BARROW HILL - Curse of the Ancient Circle

Barrow Hill


April is the cruellest month according to Chaucer, but personally I reckon it’s September and climate change has made old Geoff look like a liar. These days, particularly once the school kids are incarcerated again, you are almost guaranteed a spell of very fine weather - proper Indian summer days that have July and August hanging their heads in shame.

But aside from the sadism of wheeling out the best weather once the summer holidays are over, September’s cruelty likes in its ability to suddenly change. Very abruptly it will snatch away these glorious days and drop kick you into the beginnings of winter. And judging by the weather report that’s just been on the local radio station I’ve found that’s precisely what’s going to happen.

It’s my own fault; I really should have known better than to fooled by the high temperatures and sunny days. And agreeing to a jaunt down to Cornwall at the end month’s close is just asking for trouble. I’m not even there yet and already wind and rain is forecast. And now to cap it all, the car has stopped dead.

Great.

Popping open the bonnet and I can’t see anything majorly wrong. Admittedly I only know two things about cars – nothing and bugger all – but there’s blatantly no smoke, steam or leaking oil. And as the radio and head lights are all dead too I’m suspecting the batteries given up the ghost.

Double great. Now my mobile can’t find a signal either.

So then, looks like I’m stranded miles from anywhere with a dead car and no phone. Wonder how far away I actually am from anywhere? I passed the last village a good few miles back – certainly too far to walk, so it looks like my best bet is to take a risk and hope there’s somewhere nearer somewhere down the road. Might as well press on before the rain comes. I think I can see lights flickering through the trees…

…And yes, there is somewhere – I can definitely see the glow of street lamps tinting the sky orange now. Should just be round the next bend! Maybe September isn’t all bad – ok I’m broken down on a country lane but we’re within a few hundred yards of what looks like … and yes it is … a service station! This warrants a totally non-ironic “great!”

But hang on… there’s something not quite right here. There’s a car idling by the pumps but no sign of any passengers. And no one at the counter, or in the attached little café. Apart from the whisper of leaves from the surrounding woodland, the place is as silent as the grave. And there’s a curious scent on the evening breeze, smells like ashes and burnt meat. There’s something very very wrong here…

And so begins Barrow Hill – The Curse of the Ancient Circle, a 2006 PC game from Shadow Tor Studios. Although Barrow Hill is a typical point and click adventure game in format, like the previously reviewed Dark Fall – The Journal, in terms of style and content interactive fiction is perhaps a better description.

From the simple opening scenario described above, Barrow Hill draws you into an eerie mystery, unfolding a tale that stretches back into the forgotten past, and centring around the nearby ancient sites. Of course, those of you familiar with the mysteries surrounding the barrows and stone circles dotted across the English countryside will recall some of the perplexing incidents that have occurred while excavating such prehistoric sites – the disappearances around the Nine Travellers in the 1980s for example, or the weird events that were reported from the Milbury Circle a decade earlier. And of course who can forget the disasters that occurred when the barrow at Devil’s End was opened and culminated with the destruction of an ancient Norman Church. And so in Barrow Hill, yet again the questing shovels of those pesky archaeologists have disturbed something that should have best been left to continue its long slumber through the countless centuries…

In terms of gameplay, Barrow Hill features the usual pre-rendered screens and you navigate by clicking the direction you want to travel; the usual adventure game format as laid down in by Myst basically. But like many later adventure titles, the screens themselves are often semi-animated; lights flicker, moths and midges drift through the air, and best of all, while traversing dark areas you explore the scenes with the light from a lantern. And the graphics themselves are very fine and build up a convincing and immersive environment that is not only rich in atmosphere but also recreates the English countryside very realistically. Check out the gameplay trailer below…

Barrow Hill consists of just one level but it is a very large area to explore, and all the locations contained within are accessible right from the start. Structurally, the game is effective a huge sandbox and so the plot unfolds in a non linear fashion. You are free to explore where you like and tackle any of the various challenges in the game in whichever order you wish. However it should be noted that there is still narrative pacing, picking up certain items or doing a specific action will trigger events that will move your investigation forward. And this is done quite artfully so you never feel your freedom of play being railroaded.

Now there are many puzzles to solve along the way as is typical of the genre, but in Barrow Hill these are completely integrated into the unfolding story and in the main revolve around picking up the correct objects or finding key pieces or evidence – the kind of challenges that you’d encounter in a real world investigation, such as finding a box of matches rather than being confronted by a safe that improbably has a slider puzzle to open it. And the placement of the things you need to uncover follows real-world logic, so often a little deductive reasoning will narrow your search considerably. And if lateral thinking isn’t your strongest suit, then the game also weaves in many clues to help you out along the way.

