When I’m not dressing up as my mother and stabbing people to death in the shower as they scrub away the day’s nagging pangs of guilt and remorse, I love nothing more than playing computer games based on classic, black and white horror movies. That’ll be why this one appealed to me I expect. It’s not like I’m a maniac or a raving thing. I just go a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you? As for mother, what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today either.
Sadly, while there is some incidental transvestism in the plot, the game broadly chooses to ignore Robert Bloch’s gift-wrapped goldmine of source material in favour of a throwaway – I hesitate to use the term – narrative concerning some jewels stolen from the Metropolitan Showcase of Art, along with its curator. Because that’s what always happens when priceless artefacts are swiped from such institutions – you make sure you also abduct the person who knows most about them so they can help you hawk them to the highest bidder (or in Norman’s case was it more of a magpie-esque shiny prize gathering exercise?). Never mind the complicated business of smuggling them off the premises or keeping them under wraps and silent afterwards.
“Milton Arbogast: Well, if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’!”
An incriminating note left for Norman by his uncle Max alludes to him being behind the nefarious scheme, though as no-one knows who Max is, the finger of blame is pointed elsewhere. Our local motelier, Norman Bates, is in the frame as the number one suspect on account of being a bit of an oddball, and the only human being for miles around if you recall the bypass story from the prequel TV series which elucidates how the area surrounding the ailing business came to be so deserted.
“Marion Crane: Do you have any vacancies?
Norman Bates: Oh, we have 12 vacancies. 12 cabins, 12 vacancies.”
You play the detective sent to investigate the crime, recover the pilfered loot and rescue the missing curator. We don’t find out if we’re called ‘Arbogast’, if he’s a colleague or where and when Marion Crane fits into the picture.
Jolting us into this chilling whodunit is a crude, creaky rendition of Bernard Herrmann’s spine-tingling score from the original movie. Criminal in itself, luckily it’s the first and last track in the musical roster. Psycho ArcadeQuest – to use its full title – most closely resembles an early Lucasarts point and click adventure game, minus the pointing and mouse clicking, given it’s all controlled via keyboard shortcut keys relating to the usual verbs employed in titles of this genre. As long as you’re standing immediately adjacent to objects in the environment they can be manipulated or examined, while the main sprite is manoeuvred using the cursor keys.
Contrary to the claims made on the box you never set foot in the motel, only the ‘torch under the chin/eyes wide open’ spooky house of horrors where you’ll encounter respawning apparitions, spectral dogs, giant wasps, and mummy Bates also known as Norma, or is it Norman in a dress? You can’t possibly know because l’ve bought up all copies of the Hilltop Diner napkin the wafer thin plot was scribbled down on, and embargoed any sneak previews of my review of this 1989 graphic adventure from StarSoft Development Laboratories to maintain the element of surprise. Keeping the movie audience in suspense would have been easier than you’d imagine way back in 1960 because the novel of the same name had only been written a year earlier, and was not widely known. It’s not clear how much attention people paid to Hitchcock’s plea for cinemagoers not to discuss the film with those who had yet to watch it.
On the Amiga side of the equation – also available for the C64, Atari ST and DOS – the guilty parties caught with blood on their hands were Henry S. Bolley (programming), Hal E. McCrery (screenplay, graphics and StarSoft founder) and Craig A. Morehouse (director and game design). Curiously the PC interpretation was programmed by Scott Adams, author of Adventureland, the very first text adventure game developed in 1978. Everyone deserves a second chance!
Counter-intuitively your most pressing concern isn’t being knifed to death with Gordon Ramsay’s finest, but time. You have four hours to complete your mission because that’s precisely how long the curator’s heart can go on pumping the red gooey gunk in the absence of his medication. Where’s Celine Dion when you need her? She’d know what to do!
Each brush with a ghoul detracts from the total time remaining by causing you to drift off into a deep slumber, wasting precious minutes that could instead be spent solving this horrific hide and seek mystery.
“It caught me! I feel so sleepy!”
Why the Bates residence has suddenly become a ghost house fun fair ride, or the spooks give a damn about standing between you and your abductee is anyone’s guess. Still, it does help pad out the game to fill the full fifteen minute playtime – and if nothing else – Minnesota based publishers, Box Office, who sold mostly budget software via outlets such as Kmart were all about value for money. You only have to look at the premium quality of some of their el cheapo back catalogue to see that: ‘Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future’, ‘The California Raisins’, and ‘ALF: The First Adventure’ to name some of the better ones.
