It takes me an hour of playing Nightmare Frames to fully rekindle my love-hate relationship with Los Angeles.
The new point-and-click adventure from Postmodern Adventures is a playful, big-hearted homage to Hollywood horror, touching on everything from the art of old-school prosthetics to classic Hammer Film productions that still haunt pop culture today. There’s the city itself, my former home, a sprawling, sun-bleached character that needs no introduction. Pixelated scenes of sleazy photographer studios and pawn shops hit like a punch in the gut, reminding me of the life I left behind, my old driving routes, and bone-dry sunsets that I watched while stuck in traffic. Most of all, my gut recognizes exactly how the game’s protagonist, Alan Goldberg, is an impossibly LA-flavored piece of shit. It’s a lot.
Nightmare Frames is set in 1985, amid the action blockbuster wave that gave us Terminator and Rambo. Alan is a screenwriter, best known for schlocky horror flicks instead of “meaningful” dramas like Melodies From Heaven, his sole prestige film that got an Oscar nomination. His most famous work is the popular slasher movie Lunatic, and fans compare its eponymous villain to iconic killers like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.
All in all, Alan has it pretty good for a working movie writer — especially one who sees television writing as a lesser craft, even when directors like William Friedkin were doing incredibly gripping work on The Twilight Zone — but naturally, he wants more. When he gets offered a powerful favor in exchange for finding a rare lost film by the psychopathic director Edward Keller, the horror vibes go from Scream to Shadow of the Vampire.
With some (not all!) contemporary point-and-clicks, the first hour is often a reasonable indicator of whether a story is built around senseless masturbatory nostalgia for the days of LucasArts and Sierra. These pixelated throwbacks can lead to sentimental myopia. Take, for example, Voodoo Detective, a recent game created by two white Americans with a hammy, cosmetic approach to voodoo and no real thought behind the setting. On social media, retro devs jumped at the news, praising its art and animation. Just because Jane Jensen blew up in 1993 with Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers’ Voodoo-led story (and I say this as a stalwart Jensen fan) doesn’t mean that developers can and should unquestioningly carry on the same tedious cultural appropriation today. It’s 2022, and point-and-click adventures can and should be so much more than regurgitations of questionable narrative decisions; there are some great contemporary indie devs out there whose work elevates the medium, like Wadjet Eye, Clifftop Games, the Geography of Robots collective, and Dead Idle (whose Laura Hunt did translation work on this game).
Nightmare Frames is a fine example of a point-and-click that understands its purpose, and wields strategic doses of nostalgia like a blunt, bloodied object. There’s the face reading of the game as one very average and mostly unlikeable man’s macabre journey into the occult, and (perhaps even more terrifyingly, for Alan) beyond LA into poor semi-rural America. But there’s more — a meta-layer of commentary on Hollywood itself as a remorseless machine that perpetuates idol worship, earthly desires, and the drama that goes along with it.
For every sharp bite of satire, there’s also an earnest glimpse into the heart of moviemaking, like the guys at Astounding FX churning out the fake corpses and demon prosthetics that remain etched in hearts and minds. There’s also a great send-up of Scientology in the form of the Church of the Mother Earth, a pay-as-you-go cult whose impressive headquarters resemble the Church of Scientology’s iconic sky-blue compound on Fountain Ave.
It’s beautiful to see everything that Alan loves about Hollywood, and everything he wants for himself, ground into a fine, sad dust. The lost Keller film is an obvious MacGuffin for how Alan gets part of his soul back, even as he survives literal hell. This journey is made all the more fascinating because it comes from a Spanish developer — some of the most prescient explorations of American pop culture come from beyond its shores, thanks to the relentless tendrils of cultural imperialism that permeate the world. Growing up, Americana in all its myriad incarnations – from the glamor of New York and every cliche of “making it big” in LA, to placid visions of suburbia and John Hughes’ defining hand in 80s and 90s slice-of-life dramedies – was a panacea for many of us who lived between the ongoing cultural dichotomy of “east” and “west,” reminding us that movies offer the promise of a more interesting life. All of this adds an extra dimension to the aspirational nature of Alan’s trajectory: his hunger for wealth, fame, and legitimacy without confronting the material conditions of his glossy, vapid dream.
- A character in Nightmare Frames is fine Image: Postmodern Adventures
- A character in Nightmare Frames might not be fine Image: Postmodern Adventures
- A character in Nightmare Frames is definitely not fine Image: Postmodern Adventures
- A character in Nightmare Frames has succumbed to the fires of hell Image: Postmodern Adventures
Nightmare Frames, in its modest scope, manages to push all of these buttons with verve and vigor. The puzzles take tried-and-tested ideas from the point-and-click playbook, like combining a long pointy item with something sticky in order to grab another object. They’re not hard, but this isn’t that kind of game. However, I often found myself expecting more from the environment, like the scene outside the mansion where cues suggest I should be able to do more with the idling cop, his patrol car, and the fence. Then again, adventure games are often characterized by opportunities for a skilled developer to continue the genre’s long legacy of trolling the player through humor, frustration-by-design, and breaking the fourth wall. That being said, I had a couple of minor frustrations over missed opportunities to do more with the environment and the narrative, like exploiting the townspeople to greater effect, or utilizing Keller’s monstrous legacy to play around with different types of puzzles beyond fetch quests.
Alan’s bastard screenwriter persona starts to erode once he hits the town of Serena, and here, the game switches gears from semi-satirical romp to a medley of classic horror tropes: a missing teenager,, a lone small-town cop, a creepy redneck who almost shoots you off the front porch, to name a few. Some of the late-game tropes are a little too jumbled (secret twins!) and lose focus. The dialogue was also a little patchy at times — there are some fantastically saucy one-liners and pithy descriptions, which makes it extra difficult to ignore the stiffer writing (possibly a translation issue?) that inadvertently stands out because it doesn’t flow as naturally as it does elsewhere.
Still, I took more notes for Nightmare Frames than I have for games twice its size — a testament to how effective it is at mythmaking, and encouraging me to build up my own neurotic theories. I fixated on the meticulous character portraits and their cheeky resemblances to famous faces — there’s a Terence Stamp guy, a sort-of-David Cronenberg guy, and a guy who looks like Dom Deluise. I was delighted when a real clip from Night of the Living Dead played on a tiny black-and-white TV in a tiny drugstore, as I leafed through cheap, giallo-inspired magazines full of pulp stories. There’s even an arcade console with a trivia game (there’s a music-themed easy mode that I nailed) to play, while listening to original synthwave by Stefano Rossi and other choice musicians that nail that hazy 80s feel like it was yesterday.
As with most horror endings, Alan comes away from his literal journey to hell and back a changed man. There’s no particularly profound message lurking here, which is actually kind of nice after all the chaos. Sometimes shit just happens, most of all in Hollywood. I leave this incarnation of Los Angeles with no regrets, but a fierce, bittersweet ache for the city I once called home, and surprisingly (and perhaps this is the benefit of distance), a twinge of affection for its insufferable movie bastards, many of whom probably, honestly, need an Edward Keller moment in their lives.
Nightmare Frames was released on June 16 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Postmodern Adventures. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.