Non-Review: The Black Mirror

Non-review written by Andrew Plotkin

This week in Zarf's Culture Corner, since the game I'm reviewing is crap, I thought I'd try something different. You see, whenever I play an adventure game, I start with a sheet of blank paper. I take game notes on the right side of the page; and on the left side, I scribble a column of review notes. Just comments to myself, so that I don't forget anything when it comes time to write the review.

Usually you only see the finished product. (With the exception of rare jewels-a-rough like "Worst Russian accent in history.") But this time around, I'm going to give you the complete review note list. I'll stick in interlineal commentary, since my notes are less than comprehensible even when you're not struggling with my handwriting, but the raw form is yours to treasure.

And since you already know what I think of the game, I can mention a few positive aspects without any tedious see-sawing and "Despite that..." contraposition. Black Mirror is not uniformly awful. It's just that its virtues are isolated, unsupported, and hard to notice. Especially when compared to its tidal bore of screwups and annoyances, which caused me to give up a third of the way through.

You know it's going to be a good day when the option sliders don't work.

Yeah, how about that? The very first thing I did at the main menu was go to "Options" and try to adjust the volume slider. It doesn't work. Click, drag, nothing moves.

Turns out you have to click and release the slider control, and then drag it with the mouse button not held down. Just like every other slider and scroll bar on the planet Bite-Me-Harder.

Wow, it took me ten minutes to rewrite that last line without swear words.

Protagonist: worst narration ever.

Let me tell you, I've heard bad voice talent. I've heard plot climaxes freeze solid off the shoulder of Orion, heard misplaced emphasis die near Tannhauser Gate. I've heard actors reading lines off the page who sounded like actors reading lines off the page. But I have never heard an actor read discrete syllables off the page. Like individual coins falling out of a change machine. Hell, falling coins have some music to them. This guy, what's his name, Tony Daniels; he sounded like he was being paid by the pause, and wanted to stick in as many as possible. Like he was doing a Captain Kirk imitation, but with a metronome to keep all that pesky e mo tion out of his per for mance.

Occasionally, at exciting moments -- like a murder, or somebody failing to lick his boots -- the protagonist's voice would rise two semitones for half a measure. Then back down.

The other actors range from stiff to acceptable, but it doesn't matter, since nobody has any good lines.

"Can't take that now" syndrome (camera, etc)

The designers make thorough use of a pacing gimmick which goes like this: you click on an object, and the game says "I have no use for this." Or "I don't need that." (Sometimes, in a burst of honesty: "I have no use for this now.") An old camera is an example of this, near the beginning of the game.

Later, when you stumble across the puzzle in which you do need that, you go back and click on it, and ping! you've got it.

A variation is when you try to use one object at a location, and get the "have no reason to do that". The designers also love the related trick where an object simply doesn't have a hotspot, until later in the game when you need it.

I do not condemn these devices. They are useful techniques of graphical IF. Black Mirror uses them in the appropriate situations. (The missing hotspot is more reasonable when the protagonist doesn't have any reason to suspect that the object is interesting. The "don't need this now" response is more appropriate when the protagonist has a weak reason not to take it -- say, the object belongs to someone else, and stealing isn't appropriate at that stage of the story.)

However, the game also uses these techniques in inappropriate situations. And way too many of them. When your only purpose is to run the protagonist back and forth across the lawn three extra times, you are misusing the technique. When the protagonist is in a desperate situation -- say, trapped in an abandoned mine shaft -- he has every reason to snarf every resource in sight, and try anything that has a remote chance of working.

And the player has every reason to test every combination; that's how the player learns. Experimentation. If you lock out experimentation when the player is exploring, how is he going to know what to try when he's in trouble?

Pos? Neg? Meaning what?

Black Mirror has the common conversation-menu system. (Although the choices are replaced by hard-to-understand icons, for some hard-to-understand reason. To know your list of options, you have to scrub the mouse over the icons and read the rollover text. It's like the designers -- jazzed with their broken slider controls -- saw a way to sneak in one more bad interface idea; and they jumped at the chance! Bonus score!)

Anyway, the system has the usual effect: you always click every option, in turn, and read the pre-rolled dialogue. (Or you could listen to it, but it's faster to read the subtitles and click through. It's not like you're getting any good dialogue. Or missing any good acting.) Occasionally you hit a response that triggers some game action -- maybe even ends the conversation -- but you know you'll soon have a chance to go back and check off any options you missed.

