Written by Joe Pranevich
In the 1980s, if you wanted a spine-chilling adventure game, ICOM Simulations was the place to go. For all that Infocom’s The Lurking Horror (1987) might cause you to sweat a bit and Lucasfilm’s Maniac Mansion (also 1987) knew how to chill you in a sort of Addams Family goofiness, ICOM Simulations brought true horror to adventure gaming with 1986’s The Uninvited and (to a lesser extent) the the following year’s Shadowgate. These games were works of art and their high-resolution black and white imagery (in their original Macintosh versions) made your skin crawl as you plumbed their adventuring depths.
By the 1990s however, ICOM had left those horror roots behind. Their big hit series had become Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, a delightfully well-lit exploration of 19th century London’s criminal underworld. But by 1993, David Marsh and Karl Roelofs would get two chances to bring ICOM back to their horror roots: Beyond Shadowgate and Dracula Unleashed. Beyond Shadowgate will need to wait for another time (it was a TurboGrafx-CD exclusive title and outside our scope), but Dracula Unleashed turned a dark mirror on the Sherlock Holmes series, taking the format and conventions that they developed for those happy little adventures and bringing them to a world of pain and blood. In other words, perfect Halloween fare!
I’ve been dying to play this game for years. Let’s get to it.
It’s not a game, it’s an “Interactive Horror Movie”.
Before we get too far, let’s recap what ICOM Simulations has been up to so far. I do not always love their games, but I love the way that ICOM did not tie themselves down to a specific type of game the way some of their contemporaries did. This may have been out of necessity– they never quite became “the” Adventure company in the ways that Infocom, Sierra, and LucasArts did– but I appreciate them nonetheless.
The history of ICOM starts with the invention of “point and click” gaming: the MacVenture series and especially their first game, Deja Vu, in 1985. (Strictly speaking, the first point-and-click adventure game was probably 1984’s Enchanted Scepters by Silicon Beach Software, but that game failed to attract wide notice. Deja Vu was the first commercially successful point-and-click adventure game.) Four of these MacVentures games were created between 1985 and 1988: Deja Vu, Uninvited, Shadowgate, and Deja Vu 2. These games were ported (in some cases, not well) to many other platforms and were even adapted for the NES. They proved that you could bring something like Infocom’s depth and heart to a graphical format.
For ICOM’s next trick, they pretty much invented the full-motion video (FMV) adventure game genre with Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. While arguably not a “real” adventure game (Consulting Detective does not have an inventory or typical adventure puzzles), the series was tremendously popular and was a common “pack-in” with CD-ROM upgrade kits of the early 1990s. The game was fun and accessible to casual players. (Although we are playing in the opposite order, Dracula Unleashed was released after the third Consulting Detective game.) While working on FMV on one hand, ICOM expanded into console games on the other with releases such as Beyond Shadowgate and even platformers like Road Runner's Death Valley Rally. I adored Death Valley Rally as a kid.
Cover art for the Sega-CD version in Europe.
The idea behind Dracula Unleashed came early during the development of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. With Holmes already exploring 19th century London, a leap to a different public domain character of the same time period may have seemed an easy one. Ken Tarolla, the executive producer, became aware that Francis Ford Coppola was working on the film that would become Bram Stoker's Dracula. This, he reasoned, would rocket Dracula back into public consciousness. ICOM could take advantage of the film’s marketing and cachet to sell their own “Interactive Movie” sequel while the iron was hot.
Development of the game began in parallel with the Sherlock Holmes sequels, but the production team’s ambitions outstripped their budgets. Mike Plant was tapped to direct with Dave Marsh, one of the leads on the earlier MacVenture games, on as producer. Plant was not officially credited on Holmes, but has suggested (or outright stated) in interviews that he directed some of those games’ material and he was already well-familiar with the limitations inherent in FMV at the time. (Ken Torolla was the official director on the project; Plant is listed in the IMDb as the editor.) Marsh would have brought his adventure game background, adding back in some of the adventure elements that were absent in the board game-based Consulting Detective series. Like that preceding series, actors and crews were sourced from local (Minnesota-based) theater groups and auditions.