In your quest to unravel the mysterious events surrounding the ancient barrow, there are a host of useful gadgets to acquire, such as a PDA, a mobile phone, and a variety of archaeological tools, a several objects you can interact with such as computers, CCTV systems and radios. Interestingly mobile phones are often something of a curse for modern story tellers – considering how widespread these devices are, you still rarely see them used in films and TV – but Barrow Hill does used the humble mobile rather well to the story’s advantage. Also the numerous radios in the game, that come complete with a range of radio stations, are put to effective use; not only does being able to listen to a variety of tunes on different stations add to the immersive game world but also furthers the narrative.

It’s also worth pointing out while on the subject of gameplay that Barrow Hill plays very fair in the manner it hides its secrets. Any given object to be found or that you can interact with is marked with a generously large hot spot, so unlike other titles in the adventure genre you won’t be reduced to painstakingly dragging the mouse over every single square centimetre of the screen just to find something. No, the real challenge in Barrow Hill isn’t completing a shopping list of items but working out how everything fits together in the context of the storyline.

And make no mistake the story telling is first rate. Now while I won’t spoil the details of the plot, it’s worth pointing out that the precise type of supernatural havoc unleashed at Barrow Hill is somewhat different from your usual slumbering deity; rather than take the easy route and inflict some pseudo-Lovecraftian ancient evil upon us all, the menace is a good deal more ambiguous in its nature. Indeed the nature of the threat can be read as a symbol of the story’s themes, as besides conjuring up a remarkable atmosphere of creeping dread, game creator Matt Clark has a good deal more in mind that simply providing spooky thrills.

To begin with the game’s tag line is “Adventure meets Archaeology” and despite the supernatural elements of the plot, there is a wealth of historical information woven into the story. Indeed the tag line did garner the game a review in an archaeological journal that, while slightly critical on the minutia of digs, did conclude that that Barrow Hill did get a good deal right (the full review is here but be warned it does contain a spoiler for one of the challenges in the game).

And I must say it makes a refreshing change to have a tale about standing stones that is well acquainted with proper historical facts rather than pulp nonsense. Furthermore, weaving in this kind of detailed and accurate historical information really strengthens a story and gives it a distinct flavour of its own; for example, consider how the carefully researched paganism represented in the original Wicker Man is far more effective and evocative than the bee obsessed, borderline misogynist codswallop that the blasphemy masquerading as a remake cooked up. Indeed, The Wicker Man is a good reference point for this game, sharing common themes on our relationship with the natural world and our past beliefs and religions.

Barrow Hill screenshot

Barrow Hill is in many ways a love letter to the history, legends and lore that have accumulated around our ancient monuments, and this is borne out by the fact that Matt Clark modelled the locations featured in the game on real ancient sites in Cornwall. The Barrow Hill megaliths are in fact the standing stones found at Duloe, and the holy well is based on St Nonna’s sacred well (for more details I highly recommend a visit to the game's home site and here).

But apart from impressively transferring real sites into a game, Barrow Hill builds an immersive world all of its own - its locations look and feel like real places and its legends have the ring of authentic folklore, generating a terrifically creepy atmosphere, and there are some excellent scares into the bargain. And it uses sound to excellent effect, from the rustles and creaks that haunt the woodlands, to the sounds of the local radio stations (one of which has its own website – check out the cool sounds of BHR here!)

The story unfolds smoothly, no mean trick for a non-linear narrative, and even manages to create some memorable characters too – in particularly the local DJ Emma Harry, who aside from sounding sultry and spinning some groovy platters, whose role in the story echoes that of Adrienne Barbeau in John Carpenter’s The Fog. And there are quite a few other crafty references and tips of the hat to other well known genre favourites scattered throughout the game.

Barrow Hill balances the real world and the fantastic beautifully, with all its elements; the history, the graphics and sounds, and the story line all merge wonderfully into one consistent and absorbing whole. It’s an exceeding well crafted game and all the more impressive as it was independently produced and was also Matt Clark’s debut as a game creator.

Certainly it’s an impressive debut. Not only is it no mean feat to so beautifully create a large chunk of the English countryside but to present such a perfectly rounded story with a the well thought out plotline is a major achievement. Like Dark Fall, the game really takes the adventure game genre and pushed it into something far more than a variety of puzzles, and I can’t wait to see what the follow-up game Bracken Tor will deliver.

Barrow Hill is still widely available, and recently has been re-released in a compendium by Shadow Tor with the first two Dark Fall games as Adventures in Terror - British Horror Classics - a very handy package for anyone wanting to plunge head first in horror adventure gaming. Plus there are two soundtracks available, one featuring the ambient music featured in the game and another The Midnight Sessions Vol 1, a collection of the smooth sounds of BHR selected buy Emma Harry (which comes with as a rather fetching CD done up to resemble vinyl). All of this and more is available from the Shadow Tor store.

The Midnight Sessions disc

Finally there’s an excellent podcast interview with Matt Clark and Jonathan Boakes over at The Investigative Author blog, in which they discuss their games and inspirations, independent game design, the creative process and all manner of other fascinating topics.

So then, if you’re after a horror game that offers more than shot-gunning zombies, or fancy a taste of interactive weird fiction, Barrow Hill is well worth the trip…


JIM MOON, 2nd February 2010


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