But occasionally you get a Special Bonus Choice: two icons marked "Positive Response" and "Negative Response". According to the manual, "Depending on which you choose [sic] changes either your response or that of the character you are conversing with. This does not ultimately change the ending of the game, but it does enhance the gameplay experience!"

It certainly does. Especially since you have no idea what "positive" and "negative" mean in any given situation. (You're never answering a clear yes-or-no question.) My theory was that "positive" meant schmoozing people and "negative" meant getting pissed and screaming at them, but experiment didn't seem to support that.

I'd call it a brilliant innovation crippled by unclear usage, except that the whole point of menu-based conversation systems is that every choice can "change your response or that of the character you are conversing with." Cleverly subtracting that value from 95% of the menu options does not seem like an improvement.

Starforce takes forever

I'm sure I don't need to explain the necrotizing-user-interfasciitis which is the Starforce Copy Protection System. I will merely note that it worked exactly as designed on my system -- it didn't barf on my CD hardware, it didn't reject my code, it didn't go into hysterics at the presence of DaemonTools -- and it still degraded my game experience unacceptably. Added nearly a minute to the game's startup time, every time I played. No more Starforce games for me.

Lots of detail, but "clean"

Black Mirror has pre-rendered scenes with a third-person animated character wandering around. (I think this is what people mean by "point-and-click" adventure, although how this is supposed to distinguish a game from the point-and-click or Myst, or Doom for that matter, is beyond me.) The scenes, to their credit, are nicely laid out and full of detail. But the style was a bit... "clean" is what I wrote. Tidy. Everything was too perfectly delineated; the surfaces were too homogenous. Not enough dirt and cruft.

I really liked the detail animations: wind-fluttering pages in books, ripples of rain in puddles. Very smooth.

Drawer closeup stupidity

I only hit this once, but it's still worth complaining about. When you are in a close-up view of the desk, you can see the drawer, but clicking on it does nothing. When you back out to the full-room view, then you can click on the drawer and open it. Why?

Right-clicking too rare

I wrote "too rare", but I should have written "dumb".

As in most graphical adventures, you can click on a hotspot to Do Something With It, or select something from your inventory and click the hotspot to Use This With That. Black Mirror adds a third option: right-click on the hotspot to Do Something Else With It. (Move instead of examine, look under instead of look inside.)

Unsurprisingly, this "interface improvement" is occasionally awful and never good. It adds nothing. If you remember to both left and right-click, you've acquired a mouse-habit, not a new way of interacting with the game world. If you don't remember -- and it's easy to forget, since right-clicking usually does nothing -- you eventually get stuck on a puzzle. When you eventually solve the puzzle, it's not because you were immersed in the world and thought of a new idea; it's because you remembered to right-click on everything. Not fun; not satisfying.

If right-clicking was common, it would be easy to remember to do it, but it still wouldn't be fun or engaging.

In a few places the right-click is an "balanced opposite" action: rotate clockwise instead of counterclockwise, rotate instead of drag. But these are always close-up interactions, and there's generally an accepted one-button way to handle the situation.

Apostrophe errors

"Homes" and "home's". "It's" and "its". This is a commercial product: you have no excuse. I paid thirty bucks; take some of your $28.50 gross margin profit and hire a damn copyeditor.

Half-good at getting rid of used objects

You collect a lot of one-use tools in your inventory. Sometimes the game takes them away when you use them. That could be annoying, but the game does it judiciously, and it works well. Only once did I say "Darn, I wish that hadn't been taken from me."

It would work even better if the game did it more often. By the end of chapter 2, I had a big pile of stuff I never used. Maybe it would have gotten used in chapters 3 through 6. Or maybe the game would have started cleaning it up. I don't know.

Bizarre pause before conversations

You click on a fisherman. He looks down, reels in, casts, looks at you, and finally you get some dialogue options. A good ten, fifteen seconds of unskippable delay. At first I thought the delayed response was annoying. Later I decided it was like having my knuckles scraped raw with cold bricks. After a while, I got really irate.

I think they were trying to make animations match up smoothly. I would have preferred jump cuts.

Whiny snot.

