There’s something about the 101 Dalmatians franchise that enraptured me as a child against all odds.
Be outraged if you must, but truth be told, I’m not even sure if I had watched the original movie at that age. When I watched it as an adult, I remembered nothing about it, and I’ve never found a VHS of it in my family’s extensive Disney tape collection.
And I mean, what about it actually drew my attention? The main characters are British heterosexuals. Yes, somehow they managed to take the two most annoying groups of people in the world and combine them. And then they had the audacity to make the dogs British and heterosexual, as if dogs are capable of hate. Absolutely dreadful. Why do I like 101 Dalmatians?
Because of the puppies. Duh.
Even Disney knew the puppies were the only reason 101 Dalmatians is even relevant enough to talk about today. And boy, the merch they made. Sequels! Cartoons! Toys! I think I spent more time playing with my Dalmatians-themed snow globe than watching 101 Dalmatians: The Series (which, admittedly, still takes up way too much space in my heart).
There was one piece of Dalmatians-themed memorabilia that held my attention for the longest, though, and it was by far the least appropriate for the puppy-obsessed children they were marketing to. For little me, 101 Dalmatians: Escape from DeVil Manor was fun, emotionally stimulating, and also absolutely unnecessarily terrifying.
101 Dalmatians: Escape from DeVil Manor is a point-and-click adventure game released in 1997 (around the peak of the franchise’s popularity). You play as Patches, one of Cruella’s kidnapped puppies; your goal is to escape the mansion you’re trapped in, and save the rest of the puppies in the process. You’re accompanied by Wizzer, a fellow puppy who doesn’t really do anything but give you commentary and hints.
Hardcore Dalmatians fans might be confused by the mention of Patches, as they would know that the main mascot of the Dalmatians franchise is Patch, a puppy with a prominent spot over only one eye. Patches is functionally the same character, but with a spot over both eyes. Well, this may just be classic Wikia conjecture, but the theory is such: since this game needed to be crammed onto a CD-ROM, it flipped the left and right facing sprites, meaning that Patch would have a spot over both eyes. Instead of … having an incredibly minor discrepancy that children certainly wouldn’t notice or care about, they … made a separate character. Huh.
If all of that throws you for a loop, this game will continue to confuse you in many other ways: Escape from DeVil Manor retains the art style of the original animated film, but if you know your stuff you’ll notice this is actually a tie-in with the live-action remake. The most damning evidence is Wizzer, who was created for the 1996 film solely as a toilet humor joke. There’s some other hints, like a bedroom with a white tiger rug, and Roger and Anita moving into DeVil Manor by the end of the game. This pick-and-choose attitude is congruous with the simultaneously-released Animated Storybook, which has the original film’s talking puppies but also has Anita working for Cruella.
Escape from DeVil Manor is, to this day, still one of the most stressful games I have ever played. It’s far scarier and more threatening than any other work of media in the Dalmatians franchise, and as a game allegedly aimed at 6-year-olds, I’m not really sure what they were trying to do.
So what on earth makes a game about puppies so dreary-feeling? Well, one of the main advertising points of the game is a gimmick named “Puppyvision”: all of the gorgeously dreadful backdrops are rendered with the camera low to the ground. The goal is to immerse you in the point of view of the puppies. DeVil Manor is huge, often improbably so, and many times the scale shifts between screens – one of the most outrageous being the kitchen, where Patches at one point shrinks from a little smaller than the counter to the same size as the sandwich on top of it. If you pay attention, it’s actually hilarious how unrealistic it often is, but for an impressionable kid it really did work on me.
Adding to the atmosphere is music by the incredibly talented Patrick Collins, who also did amazing work on the, uh, certainly memorable Nightmare Ned. There’s only three main songs for most of the areas, which might wear on you after a point if you don’t care for them, but I’ve always felt like Collins’ orchestral work carried the tone of the game masterfully.
