5 Days a Stranger is a freeware horror adventure game released on September 29, 2003. It was designed and written by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw (better known for his more recent work, Zero Punctuation). The game was created using the Adventure Game Studio engine, and was extremely well-received by the AGS community, receiving five awards. Due to the reception, Yahtzee made a series of sequels which would eventually become known as the Chzo Mythos -- however, these sequels are very different from this game, featuring a more Lovecraftian style of horror, while this one is more like a simple ghost story.
Sir Clarence DeFoe, a lawyer who studied at Warwick University, was the youngest member of the noble DeFoe family line. Having recently married the love of his life, Julia Swanson, Clarence used his law experience to engage in a lengthy court battle to prove his right to inherit the DeFoe family estate. The couple eventually won the battle and moved into the house, planning to start renovations on the 19th Century manor.
Built by the colonial explorer Sir Roderick DeFoe, the house had been home to he and his wife Belinda for many years before the birth of their child, Matthew. Unfortunately, Belinda died during delivery of the baby, and the manor became a depressing place as Matthew was raised by various nannies and butlers. Roderick lived in perpetual emotional distress, forever haunted by the loss of his love. Then, on Matthew's 15th birthday, both men were found dead of unexplained causes. Since then, no occupants have ever lived in the mansion for long without dying. Rumours about the DeFoe estate circulated over the years. Many TV programmes were produced, aired on the BBC, to "investigate" the apparently haunted property.
The newcomers were no different. Shortly after inheriting the property in 1993, police discovered their bodies: the once-beautiful Julia marred by the grotesque stabbing wound of a machete, and the noble Clarence found hanged from a tree in the backyard. It was declared a murder-suicide, and the manor was once again locked up.
Hearing the news, the gentlemanly cat burglar known only as Trilby decides to break into the abandoned home and claim some valuables. Once inside, he meets the other four people who decided to do the same thing. Only problem is, the house won't let them leave. And pretty soon, one of them turns up dead.
Can you figure out the mystery of DeFoe Manor before more people have to lose their lives over it?
This information is taken from the special edition's commentary mode as well as forum posts by Yahtzee. Please contact me if you spot any mistakes, as I've not had the opportunity to interview the man himself.
5 Days a Stranger started out based on an unreleased novella written by Yahtzee. The story was a crossover containing characters from other stories he'd written and took place on a space station. Eventually Yahtzee scrapped the setting and moved the story to a mansion instead to be less ridiculous (ironically he later used the space station idea in the sequel to this game, 7 Days a Skeptic). Trilby was always Trilby, but the other characters were changed for the final game because Yahtzee didn't want to kill them off, making the final product into something that's not even remotely a crossover.
The game's music is shamelessly yanked from RPG Maker 2000. Sound design in general is fairly scarce in the game because Yahtzee at that time did not know of any good sound resources (he stated once in a forum post that he wanted to go back in time and leave the 2003 version of himself a link to freesound.org). The whispering that follows you throughout the mansion is Yahtzee's own voice saying two statements over one another, pitched up and down.
The killer in the game is mainly inspired by Jason Voorhees, though his apron and welding mask are taken from the killer in the movie Buried Alive. Many of the scare tactics used throughout are inspired by the classic survival horror game Clock Tower for Super Nintendo. The "Day X" screens were taken from The Shining.
In recent years, Yahtzee has admitted that Trilby in this game is an author insert (or Mary Sue), and that part of his motivation for making Trilby's Notes and 6 Days a Sacrifice came from a desire to de-power Trilby and make him a more developed character with actual flaws. The results of this will be especially obvious to you if you play Art of Theft before 5 Days a Stranger, because that game (made in 2007) is a prequel to this one and (as of 2012) is the only game to feature a better-written Trilby before the life-altering events of the Chzo Mythos. The change is subtle but significant, and proves definitively that Yahtzee has improved his writing skills over the years since this game was made.
Review (no spoilers!)
5 Days a Stranger has its ups and downs.
The point and click interface is pretty dreadful. Your basic actions (walking, talking, etc.) are buttons in the bottom-left of the screen, which you have to select before doing anything. This causes you to repeatedly throw the mouse cursor across the entire width of your monitor during the course of the game, which gets irritating quickly. Using items is a constant annoyance due to the poorly-designed menu you need to use to do it. Most areas in the game will at least let you walk without needing to explicitly switch to the walk action, but not all of them -- trying to use your hands to walk away from the backyard, for example, will cause Trilby to scold you about how he doesn't want to get dirt under his fingernails. It's a big mess of a control scheme. Thankfully these issues were fixed in the sequels.
The actual gameplay isn't much better. It really reminds you of why adventure games are a dead genre nowadays. You need to traipse back and forth across the entire mansion over and over and over again during the course of your five days in this game, with Yahtzee almost-always placing two consecutive steps at opposite ends of the map. In the commentary he actually calls this "challenging", but it's clearly not: it's highly obnoxious. Given his current status as a professional video game reviewer, I suspect he's since learnt exactly what's wrong with this type of gameplay. Backtracking constantly isn't fun, and events often need to be done in a specific order or with specific items for no apparent reason (utilizing good old-fashioned adventure game logic).
Graphics are pretty bad, but passable. Notably, the establishing shot of DeFoe Manor looks literally nothing at all like the actual interior of the manor. Yahtzee seems to do this with all of his games, though, for whatever reason; maybe he just really hates accurate long shots.
But all griping aside, the game is still really fun and worth your time. Why? Because it's an adventure game, and everyone knows what adventure games are and were always really about: the story, the characters, and the atmosphere, three things which 5 Days a Stranger does excellently.
Let yourself get immersed in the game's environment -- preferably late at night with all your lights off -- and you'll have an unforgettable experience. The music and sounds aren't as frequent or as fitting as the last two games in the series (which have original soundtracks specifically composed for them), but it's still really effective. The random footsteps and eerie whispering that seems to follow you through the house -- that moment when you figure out that there's more to the mansion than you previously saw -- any time you're literally inches away from death! -- it's all very well done and gets you to the edge of your seat even with the bad graphics. That's something to be proud of, and it's the thing that got people playing this game back in 2003 and made it spawn so many sequels.
5 Days a Stranger is very poorly designed, but worth playing regardless. What Yahtzee lacked in game design experience back in 2003 is more than made up for with an interesting story, decently-developed characters, and some genuine scares. For the wallet-denting price tag of zero dollars, you really couldn't ask for much better.
Download 5 Days a Stranger here.