The protagonist. Sure, he's supposed to be slowly succumbing to the influence of the Dark Side. But he doesn't actually have a personality to supplant, except for being stiff. So the only character notes you see are this guy getting frustrated at other characters -- say, when they refuse to give him things he wants but has no right to. Then he tries to bribe or threaten them. Occasionally he recognizes that he's being a jerk -- it's not like the authors are unaware of it -- but that doesn't change that you're playing a jerk. Not a funny sarcastic jerk, just an arrogant snot. It's a faintly repugnant experience.

Not always good focus

There's a fine balance between making important parts of a scene blatantly obvious, and hiding them so well the player doesn't notice them at all. I will be fair: the focus in Black Mirror bothered me a few times, which means that most of the time it worked.

Looking around each room is a good interactive experience. You can poke at a lot of stuff. Most of it has a one-shot description, and then you can't interact any more. (Some things have two-shot descriptions.) The few items of significance retain their hotspots. This conveys very clearly what's decorative and what's important. It is a bit mechanical -- you spend a few minutes in each room clearing away hotspots -- but it still gives the sense of looking around, and paying attention, and getting a feel for your environment. It might work equally well if hotspots didn't disappear, but then you'd have dozens of identical "That's not important" responses, which would get tiresome.

(A lot of the decorative stuff has uninteresting and tiresome descriptions. But that's a separate problem.)

However, when focus goes wrong, it brings the game to a thudding halt. Of course this is an individual experience, because everybody notices different things. I happened to miss a trap-door, and therefore got stuck. I don't think there's a general solution to this; if you miss stuff, you get stuck, and there's not always a way for the game to point you at what you missed.

I should add that this particular trap-door stuckness was complicated by the "Can't do that now" problem, which I ranted about earlier. The trap-door is blocked by an item. Clicking on the item does nothing until you've noticed the trap-door. Once the protagonist knows about the trap-door, clicking on the item tries to move it (which is a separate puzzle). Now, if I'd been able to play around with the item, I might well have moved it without knowing why. This game didn't allow that, and I say that is a design flaw. Moving an object without knowing why is a valid means of discovery.

Put thing in slot. Put thing in other slot.

Another case where the game makes you run up and down the stairs an extra time, because you can't take the X (upstairs) until you see that you need it downstairs. I knew I would need it downstairs. I know the protagonist is an idiot (see below) but this a painful way to develop his character trait of denseness.

Why did it have to be the worlds of good and evil?

The neat thing about Lovecraft, when he was on form, was that the Greater World wasn't Evil. It was overwhelming, and bad for us. Evil is a human concept; the things that we don't understand, don't understand our dualities.

Japanese horror games do this very, very well. Everyone may be turning into zombies, renegade priests may be draining blood by the bucketload, but it's never quite clear whether this is malice or just a really bad interaction with alien laws of reality.

In Black Mirror, someone is opening a portal between "the world of good and the world of evil". It's taken for granted that ours is, you know, the good one.

Maybe they make something of that ambiguity in the endgame. I don't know; I didn't get that far. I'm betting not.

Whining idiot snot. 5 keys my ass.

Yes, yes, the guy is supposed to be Succumbing to Evil Influences.

But when he reads a book about how his evil ancestor tried to get control of aforementioned portal, and his good ancestor stymied him and separated the keys, so that the portal would never be reopened, what does he do?

"I determined to find the keys, and finish what [my grandfather] started."

You'd think his conscious mind -- the bit that wasn't insane -- would notice some discrepancy there.

Again, if this is characterization, I stare blankly at it.

Death. In chapter 2.

Chapter 1: Standard graphical adventure game where you cannot die or make a fatal error.

Chapter 2: If you touch the electrified fence, yer dead game over.

See Zarf have deep ambivalence. On the left, I have never subscribed to aphorism of "Adventure games must never kill the player." The interesting puzzles which include full retriability are only a subset of all interesting puzzles. (This is particularly true for realistic physical scenario puzzles, which I am very fond of.)

On the right, replaying scenes in adventure games is dull. Adventure games are about a new trick around every corner. Having to go back to your last saved game has no adventuring rewards: you're not exploring, you're not thinking, you're not discovering new interactions.

Furthermore, getting killed isn't even an interesting part of the electrified fence puzzle. It would be exactly the same puzzle if it knocked you on your prerendered ass and then let you get up again.

Possibly the designers intended this to be an "introductory" death. It's immediate, it's well-marked (c'mon, electrified fence, sparks going everywhere), and the manual does say "We recommend that you save your game often!" If they're going to introduce more interesting danger-puzzles later on, they'd certainly have to start with one like this.

