Dead Bull with the life from the low
If everything’s in place, a scary game will slow you down by making you afraid of what’s coming next. This is dread, and it’s the point. You play in spite of yourself.
Waxworks is a game that you play in spite of yourself, but for few of the right reasons.
I knew when I put the master list together that Waxworks would be a bummer of a roadblock on my path to sunnier climes. When Personal Nightmare, another Horrorsoft game, gave me fits so bad I couldn’t finish it… I looked sideways at Waxworks with concern. That bastard was coming to get me.
The intervening Elvira games aren’t available on Good Old Games, presumably due to their devastating cleavage content so we’re left to guess at how they led to Waxworks happening… Taking classic “Move and you’ll die!” adventure game standards, then adding dungeon crawl RPG combat and exploration. Rarely for the better.
Here’s the thing: In spite of the many ways that Waxworks falls down, I felt a duty to persevere. This wasn’t a Personal Nightmare I could just wake up from. No, it was showing me the roots of the survival horror genre.
Underneath all the guts and gristle, there’s a spinal column that spans from the old to the new in a ways that are really surprising.
I’ll be massive conquistador
In ancient times, the guardians of a village rounded up a suspected witch and chopped off her hand as punishment for heresy (and for stealing a chicken). Clutching her bloody stump, she placed a curse on the knight’s family line: That throughout history, whenever twin sons were born, one would be a servant of the devil.
As curses go, that’s little more circuitous than inflicting lycanthropy or helping with weight loss, but it seems to have worked. In a Cain and Abel-esque fashion, the evil twin would always triumph over the good twin.
In the modern day, your twin brother is next in line for some cursin’. Panicked, you drag his unconscious body to your Uncle Boris’s, since he’s the pre-eminent scholar of this supernatural affliction. Too bad he’s dead and sealed away in a crystal ball. Oh, and his house is filled with wax sculptures of all the time periods when the curse took effect.
He and his Lurchy homunculus of a manservant task you with traveling into the worlds that these waxworks fix in place, to possess the bodies of the Good Twins and defeat the Evil Twins, gathering the artifacts you need to travel back in time to stop the curse from being uttered in the first place.
What’s remarkable is that this plot predates Assassin’s Creed by 15 years.
B-movie, gimme some gore
Before I jump into the what the different waxworks scenarios have to offer, let me lead with the thing that Waxworks is most well-known for: gore. Buckets of it, so lovingly rendered that it made Joe Lieberman and Tipper Gore invite Ed Boon over for a night of steamy passion because, hey, Mortal Kombat don’t look so bad anymore (politics joke!).
The game is very sparingly animated, so Horrorsoft needed only to focus on digitizing big, graphic paintings to accompany your many, many deaths. Just check out this gallery of nasty looking corpses.
You could only get away with this when nobody was paying real attention to PC games. Console games? Sure, keep those Boogermen out of my church’s rec room because the children play there. Meanwhile, my DOS computer is a serious business machine for printing spreadsheets and greeting cards for Meemums.
I’m not offended by how audaciously over-the-top some of these scenes are. Uninvited and Shadowgate implied similarly disturbing pictures with their death descriptions. I’ve got a problem with Horrorsoft’s design priorities. They put so much effort into these grisly tableus that I can tell that they didn’t care how frustrating their cheap deaths would be… it would lead more players right to them.
I won’t stand here and say that MacVenture games are fair, but there’s something delightful and earned about Uninvited‘s death scenes. Waxworks kills the player over and over again, without mercy, and in such a way that you aren’t left any better for it, and you only need to visit Egypt to see that.
Gimme soul and show me the door
I should never get what I “think” I want.
I sometimes romanticize the notion of trap-heavy games. Sen’s Fortress is my favorite area in Dark Souls, with all of its pressure plates and boulders and such. It’s so exciting when you pull off a flawless run. It’s just too bad that Sen’s is an exception to the rule that most trap-based games are Tomb of Horrors-level bullshit that punish players for no reason at all.
Additionally, I love the idea of mazes in games. Wandering through Sun Electronics as a kid, I’d stand entranced by the Windows Maze screensaver, wishing it was a real game I could play. Turns out those are bullshit here, too, because the Egyptian pyramid you’re trapped in is same-y looking as all get out.
Navigating Waxworks makes sense in theory. You’re in first-person, and you move around a grid by pointing in cardinal directions and pressing Up. Problems arise when you realize that these are relatively large environments that re-use a disorienting amount of assets.
A great deal of the challenge in this level comes from trying to look for tiny alcoves that contain small weights, tiles, or tuning forks, all of which are necessary to progress. There are six levels to this pyramid, and god help you if you miss one collectible on the way to the top. God help you if you miss a single one of them.