You shamble along draped in your Columbo PI trenchcoat as though you’ve got your shoelaces tied together, rather like your typical mid-eighties Sierra adventure game character animated through a cycle of no more than three or four frames of animation. At first armed with only a magnifying glass (the sign of a true professional in detective cliques) thrust out before you like an almighty divining rod you’re neither use nor ornament. Luckily there’s a dart gun and bullets (not darts?) to be found on the storage shelf in the butler’s pantry that can be used to temporarily dissolve adversaries. Long enough to allow you to progress to the next room of Edward Hopper’s ‘House by the Railroad’ at any rate. Because the staircase crumbled beneath your weight you move between floors via the dumbwaiter – usually reserved for transporting meals and crockery – a feat of contortionism that would impress even Houdini!
You must be knackered after laying on a performance like that so snag the caffeine pills from the bathroom to buy yourself some more time in the land of the living. Why the preoccupation with sleep you may wonder? Was it some kind of subtle, self-effacing acknowledgement on StarSoft’s part that anyone playing this game is going to be bored so witless they could plummet into a coma at any moment? Of course they were laughing at our idiotic purchasing decisions. We’ll get a refund later – right now we have an asphyxiating museum nerd to rescue so look lively Sherlock!
“Highway Patrol officer: Uh… hold it there. In quite a hurry.
Marion Crane: (nervously) Yes. Uh… I didn’t intend to sleep so long. I almost had an accident last night, from sleepiness. So I decided to pull over.
Highway Patrol officer: You slept here all night?
Marion Crane: Yes. As I said, I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Highway Patrol officer: There are plenty of motels in this area. You should’ve… I mean, just to be safe.
Marion Crane: I didn’t intend to sleep all night! I just pulled over. Have I broken any laws?
Highway Patrol officer: No, ma’am.
Marion Crane: Then I’m free to go?
Highway Patrol officer: Is anything wrong?
Marion Crane: Of course not. Am I acting as if there’s something wrong?
Highway Patrol officer: Frankly, yes.
Marion Crane: Please… I’d like to go.
Highway Patrol officer: Well, is there?
Marion Crane: Is there what? I’ve told you there’s nothing wrong, except that I’m in a hurry and you’re taking up my time.
(starts car engine)
Highway Patrol officer: Now, just a moment! Turn off your motor, please. May I see your license?
Marion Crane: Why?
Highway Patrol officer: Please.”
In the basement (fruit cellar surely?) you’ll find a key buried inside a pile of coal that is used to access the tool closet. This same key can be collected over and over and over again presumably because it was harder to arrange for it to vanish after being added to your inventory than to always be there. If you look at the coal mound having already pocketed the key you’ll learn, “I found more keys just like the one I found before.”
More aptly a matter of lazy programming than a bug, though there are plenty of the latter to exemplify too. It’s unfathomable for instance to comprehend how being obstructed by thin air as you walk across a room could be paramount to the plot seeing as any poltergeists are plainly manifest.
Go on, guess where the curator has been sequestered away? Got it in one. The very same tool closet this magic multiplying key opens. You’re not a badge carrying 24-carat detective too are you? Give him the heart medication you found in the closet in the master bedroom and he’ll in turn give you the combination to the safe. He must have watched Norman secure it when he hid the loot or this would be a silly adventure game cobbled together in ten minutes that makes no sense.
Head to the bathroom where you’ll bump into Norman cleaning up after a grisly incident with dessert chocolate sauce, a melon and a super-sized butcher’s knife. Amazing really what you can condense Janet Leigh down to when you put your mind to it. $40,000 doesn’t seem like such a treasure trove when you have you trade it for your lifeblood. Conspicuously this was also Anthony Perkins’s fee for starring in the movie.
“Norma Bates: (voice-over) No! I tell you no! I won’t have you bringing some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!
Norman Bates: (voice-over) Mother, please…!
Norma Bates: (voice-over) And then what? After supper? Music? Whispers?
Norman Bates: (voice-over) Mother, she’s just a stranger. She’s hungry, and it’s raining out!
Norma Bates: (voice-over) “Mother, she’s just a stranger”! As if men don’t desire strangers! As if… ohh, I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me! You understand, boy? Go on, go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with MY food… or my son! Or do I have tell her because you don’t have the guts! Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?
Norman Bates: (voice-over) Shut up! Shut up!”
At a time when it was taboo to show a flushing toilet on TV, Alfred was embracing voyeurism and murdering defenceless, naked women in the shower. As it turns out that was more palatable. Mad as a maverick’s hatter at a rabbit’s tea party! …or words to that effect.
Technically it wasn’t Anthony Perkins’s shadowy figure who stabbed her in the ‘rest room’ or ‘water closet’ (to use the polite terminology while we discuss such cheery topics), rather a stand in actor so as not to tip off the audience to the twist ending so early on in the proceedings. It certainly wasn’t mother; she “wouldn’t hurt a fly”.