Even the gameplay plays its part. There is no coherent sense of progression in this game, and it’s not clear how you’re supposed to accomplish your goal. The only thing you can really do is go from room to room asking Wizzer for help, and every now and then when you do enough things, you’ll get a cutscene about what Cruella is up to. When you really slice into the meat of the game, there are only two essential things you need to do (get a password in one room, then go to a different room and crawl out a different window), meaning that everything else is filler, but it’s the difference between the 10-minute world record speedrun and a 50-minute longplay.
I had no idea as a kid that the rest of the house wasn’t essential. A large portion of the filler revolves around setting up boobytraps (being a child, I was shocked that they used this word) for Cruella’s henchmen Horace and Jasper, including a particularly vile one involving a carpeted bathroom. The henchmen drive a vast majority of the stress in this game, as there is a hidden counter that goes up every time you do something noisy, and eventually if you make too much of a racket they’ll catch you and throw you into a side room. This was an absolutely dreadful fate to me, even though it’s trivially escapable. Knowing now that it’s all completely pointless is underwhelming and perplexing, to say the least.
Of the one mandatory ‘puzzle’ in the game, it’s a headscratcher: you have to go into Cruella’s nanny’s bedroom and jump onto the broken windowsill three times, with the apparent goal of leaving the manor through the window. The windowsill snaps before you even have a hope of fitting through it, but then a gust of wind through the window blows off a torn piece of wallpaper, revealing a 6-digit passcode written underneath. As a child, I was convinced I would have to input this later, so I wrote it down. But apparently just the act of viewing it is enough – later on you’ll encounter a locked chest, at which point Wizzer will repeat the numbers back to you and Patches will open it himself with no input on your part.
I’m not sure why the developers thought writing down 6 numbers would be too hard for children, but my honest guess is that they just didn’t want to have to code a password input screen. It feels like the sort of thing that would be perfect for the game’s ‘hard mode’, which doesn’t seem to make any dramatic changes otherwise (if you know what the heck the difficulty setting does, please let me know in the comments).
Probably the most dreadful part of the game for me, though, was something that will probably not stir you in the same way. Through the process of the aforementioned vile bathroom puzzle, you will escape down the laundry chute, into the basement. DeVil Manor’s basement is horrific, dark, and dominated by a gigantic antique coal furnace shaped like a horrible monster face. Its glowing red eyes are the main source of light in the room, and interacting with it even makes an exaggerated growling sound.
I do not have a fear of furnaces, somehow, but apparently I have a fear of this furnace specifically. A couple of other games have featured monster furnaces, like Nightmare Ned and Among the Sleep, and I’ve found them dreadful … but nowhere near as terror-inducing as this one. I guess that’s one of those weird side effects of nostalgia, like how I’m still scared of the Super Mario 64 eel. Amusingly, there’s also a furnace in 102 Dalmatians: Puppies to the Rescue – it’s much larger, but doesn’t have a face. I hate it almost as much.
Well, if that doesn’t get to you the way it gets to me, there’s plenty more that will. From the moment you start playing, just clicking around the foyer will eventually take you to a screen that’s taken up entirely by a taxidermied bear, complete with a horror sting and the puppies screaming. If you go into the dining room, you will quickly find out it is impossible to explore due to broken glass all over the carpet. There are so, so many dreadful paintings. The list goes on.
I’ve spent most of this article ragging on how scary this game is, but Escape from DeVil Manor was hands down one of my favorite PC games ever. I may have been six years old at the most when I played it alongside similarly terrifying games like Heart of Darkness, and it left its mark on me in a significant way. So uh … hey, I guess some kids really do like that stuff, huh?
101 Dalmatians is an interesting franchise for its tendency to play fast-and-loose with the horror inherent to its premise. Cruella herself was planning on skinning puppies, for God’s sake, and her name literally has “devil” in it, but her premise in The Series is more like a comedic bully than an actual antagonist. Puppies to the Rescue is often frightful and full of perilous situations for the pups, but the boss fights revolve around pelting Cruella with fruit. DeVil Manor is the one entry in the series that I feel like actually portrays any semblance of truth for the situation: you are a tiny puppy, you’ve been kidnapped and taken to a gigantic decrepit mansion full of many sharp and hot objects to hurt yourself on, and if you are not quiet and smart then you will have your skin ripped from your body.
You know, for the kids.