The director, Mike Plant, discusses a scene with two actors backstage.
The budget for the game was challenging. We know from subsequent interviews that they were allocated $125,000 (roughly $240K in today’s money) for sets. Working on very limited soundstages, they had to build and strike each set as soon as the scenes ended. There would be no opportunity for reshoots. More than 150 scenes were shot, with a crew that consisted of 40 actors (seven credited leads with many more bit parts and extras) as well as the usual army of customers, prop designers, carpenters, cameramen, and many more. A live wolf was brought in by an animal handler for some scenes. The shoot lasted for six weeks, with Plant and much of the crew working 12-14 hour days in tight soundstages to pull it all together. They ran out of special effects budget before the end and, to Plant’s dismay, had to film some of the effects in ways that he felt were ultimately unsatisfying… but they were on a deadline! A small incident with the wolf resulted in Plant being bitten, but there was no time to stop. (He claims to still have a scar on his arm from the bite.) They completed the shoot around November of 1992 and attended a showing of Coppola’s Dracula film as part of their wrap party. They were unable to beat Coppola to theaters, but they hoped that the excitement behind his film would translate into sales for theirs.
Potentially contributing to their budget and timeline woes, ICOM was undergoing its own transformation during the development of Dracula Unleashed. Previously independent, ICOM was purchased by Viacom and renamed/merged into “Viacom New Media”. The new company would focus nearly exclusively on licensed titles, including such gems as 1995’s Beavis and Butt-Head in Virtual Stupidity. Marketing for the game included a film-style trailer. Viacom pushed Dracula Unleashed as a first of its kind “Interactive Movie” that would “combine Hollywood and hardware” into something new. They weren’t the only company making such claims, of course, as FMV was a definitive selling point of 1993. By all accounts, Dracula Unleashed sold well and landed more than $1M in sales. (Plant claimed in an interview that revenue-wise it did better than the Consulting Detective series, although the latter shipped many more units as part of CD-ROM conversion kits and similar promotions.) The crew hoped for a sequel, but the studio instead opted for a “spiritual successor” instead in MTV: Club Dead, a decidedly more “modern” take on a FMV horror game. This second life of ICOM software would last until 1997 when much of the ICOM intellectual property (and more than a few of its best developers) would be transitioned to a new company, Infinite Ventures. I look forward to learning more about these later phases of ICOM when we get to them.
|Dave Marsh, from a “behind the scenes” interview.|
Dracula Unleashed is the only game designed by Anthony Sherman, a man that I have been able to learn nearly nothing about. Fortunately, the rest of the crew was made up of more experienced designers. The screenplay for the game was written by Andrew Greenberg– not the Andrew Greenberg that invented Wizardry and was one of the luminaries of the computer RPG world, but rather a different Andrew Greenberg, at this point best known for developing the tabletop game, Vampire: The Masquerade. Greenberg’s love of vampire lore made him a great fit for the script. Although this was Greenberg’s first computer game, he would eventually help to design fifteen more over his career, on top of writing at least twenty novels and many more RPG modules.
David Marsh served not only as a producer, but as a co-designer on the game. He was joined by frequent collaborator Karl Roelofs (designer for Shadowgate) and Katherine Tootelian (from the Consulting Detective series). Mr. Marsh has been a friend to the site for a long time and his current company, Zojoi, is revitalizing many of ICOM’s hits.
As this post introduction is getting too long already, I will skip the detailed biographies of the lead cast members for now. This was early in their careers for nearly all of them. Some, like Nichole Pelerine, would move into television and have national exposure on shows such as Angel and The X-Files. Others transitioned into directing or writing and most had (and continue to have) a long career in live theater in Minnesota and beyond. My hope is to be able to focus on one or two of the actors in each gameplay post, to share a bit more about what they have been up to since 1993.
Not the correct manual, but at least we see a different variation on the game’s cover art!