But, back on the right hand, I was still very much put off by this scene. I didn't want it in my game. So I don't know. I don't have an answer for you all. Maybe the Last Express style of winding back time to before your fatal mistake... But that still rules out some interesting resource-usage puzzles, since your "fatal mistake" could be wasting an item very early in the game.

One contributing factor, though not the sole problem, was the clumsy save interface in Black Mirror. I mean the actual interface was clumsy. The save-screen has eight slots visible, and you can scroll down to see more. But the scroll buttons are slow. Clicking down to the bottom of the list gets painful, if you keep more than eight saved games. (And, in a game where you can screw up, you want to keep all your saved games.) Even the keyboard response is terrible: it skips keys. (I have saved games labelled "in grenhouse" and "to chrch".) It really did discourage me from saving often, which led to more annoyance when the protagonist started offing himself.

Really sick of "not yet" activations

Have I ranted about this yet? Why, I see I have.

But none of these are the reason I gave up on The Black Mirror. (Naturally, once I gave up, I stopped writing notes.) I gave up because, near the end of chapter 2, I walked through a door and got eaten by a wolf. Bang dead game over.

It was a timed puzzle, actually. It gives you a few seconds to do something about the wolf. I couldn't think of anything obvious to do -- I had a gun, but it was out of bullets -- but I went back to my last saved game and tried again. This time, of course, I saved just before walking through the door. Walked through the door. Tried using my knife. No good. Eaten by wolf. Game over.

I'd just been burned by a few puzzles in a row and lost my faith, so I went back to the walkthrough. Turns out I was supposed to shoot the wolf.

Remember I mentioned puzzles where you can get stuck by running out of resources? This was one. You find two bullets, and you only need one before the wolf shows up. The game lets you use both -- if you don't examine the first target carefully, you waste a bullet shooting at the wrong bit. Naturally, when I saved the game, I saved it right before walking through the door -- which is to say, I saved after I'd emptied the gun.

I could have gone back to the second-to-last saved game. Like I said, I was keeping every single saved game (I was up to 15 or so). If, like many players, I'd only kept one saved game -- and saved frequently, like the manual said -- I would have had to start the entire game over.

Or maybe there was an alternate solution I missed. Doesn't matter. I looked at the game, said "You just made the player start the entire game over from the beginning," and quit. That's the great thing about examining games from the design stance. You have to consider the worst likely player reaction. In this case, that's getting totally hosed. So, begone with you. I want to know how it ends, but the quality of the storytelling was not worth the effort. I'll read ahead in the walkthrough.

I lie. It was not the storytelling. I've played games with worse stories. The Black Mirror has a detailed, carefully-thought-out story with lots of bit parts and a good episodic structure. The implementation (i.e., the actual writing and acting) is lousy, but let us give credit.

It wasn't that I got killed unexpectedly. I think Black Mirror did a poor job of setting my expectations; and being able to save an unwinnable game (out of bullets) is probably a bug. But I can't muster a wholehearted argument that death, or even a limited-number-of-bullets puzzle, is verboten in adventure gaming.

No: I stopped playing this game because it is nearly the least common denominator of interactive fiction. You find a thing. It either unlocks the next thing, or you can trade the thing to the guy for the other thing, or -- and this is probably the most common pacing element in The Black Mirror -- finding the thing causes the other guy to magically acquire a dialogue choice which leads you to the next thing. The body of this game is running around swatting plot balloons. It's whack-a-mole in a gothic mansion.

Every adventure has some of this. It's the connective tissue between the interesting challenges. But this game is nearly all gristle. I encountered a couple of set-piece puzzles -- not remotely integrated into the setting, of course, but I was pathetically grateful to them anyway. A pleasant sliding-pegs puzzle; some simple riddle-poems. I assume there were more of those. But mostly -- whack-a-mole. An endless string of reasonable plot events, strung into interactive form and forced down my throat. Competently; even creatively strung together. But still, in the end -- a long long list of steps you have to do, solely so that you can get to the end. And I didn't get to the end.

Maybe it's a better ending for the story, anyhow. Whiny idiot starts to unlock the portal to the World of Evil; gets a third of the way there; is eaten by a wolf. The world is saved. Somebody give that wolf a medal.

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