Fun fact: I was missing one weight for a classic “balance the scales” puzzle at the top of the pyramid, so I had to retrace all of my steps to get back to the very first room, then climb all the way back up.
Because the locales are so mind numbing, you’ll find yourself mashing on the navigation buttons hoping the skin of your fingers will wear down to a bloody nub so you can feel anything, anything at all. That’s where Egypt gets you, since the traps are everywhere.
Let’s play a game of “Hunt the Pixel”. Look at this screenshot and tell me if anything is wrong.
Nope, nothing askew. Let’s just mozy on down this corridor and…
… oh no, blades. In my face?
Welp, anyone with that much rib showing has to be dead as fuck. What did I do wrong?
If you look closely at the area inside the red box, you’ll find a tripwire that is exactly the same color as the texture noise on the floor. Whoops! The same goes for the pressure plates that activate boulders: no matter how careful you are to look for these pixel-wide irregularities, you’re still constantly at risk of setting off an instant death trap. And memorizing where they’re at is almost no help, because (once again) everything looks the same.
Guards and priests that serve your evil brother also prowl the halls of the pyramid, and combat is the only way to deal with them. With the exception of the Graveyard waxwork, Egypt is the level that relies most heavily on combat, which works like a very rudimentary Punch-Out! You click on different areas of your enemy to attack them, trying to get around their defenses while also trying to block their attacks.
Once you steal your first spear, combat ceases to be a real issue, but those first couple of dagger scraps are harrowing ordeals. You level up by fighting and exploring, which makes you more capable in a fight. You also have limited means to heal yourself by consulting with your Uncle Boris in his crystal ball. Definitely more useful than the paper-thin hints he offers.
Egypt is also home to the only real “puzzles” in the game (using the strictest definition of “puzzle”). There are a few logic puzzles and arithmetic tests that block your path, and there are a few novel item combinations you have to work out… but it largely feels uninspired (notice that the level culminates with a “balance the scales” puzzle, which is tied with Towers of Hanoi as being The Oldest in the Book).
I’m dwelling on Egypt a lot here, taking plenty of time to beat it up, but that’s because it’s offensively uninspired. It uses all of Waxworks‘s fundamental mechanics, but to very little effect.
Boredom and irritation, when used effectively, can be very effective ways to manipulate players. Playing on tedium as a way to tease out interesting pacing can work. This is tedium and frustration that absolutely destroys all dread and all feeling.
Metal heavy, soft at the core
Things get a lot more interesting in Victorian England, which pits you against Jack the Ripper. Except, since you’re his twin, everyone thinks you’re him. This means the alleys are crawling with police, and there’s a vigilante mob out to get you.
This effectively turns Victorian England into a stealth level… but there’s far less instant death here than there is in Egypt. You have a short window of opportunity to run away from the moving threats, which arrow traps never afforded you.
The atmosphere gets a great deal more moody, too. Somehow the moonlight of England is darker than the ostensible tomb of Someone Hotep. Navigation is still tricky because of the asset reuse, but it’s far easier to keep your bearings on a city grid layout. You also have named shops with unique appearances to keep your bearings by.
This is also the most adventure-like age in the game, since it asks you to find items in homes and businesses and use them in somewhat sensical ways. You break into a tailor’s shop to change your clothes so the patrons of an inn don’t immediately lynch you. You steal a police whistle to scare away some street toughs. You incapacitate some guard dogs by lacing animal entrails with sleeping medicine from a pharmacy. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but there’s a comforting logic here that wasn’t present in Egypt’s contrived tomb puzzles.
The only downside is that they got a little too enthusiastic with set dressing. Let’s play another game of Pixel Hunt! Let me set the scene. I’m in a lawyer’s office, and I know that I’m looking for paperwork. What should I investigate?
Ya got me. Several things look letter-like.
Oh, it’s right here. As tucked away as it could be. Cool. Maybe I’m blind.
Most remarkable, though, is the complete disregard for combat. The only fight in the level is at the very end, when you engage in a tug-of-war with Jack the Ripper, ultimately pushing him off of the dock to his death. You gain experience for this fight by exploring as much of the level as possible.
This is almost a complete 180 from Egypt… focusing more on atmosphere, puzzles, and people than on traps. Death doesn’t come out of the blue. You can see it and avoid it, or at least get a good sense for how you messed up. This part of Waxworks is a preview of the close relationship that horror and stealth will have in the future, and it shows up well before the most notable modern examples of that crossover. Good on ya, Horrorsoft.
Pressurize and neutralize
For as great as Victorian England is, the Mine is even better. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a displaced Resident Evil level.
You wake up in an elevator at the bottom of a mine shaft. The control panel has been destroyed, and the only other person in the elevator with you is horribly injured and unconscious. It’s only a few steps out that you realize the mine is overrun with foliage, and plant people are stalking the darkened halls. Really, really frightening plant people. Just look at that image up there.