I have been unable to locate a manual for the PC version of Dracula Unleashed. I hope (and assume) that the Sega CD version manual is similar enough. It reveals the basic plot of the game: Dracula is alive and prowling the streets of London, and that I will be playing as a “wealthy American” named Alexander Morris. I will explore “13 locations” and watch more than 140 clips before the game is through.
Much of the gameplay seems inspired by Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Like in that game, we’ll be exploring London by carriage and have to select where we want to go using an address book. We will also have in-game newspaper clips, in contrast to the manual-included ones in the previous game. In each location, we will be shown a movie clip and we are free to watch that clip as many times as we like. But unlike with Holmes, the world is more dynamic. We cannot watch the same clips over again by visiting the same location twice, for example. Our address book will not begin the game filled, but we must learn the addresses that we need to visit during the story. Dracula Unleashed also adds a time element (as presented by a “pocket watch”): every action we take will eat a fixed amount of time and some events will only happen if we go at the correct moment. We can fast-forward to a later time, if needed, but the manual cautions us that we’ll need to conserve our minutes wisely. We will also need to sleep during the game as trying to stay up can result in disaster. We’ll need to play to understand these mechanics more, but I am excited already!
Also unlike Sherlock Holmes, we have an inventory! We automatically pick up objects when we watch certain scenes. We can then place those objects “in hand”. Scenes will trigger differently depending on what is in our hands. The manual provides an example of visiting the telegraph office: if we have the address of someone that we want to send a message to “in hand”, going to the office will cause us to send them a message. Going there without an address in hand may do absolutely nothing.
As we’re playing a 1990s game, we are well past the era of self-published hint guides. Instead, the “official” hint book for Dracula Unleashed was written by Rick Barba and published by Prima Games in 1994. I buy these things hoping for some pre-production art or background on the game that I can add to my research, but this tome provides neither.
Instead, I am left with the impression that Barba had a lot of pages to fill and not a lot of game content to fill it with. 237 pages of this guidebook (62% of the book!) is nothing more than the entire public domain text of Dracula. That is on top of 16 pages earlier in the book summarizing the novel for anyone without enough patience to read the whole thing. It’s clear that Barba at least feels that a deep understanding of the novel is essential to playing this game! He then caps it all off with a 42-page novella that retells the story of Dracula Unleashed in the style of the original novel. I did the math and only 23% of this book actually includes hints and walkthroughs for the game that it covers! Could that be a record?
Other than the math, I haven’t taken a deep dive at this book yet and will look at it more, just in case it has something interesting to say, once I am done.
|Dracula goes to the dentist?|
DVD Remastered Edition
As previously mentioned, most of ICOM’s legacy properties were sold to Infinite Ventures in 1997, as Viacom New Media was winding down. That company both developed new sequels to their old games (such as 1999’s Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers) as well as re-released those old games on more modern platforms. Zojoi would do the same thing again in 2012. Everything old is new again!
For our purposes, the most important of these re-releases was a 2002 remaster of Dracula Unleashed. This release emphasized the “Interactive Movie” aspect of the production and sold directly for DVD players, no game system required. (How saved games and similar would work, I have no idea.) Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to find any copy of this title today although several streamers have recorded their playthroughs for YouTube. The two most recent auctions I found had the game selling for several hundred dollars! Reading through reviews however, it appears as if the video portions were remastered for a fullscreen (480p) experience. A few scenes may also be slightly different from how they appeared in the original, perhaps because some of the 1993 production material was unavailable or damaged. The DVD includes a few “deleted scenes” as well as a “Making Of” featurette. I’ll take a look at the deleted scenes and see if they warrant a special post, once I complete the game.
|Party like it’s 1899!|
Our game begins… with credits. Lots and lots of credits, for a very long time.
As the credits finally fade to black, the game jumps to the scene of a grave. The caption reads December 31, 1899. It’s the New Year's Eve of a new century! The grave reads Quincey Morris and he lived from 1865 to 1889. He was 34 years old when he died, ten years ago.