Take care of the twitchy taxidermist with your bullet-loaded dart gun, head through the seance room and up to the attic to tango with mother. You’ll have to hang onto your hat and wait to find out if that entails conversing with her crusty rocking corpse or more masculine fleshy manifestation.
Woah, wait one cotton pickin’ minute. Back the Greyhound bus up, or whatever the phrase is. Since when was there ever a ‘seance room’ at the Bates Motel? Norman isn’t aware/cannot concede he killed his own mum and her boyfriend in a fit of jealous rage ten years ago so why would he need to set aside a special room to aid him in communicating with her on the other side? He talks to her every day in this world after all.
“Sheriff Al Chambers: Your detective told you he couldn’t come right back because he was goin’ to question Norman Bates’ mother. Right?
Lila Crane: Yes.
Sheriff Al Chambers: Norman Bates’ mother has been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for the past ten years!
Eliza Chambers: I helped Norman pick out the dress she was buried in. Periwinkle blue.
Sheriff Al Chambers: ‘Tain’t only local history, Sam. It’s the only case of murder and suicide on Fairvale ledgers.”
She-he-Ed-Gein-Norman-Norma lunges at you with all the veracity of a tortoise on diazepam, feeble-mindedly hacking away at the air with his subtitled carving knife. All the while a motionless skeleton spectates from the sidelines. Mother executes the 8-bit shuffle-slash, the creaky floorboards (use your imagination, there are very few sound effects) separating you nixed in slow motion by your incomprehension of a scene simultaneously encompassing a living and dead Norma Bates.
Coming to your senses not a moment too soon you double-tap the duel-generation imposter, open the safe and recover the jewels.
(‘We’re in the money’ ditty plays)
You’ve cracked the case and completed the game. Press P to play again.
Is that ‘Dial-a-shrink’? Cool. Listen bud, I need a quick, neat summary to explain this deranged head-masher curlicue to my 1960s audience who probably haven’t had much experience with paranoid schizophrenia, delusions, and the still highly contentious concept of split personality disorder. Oh, you’ve got a recording you can play? Perfectamondo!
“Officer: He’s a transvestite!
Dr. Fred Richmond: Ah, not exactly. A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change, or satisfaction, is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. And when reality came too close, when danger or desire threatened that illusion – he dressed up, even to a cheap wig he bought. He’d walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother! And, uh… now he is.
Dr. Fred Richmond: Now, that’s what I meant when I said I got the story from the mother. You see, when the mind houses two personalities, there’s always a conflict, a battle. In Norman’s case, the battle is over… and the dominant personality has won.”
“Dr. Fred Richmond: Like I said… the mother… Now to understand it the way I understood it, hearing it from the mother… that is, from the mother half of Norman’s mind… you have to go back ten years, to the time when Norman murdered his mother and her lover. Now he was already dangerously disturbed, had been ever since his father died. His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world. Then she met a man… and it seemed to Norman that she ‘threw him over’ for this man. Now that pushed him over the line and he killed ’em both. Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all… most unbearable to the son who commits it. So he had to erase the crime, at least in his own mind. He stole her corpse. A weighted coffin was buried. He hid the body in the fruit cellar. Even treated it to keep it as well as it would keep. And that still wasn’t enough. She was there! But she was a corpse. So he began to think and speak for her, give her half his life, so to speak. At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild.
(Points finger at Lila Crane)
Dr. Fred Richmond: When he met your sister, he was touched by her… aroused by her. He wanted her. That set off the ‘jealous mother’ and ‘mother killed the girl’! Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep. And like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed!”
Vaporised or committed to an insane asylum, it’s all the same. Like the undead super wasp and levitating canine we can be sure that’s not the last we’ll see of Norman. You can’t run from Psycho ArcadeQuest, no one really runs away from anything. Timers reset, and jewels and curators replunder themselves to await their next valiant saviour. StarSoft games are a private trap that hold us as though incarcerated in prison.
You know what I think as I sit here blatantly plagiarising and paraphrasing Norman Bates, sprinkling in a few gaming references hither and thither to make this wrap-up seem vaguely relevant to the task at hand? I think that I should switch back to inverted commas for a start. “I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Why do we maintain this absurd facade? Sure, rescue the anonymous curator for the seventh time in a row, extinguish the raging demons in the whites of Norman’s rolling eyes once again. He may even be at peace for a little while. Only next time, next time, why not smile calmly at the condemned, gagged and bound man, take a seat beside him in the tool closet, and pull the door shut from the inside?
(Fade to black)