, which (who?) apparently took the form of an unusually large silverfish. It seems likely that Phyllis died in the early 70s, which correlates with Michael’s early memories of Great Aunt Phyl.

You’ve read the whole diary; you could read it again if you wanted to remind yourself of something.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but it will save us some trouble to make note of it now: numerous members of the Cragne family have been appointed to the Variegated Court. As Phyllis’s diary & postcard specify, she is the Cesious Alderman. All who occupy such a rank possess some manner of familiar, and hers is an oversized silverfish named Bristletail. Google tells me Cesious means “having a waxy bluish-grey coating.”

(My room also specifies a member of the Variegated Court, but that’s a long way off. Plus, I can’t remember exactly who and what I specified. We’ll find out not long after getting to the second floor of the Manor.)

> X IMAGINARY BASALT SPHERE
It’s a black stone sphere about the size of a basketball, and it doesn’t really exist. There is (well, technically, there is not) a narrow slot on one side like that of a piggy-bank.

> TAKE IMAGINARY BASALT SPHERE
Taken.

> X SLOT
The slot is pinched very narrow, like a tiny, unhappy mouth. If the sphere is a piggy-bank, you shudder to imagine what dreadful, corroded coin was intended to be inserted.

SHAKE SPHERE
That verb doesn’t work here, or, at least, not right now, but it might work somewhere later.

> STAND
You get off the stone altar.

Milkweed (Caleb Wilson)
It is possible to feel claustrophobia out of doors. Sunlight fills the sky but somehow doesn’t reach you here. Steep banks of bramble rise to the east and west, trapping you within a gloomy trough a dozen yards wide. A poorly-surfaced road leads north and south along the trough’s nadir. Just west of it, camouflaged with rust, is the train track.

A tremendous patch of milkweed, the stems abnormally thick and tall, grows on the east side of the road beneath the thorn bank.

A green stone altar, once at the center of the shack, stands amidst broken boards and milkweed.

(That earworm is still lodged in your head.)

> X COFFEE
The swirls in your cup form a blank, mirrored surface. Lack of a symbolic image means that you have accomplished everything you must in your current environment and should move on to find new challenges in order to grow as a person.

It looks like we’re done here, and I know what I said earlier, but let me just try something real quick—

> PUT EARWORM IN SPHERE
The earworm is seemingly resistant to all forms of interaction, and simply acknowledging it gives it strength:

He sings the songs that remind him of the good times / he sings the songs that remind him of the better times! Damn it, Chumbawamba is still stuck in your head.

> X IT
You have a strange and terrible fancy that an earworm is attached to your brain with a thin tendril.

The earworm is seemingly resistant to all forms of interaction, and simply acknowledging it gives it strength:

Iä get knocked down / but iä get up again / you’re never going to keep mi-go down! Well, Chumbawamba is still stuck in your head.

> X TENDRIL
The tendril has to be imaginary. Doesn’t it?

> RIP TENDRIL
That verb doesn’t work here, or, at least, not right now, but it might work somewhere later.

> PULL TENDRIL
It’s hard to know how, since it’s only imaginary, isn’t it?

> PUT TENDRIL IN SLOT
The tendril ignores your efforts.

> PUT WORM IN SLOT
You can’t see any such thing.

> PUT EARWORM IN SLOT
The earworm is seemingly resistant to all forms of interaction, and simply acknowledging it gives it strength:

He drinks a wgah drink / he drinks a ph’nglui drink / he drinks a fhtagn drink / he drinks a cthulhu drink! Well, Chumbawamba is still stuck in your head.

Damn it. Now that I’ve started dealing with this, I find I don’t want to move on until I figure it out.


#20

OH MY GOD I FIGURED IT OUT.

> PUT POSTCARD IN SLOT
The imaginary sphere rotates suddenly, spinning the slot away from the postcard of Big Ben.

> LOOK
Milkweed (Caleb Wilson)
It is possible to feel claustrophobia out of doors. Sunlight fills the sky but somehow doesn’t reach you here. Steep banks of bramble rise to the east and west, trapping you within a gloomy trough a dozen yards wide. A poorly-surfaced road leads north and south along the trough’s nadir. Just west of it, camouflaged with rust, is the train track.