Someone approaches the grave. We don’t know who it is yet, but he seems agitated or distraught. (I’m guessing from the manual that this is our player character, Alexander Morris.) Quincey was always there for him and “even now, your friends have made me strong enough to carry out what I must do.” That is a mouthful! He kneels next to the grave, holding and cleaning a large knife. He monologues some more background: It was Father Janos who started him on his “agonizing task”, but now with the aid of Quincey’s allies he can “end this horrible scourge”.
“So much has happened these past few days…”
A fancy dress party!
Bill Williamson, our handsome lead actor!
We flash back a few days, to December 27. Our lead is looking a lot happier, at a party or a social club of some kind. He’s introduced as “Mr. Alexander Morris” as expected.
Alexander shakes hands with “Arthur” and thanks him for his kindness while he’s been in London. Arthur sponsored Alexander into this, London’s “most auspicious club”. Arthur was friends with Quincey and so extends that honor to his family connection. We also learn that the club is called the “Hades Club” which does not sound evil at all. They speak almost as if Quincey died recently, but it was ten years ago! Arthur next introduces Alexander to Devlin Goldacre. (I originally wrote this as “Devlin Golddigger”, but used a cast list to fix the spelling.) The Hades Club appears to be his and Alexander again stresses what an honor it is for him to join.
We named our club after Hell! It’s so funny!
A man with an eastern European accent interrupts before Devlin can say any more. He reveals that the Morris brothers were both from Texas, but that London “doesn't have enough room” for both of them. (Again, there’s the implication that Quincey died more recently than ten years ago…) He presses Alexander on what brought him to London. Alexander reveals that he received a letter from a Romanian priest (Father Janos?) pressing him to investigate the circumstances of his brother’s death. The man says that there are many murders in the newspapers and dismisses Quincey’s death as being any more than that. The butler helpfully tells us that this is Leopold, a “Czechelslovakian”. (This appears to be an anachronism; there was no Czechelslovakian identity before 1918, only Czech or Slovak, as far as I am aware.) Alexander reveals that he isn’t as new to London as Arthur implied. He’s actually been in the city a number of months, but his investigation has been distracted since he met a woman named Anisette Bowen. They are recently engaged, but he had to pause his investigation of Quincey’s death when her father became ill.
A butler hands Alexander a note. It’s from Mr. Bowen’s doctor. Regretfully, Anisette’s father has died of a heart attack. The doctor has sedated her now as well and asks that Alexander visit in the morning. Disturbed by the news, Alexander leaves the club to rest.
This isn’t foreshadowing at all.
Later that night, Alexander has a nightmare. He dreams that he is comforting Anisette with her father’s body still laying in bed, covered only by a sheet. They talk about arranging a burial, but Mr. Bowen rises suddenly and strangles Alexander from behind. He says that even in death he could not allow Alexander to take Anisette from him. But Anisette isn’t frightened: she just laughs and laughs, seeming to rejoice in Alexander’s suffering.
Alexander wakes up and it’s the morning of December 28. We have four days until the grave scene, four days until this normal-seeming man starts sounding a bit crazy, standing by his brother’s grave wielding a knife. Let’s play!
The intro movie is over, it’s time to play!
Should I Re-read the Book?
I have a confession to make: I read Dracula a number of years ago, but I apparently do not remember it well. Watching the introduction, I did not remember that Quincey Morris was in the original book and undoubtedly am forgetting a lot more. It’s perhaps no accident that the hint book for the game devotes more pages to the original Dracula novel than it does the game that we’re about to play. Should I take that as a clue that I should re-read before I play? It’s not too long, but it might delay things by a few days.
Research for this post comes from the usual array of varied sources, but of special note is the “Behind the Scenes” featurette included in the 2002 DVD version of the game as well as Mike Plant’s 2020 interview by the “toothpicking” YouTube channel, a channel devoted to researching and discussing vampire fiction. Some of the video game history in that interview is more than questionable, but the interview with Mr. Plant is fantastic.
Now, it’s time for you to guess the score! As of right now, ICOM Simulations games are averaging 42 points. Just looking at their more recent FMV games, they are averaging 56 points. Will this game be a horror classic or simply horrible? I cannot wait to find out.
Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introductory post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 20 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.