Your brother, in this scenario, is a horribly mutated Lovecraft plant monster at the center of the mind, spreading this corruption with mind control spores and serums… drawing in citizens of the nearby town for conversion.
The area risks being maze-y. It’s a mine, after all. But there’s one main hallway that everything branches off of, so it’s relatively easy to keep things straight.
Even though you’ll find a handful of melee weapons, they are almost entirely ineffective. Instead, you have a chemical sprayer filled with herbicide (and eventually gasoline) that will kill your enemies in a single shot. Too bad the ammo is incredibly limited. This kind of resource conservation will be incredibly familiar in the coming articles, and I was shocked to see it show up here. Every shot is accompanied by a status update on how well you’re doing for plant juice… and it’s very tense to wonder if a monster has wandered between you and your refill station.
The thrust of this level is to find some soldiers who were captured in a previous raid, and use their specialties to help push the plants back. A medic will heal the scientist who gives you the cure for the elevator repair man, while the explosives expert will help you collapse the mine around your brother (after you poke his eyes out).
I have two concerns with this area, though, that keep me from saying it redeems the whole game.
First, there is a chance that you will trigger a mine cart to roll after you. This is triggered seemingly at random, and if it hits you, you will die. That’s the good outcome. The bad outcome happens if you dodge the cart without having placed a log across the tracks at a very particular point. Doing so will cause the cart to block the elevator, making the scenario unwinnable. I had to restart the level because I didn’t realize my only escape route was blocked until way, way too late. This kind of design is a sloppy “fuck you” to the player, and it’s inexcusable.
Second, there’s plenty of Pixel Hunt madness throughout. Traps make a return from Egypt, but they’re far more noticeable. Seed pods and vines are readily apparent, but taking them out consumes your scarce ammo.
Worse than any of that, though, is this game of Pixel Hunt. I’ve found a drill but it’s missing its bit. Where can I find it? Oh, this wall is weird.
This game doesn’t just feature new assets for no reason. What’s the deal here?
Huh. Fuck you, Waxworks.
Fortified with the liquor store
The final area, the Graveyard, is barely even a footnote for the game. It’s the opposite of Victorian England, leaning heavily on combat at the expense of puzzles and exploration. Its lore is also a letdown after the unsettling high of the Mines.
Your brother in this era is a vampire that has raised an army of the dead, and it’s up to you (a priest) to pick up a sickle, raise your dead relatives, and learn the secret of turning your brother back into a baby.
Okay, maybe that last part is pretty cool.
In length and in breadth, the Graveyard feels like a tech demo or proof of concept. The headstones create a makeshift maze, and an unlimited number of zombies can rise out of the ground right in front of you. Contrast this with earlier levels, which had a limited number of baddies to take down. Combat is slightly more interesting here, since taking down zombies ent(r)ails targeting different body parts. You need to hack off both arms and then the head, presaging Dead Space by about 16 years. Not bad.
At this point, having so thoroughly overshot my word count, I’m tempted to leave it there. The Graveyard probably should have been left on the cutting room floor, but it’s innocuous nature is preferable to Egypt’s outright hostility.
Space flunky, four on the floor
With your brothers’ artifacts in hand, the final waxwork is an interactive cutscene that acts like a quiz for what you should do with them. You travel back in time to the time of the witch’s behanding, only to watch it happen all over again.
What happens next is the methodical torture of an old lady, which is uncomfortable to watch, and really uncomfortable to participate in. Yes, I know this lady created Jack the Ripper and Plant Monster 4000 (my own name for him). Still, throwing poison on an old lady and shooting her through the eye with a crossbow is, to borrow a tumblrism, problematic.
I have no way of telling if this effect is intentional, or if it’s just me being far too sensitive for a game that is not sensitive at all. None of the violence up to this point seemed to carry any commentary with it, so I wouldn’t put it past Horrorsoft to lean into the grotesquery here.
Gimme toro, gimme some more
The ending sequence says something about the game as a whole, which is about as B-movie as it gets. Waxworks reads like it exists solely to test some dark limit. It fails as horror because it it keeps the blood-‘n’-guts well-lit and in-focus. Its lapses into tedium numb the player to all emotion, including fear, and its frequent bouts of frustration wipe away any feelings of good will that occasionally pop up.
The game is at its best when it’s being shockingly prescient about the norms of the genre to come, which is why I persisted in spite of all of my instincts. Even with that in mind, it’s tough to leave on a positive note. Waxworks only succeeds because of its context. On its own merits, all it has is its gore. Instant gratification fades instantly, and in the absence of tension, buildup, atmosphere, and mood, blood doesn’t stain. It wipes away clean, ready for the next take.