I’ve been a fan of point-and-click adventure games from childhood. I even wrote my BA thesis on the role of indirect speech acts in guiding players in the right direction. When I first heard about Anna, a first person point-and-click horror game, I became very curious. The game is set in what appears to be a reoccurring dream about a sawmill in the mountains of North-Western Italy. As you enter the sawmill, the dream becomes increasingly disturbing. At least, that is my interpretation of it.
Whether or not it’s a dream is debatable. Actually, a lot of the game is open to interpretation. You are given no tutorial when you start, no back story, and no idea where you are other than that the mill you’re standing in front of keeps appearing in your dreams. The lack of a tutorial may be a hindrance to some players unfamiliar with the standards of classic point-and-click adventures as the game blends the standard “use, pick up, examine” commands into the first person cursor. When you click on an item, those three options appear and you will be able to choose any one of them, even though all you will get when choosing “pick up” on a 500kg boulder will be “I cannot pick that up”. Looking at openable doors will cause the cursor to turn into a hand. This means that you can right click on it and pull it open.
Once you make your way into the house the game’s true nature comes to light. Darkness illuminated only by a handful of candles amount to a truly eerie atmosphere. This is not made any lighter by the sudden appearance of ghosts, shadows, and flying items as you progress through the games puzzles. Your curiosity will not let you stop trying to solve the puzzles, but your fear of what apparition it will spawn will make you hesitate even in the face of an obvious answer. When completing certain key puzzles in the game, the whole house will change. Illumination will change colour, strange paintings will appear on the walls and furniture will have moved, leading you to believe that you are not alone. Despite all these tried and true methods of causing fear in your heart, none of the apparitions can hurt you. You will never die and you cannot lose.
This renders fear a temporary state and as you play through the game your curiosity will be the only thing driving your actions; the morbid allure of fear will wane as it dawns on you that you have nothing to fear. Curiosity must be a strong driving force in your life, however, as the game’s numerous technical imperfections and aesthetic rough edges will put your patience to the test. Throughout the game you will have to combine items to make new ones as per point-and-click tradition. The inventory system in the game is just one example of things that can drive you insane. Each time you click an item on top of another item the game closes the inventory menu and gives you a message as to whether the combination was successful or not. This means that when you’re stuck and want to see if random combinations of things work together (and there will be plenty of those occasions) you will have to reopen the inventory menu for each attempt. This questionable design decision, combined with numerous technical issues such as the ability to pick up multiple units of the same item even though only one is needed only to have them disappear from your inventory once the puzzle is complete, render the game a lacklustre experience from a software engineering point of view. Regardless, I for one am fascinated by its puzzles.
The game will not hold your hand. It will not even give you hints unless you enable them. This game relies completely on your ability to think outside the box; I cannot think of one puzzle I solved where the answer was obvious. I can, however, count the times I tore out a handful of my own hair in frustration over how surrealistic the solution turned out to be. Some would call this a flaw, others a challenge. I will leave that up to you as it is arguably another one of the game’s multiple debatable aspects.
Anna is unarguably hampered by poor software engineering, lacklustre design, and an unintuitive user interface, but as an experience it is challenging, experimental, artistic, and above all: new. I have not been as surprised by a game in a long time and it is this feeling of curiosity and intrigue that keeps me playing it. If you are looking for triple-A production values and infinite replayability, or if you’re an English major and easily annoyed by subpar writing, you will definitely want to look somewhere else. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a new experience, something that tests your resolve and irritates you immensely before giving you the satisfaction of a puzzle solved, you will definitely want to check this game out. It is not for everyone, but those for whom it is will undoubtedly love it.
Challenging and surreal puzzles, unsettling aesthetics, experimental gameplay.
Hopeless user interface, numerous questionable design decisions, lacklustre software engineering.