Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Manhole

It’s hard to define a game like The Manhole. Superficially it’s a lot like a point and click adventure game, as you explore a bizarre world by using your mouse to move around and interact with your surroundings. That’s about where any possible similarity with a game you’ve played before ends.

After the haunting theme song is over you find yourself in front of, amazingly enough, a manhole. Once opened a giant beanstalk quickly grows out of sight, giving you the option of climbing up or down to go exploring, or maybe you’d rather check out that fire hydrant in the distance. You could find yourself sharing tea with a rabbit before walking inside one of his books, or dive underwater and meet a French-speaking turtle. Or you could face down the cartoon world’s most fearsome inhabitant, a mildly grumpy penguin.

But how do you win the game, you say, what’s the point of all this? Hate to break it to you, but the goal is just to explore this weird place and have fun interacting with the things and creatures in it. There’s a dragon, but he isn’t burninating the countryside; he’s friendly and lets you use his wicked sound system.

Uh oh, this doesn't look good...
Uh, thanks hep cat?
 There’s no end, there’s no winning condition, and there is nothing at all resembling conflict in this game. For the person and a half still reading, the point of The Manhole is simply to capture a childhood sense of wonder and exploration as you go around clicking on anything that stands out to see what might happen. You might find yourself making a phone call to the developer, or music might start to play. A pool might empty to reveal a hidden exit, or you may hear a cartoon animal deliver a line in primitive, scratchy full-voice audio.

It doesn’t seem like much of a feature now, but when this game had characters that actually talked, not just in text boxes but in audible words, and came out years before everyone was using CD-ROMs, it was mind-blowing stuff.

He said "Hello, friend. You have a big nose and smell like a whale's armpit"

The game hasn’t aged well due to every game these days having talking characters, and because the only difficulty comes in looking for other places to click to see if anything happens. A thorough player can probably discover all of The Manhole’s secrets in an afternoon. However, if one remembers to approach it with the mindset of “the child in your home or the child in your heart,” there is a wondrous experience to be found here. So while it doesn’t earn a high rating because of how it doesn’t stand up especially well to repeated playthroughs, The Manhole is simply my favorite videogame of all time for the way it reaches out to the wide-eyed youngster within the cynical adult covering.

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