This surreal adventure about bird-people might be the year’s best puzzle game
Imagine a world exactly like the one in which you live, but where every piece of frayed wallpaper may hide a door into a monstrously beautiful mystery. This is the surreal setting for Creaks, an elegant puzzle game from the Czech studio Amanita Design that took me on a grand adventure.
Creaks stars an unassuming everyman who, at the beginning of the game, is just trying to get some reading in before bedtime. The overhead light in his bedroom flickers and then dies, as a loud thud rattles the entire house. The disturbance jolts the wallpaper, a piece of which peels off to reveal a metal door leading to a secret passageway. Our hero does what anyone would: He crawls in and starts investigating what lies beneath his home.
He’s been sleeping above a wonder, as it turns out. He quickly finds himself exploring a vast subterranean structure lying in a massive cavern: a dilapidated mansion that’s the size of a small town and is home to a variety of eldritch beings, including bird-people and some deadly mechanical monsters. There are a few different types of this latter group — the eponymous “creaks” themselves — such as menacing robot dogs and metallic jellyfish-like creatures, and all of them will kill our friend with a touch.
The hidden mansion, with its vaguely Victorian architecture and steampunk-sans-brass aesthetics, feels like a lived-in space that was gradually, perhaps over centuries, hewn out of colossal stalagmites in the cavern. It also seems like it could crumble at any moment due to seismic activity, whether natural or caused by the mysterious giant creature that you occasionally see glimpses of. The main character is animated in an immediately endearing way: He perpetually wears an anxious expression, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, as if he could melt into a bundle of nerves at any moment.
His only salvation in this underground setting is, of course, light: The creaks are terrified of it, which makes sense, since light transmogrifies them into harmless furniture if it touches them. Well, harmless, but helpful in completing puzzles.
The unique behaviors that each species of creak exhibits, along with the aversion to light that they all share, are pretty much all you need to know to solve every puzzle in Creaks. Amanita Design dispensed with the point-and-click format from traditional adventure games, opting instead to give you direct control of the player character. But there’s no inventory to worry about or fuss over; the game unfolds over the course of dozens of individual scenes, almost all of which are self-contained puzzles.
This design choice sets up some comforting limitations that help the game soar. I can take solace in the fact that if I ever feel stumped, the solution must be right in front of me — I just have to pay closer attention to the variables in this particular scene and apply the rules I’ve already learned.
Creaks’ wonderfully weird original score by Scottish musician Joe Acheson (aka Hidden Orchestra), which relies on unorthodox instruments such as organs and zithers, is more than a jaunty accompaniment — musical flourishes tell you when you’ve figured out a key step toward a puzzle’s solution, like turning a mechanical dog into a wooden nightstand. Every time I needed to know if I was on the right track, I found that listening to the score was just about as useful as anything else.
As is the hallmark of any competent puzzle game, the solutions often teach new twists on the rules, creating eureka moments that expand my understanding of what’s possible. For instance, the metal jellyfish float back and forth, patrolling a certain zone and moving vertically when they encounter an obstacle. That’s already a lot to handle when I have to get them to adjust their behavior, and that’s before the game needs me to control which direction they’re facing
Learning the language of Creaks’ puzzles is only half the fun. Each discrete scene offers a new chance to get to know this eerie world, which Amanita has crafted in exquisite detail with gorgeous hand-drawn, hand-painted artwork and meticulous animation. All of it is vital in telling the game’s story; like other Amanita titles such as Machinarium and Chuchel, Creaks is entirely devoid of any intelligible dialogue, whether written or spoken. I found it a joy to piece things together as I delved further into the mansion, inferring details from the changing environment and the misadventures of the bird-people who inhabit it.
Amanita threw in a welcome respite from the pressures of the puzzles and the creaks: Interspersed between the scenes, sometimes hidden in rooms off the beaten path, are 35 oil paintings inspired by 18th- and 19th-century art movements such as the rococo style and impressionism. Some of them even contain simplistic minigames. I’m not sure what these quirky little pieces of art are doing in this strange place, but I love exploring the mansion for these brief asides anyway.