A tremendous patch of milkweed, the stems abnormally thick and tall, grows on the east side of the road beneath the thorn bank.

A green stone altar, once at the center of the shack, stands amidst broken boards and milkweed.

(That earworm is still lodged in your head.)

> X ROAD
This stretch of road is heavily washboarded gravel. Not your favorite. In high school, a week after you got your license, you flipped your parents’ Jeep Cherokee driving too fast on a surface just like this.

> X TRACK
The tracks run north and south beneath mats of dead grass and bramble, bringing to mind an impossible serpent banded with the black of the resinous ties. Are the tracks in use? Could a train actually traverse them? Who knows.

> SEARCH TRACK
You find a flattened penny, which you take.

> X PENNY
A ruined penny, left on the tracks and flattened by a train. The damage to the coin has obscured and swollen Lincoln’s head, giving him the appearance of an effaced carving of a bulbous king on a blasphemous onyx obelisk forgotten to history.

> PUT PENNY IN SLOT
The coin vanishes into the sphere with a click.

The imaginary basalt sphere fluctuates, briefly taking on the appearance of a grotesque black frog. The frog croaks, spitting an imaginary athame up from its gullet into the world, before becoming once again a featureless stone sphere.

> X ATHAME
A non-existent black-handled knife, with a blade of sparkling metal that would be sharp enough to cut razors, if it actually existed.

> CUT TENDRIL WITH ATHAME
(first taking the imaginary athame)
As the imaginary blade of the athame touches the tendril attaching the earworm to your brain, the tendril snaps, with a sound like a plucked harp string.

The earworm vanishes with a sound like a crack cross a pane of glass.

YESSSSSSS fuck off Chumbawumba. I never liked you. Let’s get into town proper and call it a night!

> SOUTH
The imaginary basalt sphere vanishes with a sound like a popping soap bubble.
The imaginary athame vanishes with a sound like a piece of spaghetti snapping in half.

Church Exterior (Andy Holloway)
The gravel road curves here past the doors of an old stone church, which squats defeatedly amid a few straggly trees. Behind it, to the northeast, you can see the first few stones of a modest graveyard. To the east the road narrows to cross a small bridge into the village proper; to the north, it crests the hill toward the train station.

> X ME
You’re trying not to think too hard about that.

> XYZZY
You feel… Taller?

> PULL STRING
The doll intones: “Guard against the thing that isn’t here!”

> X COFFEE
The clouds in your cup form a kayak. Modes of transportation mean that your current environment presents challenges that can only be overcome by seeking fresh perspectives elsewhere until you’re ready to return.

I forgot about the church. Fortunately, the coffee confirms that we’ll need to come back here later, anyway.

> EAST

Town square, Backwater, VT (Marco Innocenti)
The first thing you notice, when entering the open yards of the town square, is the soft breeze that relentlessly caresses the buildings. It is so unlike the warm, salty air you were used to back home that you finally realize how long your trip has been, and how far removed you are now from everything you once knew.

The large, hexagonal-shaped square is paved with big, white stones, polished by rain and wind over the decades; around it, low red-brick buildings look like watching peasants. One single street leaves the square to the north, while less accommodating paths lead west, in the direction of a towering church, and southwest.
Due east, an iron bridge crosses the river, and southeast, a walkway leads down to its bank.

The swollen, slate-colored clouds that blanket the sky are reflected in the shiny, circular shape embellishing the center of the square, muttering ominous portents amongst themselves.

Ominous portents, you murmur to yourself.
Since that day, twenty years ago, when you first read them in a Lovecraftian novel during that uneventful summer vacation, you’ve been waiting for the occasion to use these words yourself. Another cold, harsh gust of wind interrupts you before you can decide whether this was a coincidence worth being happy… or scared about.

A man is leaning on the bridge rail, staring intensely at you with his only eye.

Another NPC! And one who I happen to know will be a lot more talkative than the woman on the bridge, at that. Now this is a stopping point.