The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow review – an adventure game with depth

Hob’s Barrow is a game that refuses to leave your brain until it’s all unraveled.

SPOILER WARNING: I try not to reveal details of Hob’s Barrow in this piece, but to understand what’s special about this game I had to mention some elements of the design that you might not want to know about .

My favorite moment in The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow came about three hours after finishing it. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Right off the bat, it’s hard not to cheer Thomasina Bateman on. In an age of steam trains and umbrellas, she’s come to a small village in northern England to unearth an ancient burial site, despite whatever obstacles the local patriarchy – and the soggy English weather – can put on her. his path.

And it’s hard not to take root in The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow itself. Here’s a compact yet carefully crafted point-and-click horror delivered in the classic adventure game style. The interface and inventory are pleasingly simplified – there’s a button to view all points of interest, and you can even warp to the exits with a double-tap – but the majestic pace of a game of classic adventure is respected with great reverence.

Here is a trailer for The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow.

The less you know about the story, the better. Just know that there is a mound that Thomasina wants to dig up, but her first task is to get the locals to admit that this mound even exists. And she has to convince some of them to even recognize her to begin with. How do you do this stuff? The classic adventure game, of course: talk to everyone until there’s nothing more to ask of them, pick up anything that isn’t stuck to the ground and keep an eye out for locked doors promising.

The animation is beautiful, switching between sleek, beautifully animated sprites as you move around the world, and jarring, rather terrifying close-ups as you watch cutscenes. In keeping with that, the secondary characters walk a fine line between appearing human and inhabiting all the horror fiction and small-town stereotypes you could desire.

The puzzles, especially in the first two-thirds of the game, manage to be enjoyable work that gets you thinking but never creates annoying roadblocks. You always work on what you want, while keeping an eye on what others want – so you can create synergies where those desires overlap.

Hob's Wheelbarrow

Always there for a good cairn.

More than confusing, however, it’s just a pleasure to be in such an atmospheric world. The landscapes are by Constable and the dialogue is lively and full of character. There are moments in the beginning, as Thomasina encounters local idiots who want to put her in her place as a woman, and other local idiots who want to engage her in discussions examining the conflict between folklore and rationality. , where it all threatens to become a kind of playable Essex serpent, that other carefully gothic story built on displacement and superstition. The railway has just arrived in the region – is this the end of all that is sacred? All of this is wonderfully done.

The Essex Serpent is an interesting touchpoint. Sarah Perry’s novel flirts with horror in the service of something deeper, alien, and ultimately softer. In the beginning – and “in the beginning” counts to the credits and a few hours beyond – I was tempted to say that Hob’s Barrow flirts with flirting with horror, before settling more firmly into safe genre territory. . The game flowed gracefully and I was enthralled until the end, but there were times when I worried that loyalty to lore and specific horror narrative gravity would get in the way of a more interesting story than Hob’s Barrow was beginning to tell. Horror offers thrills and appropriate magic, but doesn’t it often come with demands and restrictions?

Similarly, the narrative choices made by the developers force a shift in the type of puzzles I encountered as things worked towards the climax. I went from playful settings that encouraged me to think about the people around me and how I could use social engineering to get what I want, to much more mechanical adventure game stuff. Again, it was beautifully handled, and there’s a nice sense of doom mystery throughout, but Thomasina is such a charismatic protagonist that I missed the parts of the game that saw her engage with other people.

Hob's Wheelbarrow

Great game, very questionable medical opinion.

To quote another Thomasina: you can’t mix things up. Or can you? After finishing the game, I collapsed to do the dishes, quietly disappointed. I ran through a familiar checklist of disappointed thoughts. The danger, I reminded myself, is getting upset because Hob’s Barrow isn’t quite the game I want it to be. Of course, I thought, I’m very happy to put everything else aside and enjoy this characterful slice of dark-hearted English folklore. But even so, I suspected that, towards the end in particular, Hob’s Barrow wasn’t quite the game Hob’s Barrow wanted to be either. He left out too many interesting themes as he rushed to the conclusion. Thomasina is such a brilliant creation that she deserves a game that gives her a bit more agency.

I ripped out wires like this for four hours that day, until it all clicked. I suddenly felt like I understood something much deeper about what the game was trying to say, and how it used elements of horror rather than giving way to them. What a brilliant thing it is – a puzzle in itself, just as much as something like Link’s Awakening – but a narrative and thematic puzzle rather than a spatial puzzle in which the map itself is one giant puzzle.

And here’s the thing: those four hours after finishing the game and turning off the computer, those four hours were when I really played Hob’s Barrow. Hard work and dialogue aside, this is where I sorted through the narrative, unraveled the real theme, and made sense of what I had witnessed. Yet more proof, I guess, that for some games, what we call gameplay extends far beyond the screen and keyboard or controller.

Beneath those squalid skies and endless drizzle, then, Hob’s Barrow works a kind of sneaky magic. Dig.