Review: The Dark Eye

Official web page at Inscape

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Excellent in many places, mediocre in others
Dialog and writing
Not really a game; sometimes tries, unfortunately
Not hard, but there are places where there's no clue what to do
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake.

Last time I wrote a review, I said "Guy Gavriel Kay and Patricia McKillip are not writing computer games." Still true; but I had forgotten that Edgar Allen Poe has, in a sense. Now I've played through The Dark Eye. And you know, he's pretty good at it.

TDE is not entirely Poe. It's actually an original story, occuring in a "real" world, with "nightmare" interludes which are interpretations of Poe's fiction. The game takes place in alternating phases. You move through an event of the frame story's plot; then the nightmare world comes upon you, and something pulls you into one of the eight interludes, where you become one of Poe's characters. When you complete an interlude, you return to yourself, and the frame plot continues.

This is a fairly flexible game structure, but it's a little confusing, and I got a bit frustrated until I figured it out. So I'll explain it here; those of you who want a pure experience should skip the next two paragraphs.

You can complete the eight interludes in any order. If you're stuck in one, you can back out by hitting Escape; this brings up a metaphorical map (game areas are represented as phrenological zones, on a chart of the human head.) The map allows you to re-enter any interlude at the point where you left it, or replay it entirely once you've completed it; you can also return to the main house and search for a new interlude to enter. This is merely for convenience, mind you. If it's time for you to complete an interlude, you must complete one; the map just helps you jump between them until you find one you can complete.

There's actually another way to move between interlude scenarios: the "soul jump." Certain interludes share characters (more on that later.) At certain points, you see a reflection of your character's face glittering in another character's eyes. If you click on the sparkling eyes, you will jump into the interlude in which that character is the protagonist. Nifty an idea though this is, I really wish they had left it out. It adds nothing to the gameplay except a shortcut, which the map already provides. Furthermore, if you're trying to complete a scenario, soul-jumping may well drop you into a scenario you've already finished, or put you in one you haven't started; either way, you've left the original interlude half-completed. The first time I did this, I finished the new scenario, thinking I was still working on the original one. Later on, I found the entrance to that second scenario, and was surprised to find myself replaying events I'd already done; whereas I ignored the entrance to the first scenario, thinking I'd already finished it. On the whole, I recommend you ignore soul-jumps. (Just wait until the eyes stop glittering, then click on the character to continue as you were.)

Eight interludes. Two are non-interactive; simple readings of short Poe works, with still visual backgrounds. (Still, but shifting, I mean. Slide shows as opposed to animation.) I liked the art, and the readings are done by the wonderfully crusty voice of William S. Burroughs. Nonetheless, the only thing necessary to complete them is to kick back and watch.

It's the rest that are the fun part; interactive evocations of three short stories by our friend Edgar. But lo, you say, surely two from eight leaves six interactive interludes? Yes indeed. You experience each story twice, from the points of view of the two main characters in each story. Now I won't say which stories are in The Dark Eye; that would spoil the surprise; but if you're at all familiar with Poe, you'll guess that at least one character in each story has a somewhat unpleasant experience, and possibly an abbreviated one at that. And you get to enjoy all of them. From both sides. Won't this be fun?

I shouldn't neglect the frame story. It's not Poe, but it's pretty good. Well, of course, the interludes are really not Poe, either; they're adaptions. Playing The Dark Eye isn't like reading pages and pages of Poe's prose. But it does get the atmosphere across. At least it did for me.

TDE is not a game, per se. There are no puzzles to solve. If you are familiar with the stories, you'll often know what to do; if not, you're expected to stumble across it, not deduce it. This doesn't always work. In one place, I spent at least an hour walking in circles in one room, looking at everything, waiting for the "next thing" to happen. As it turned out, I was simply supposed to look at a particular spot. As soon as I did so, narration implied that months had passed, and the plot advanced. In retrospect, it made sense. (Imagine the common trope of looking at a calendar, and watching the pages riffle past to show the passage of time. The thing I was supposed to look at wasn't a calendar, but the effect was similar.) It would have worked in a movie. But as a thing to try to do in an adventure, it was very frustrating.

This sort of thing happens a lot; you just have to run around looking for the right angle to view. And there were a few other trouble spots, notably a maze of tunnels, which you have to find your way through twice, dammit, from two points of view. (Somehow you wind up leading the way no matter which point of view you take.)

But when the game works, it works brilliantly. Let me talk about hands. Every game like this has hand or arrow cursors, which point left or right or forward or whatever, to indicate hotspots in the scenes you view. The Dark Eye has hands. But these hands don't just point. They snatch things that you want to pick up. They cup and caress objects that hold hidden memories. They play the piano. In one terrible moment, they pound and claw at an unyielding surface. These are your hands; you can't help being drawn into their language. It's the best single trick I've encountered in an adventure game. Wow.

You are never just an observer. Both in the frame story and in the interactive interludes, you are always part of the story. You fetch things, you open doors, you speak to people. Your hands are often visible, holding a torch, or a bowl of soup. There are effects of game direction that I've never seen before. At one point, you are given a lantern and told to light the way down a dark corridor. You walk down the corridor, lantern held before you; behind you can hear the sounds of two other characters, walking quietly. And as you move, clicking as usual, the narrator speaks -- a voice-over of your own thoughts, nicely judged to last as long as the corridor itself. Not an unusual trick in a movie; but somehow nobody has rendered it in a CD-ROM game before. The standard Myst interface of moving and looking turns into hallucinations, claustrophobic close-ups, shots of wavering focus, moments of staring at your own stained hand. One can only hope that other directors of interactive games take notice.

Let's see; what have I missed? The art is quite satisfactory. Backgrounds are computer-rendered, in a somewhat simplistic style. The characters of the story are more interesting. Rather than filming live actors, or even trying to computer-render human figures, the authors have chosen to use hand-crafted puppets. Stop-motion animation, effectively. The effect is stylized, not realistic, but it's very distinct and expressive; I liked it a lot. Certain scenes, particularly dream transitions and the non-interactive readings, are done in variant styles. The authors aren't afraid to change their techniques to suit the scene. That's definitely a good thing.

The music is great. That's about all there is to say about it. William S. Burroughs is great. The voice acting is all good; I found it had the same slightly stylized, artificial quality as the art and characters, which means it worked for me. Or maybe that's just the Victorian era.

The navigation and character control isn't very good. They often fall into the "too far" trap -- to view something to one side, you have to walk forward until it isn't visible, and then turn sideways. At the point where the spot is visible right at one edge of the screen, you actually haven't reached it yet. Yes, it's realistic (your range of vision is a pretty narrow arc around straight ahead) but it's terribly disorienting, and I'm always much happier when games design around it.

There were a few bugs. Sections of the phrenological map went blank, indicating that I had not yet found them, when in fact I had. This didn't hinder me, since the map is only a shortcut to entering interludes, but it was annoying (and confusing, before I figured out the structure of the game.) More seriously, the plot simply got stuck at a couple of points. I had done "the right thing," but the story didn't advance; I could do nothing but wander around. In frustration, I eventually went back to the main house and re-entered the scenario, and found that "the right thing" had come undone; I did it again, and this time the game continued. Bleah.

Conclusion: Lousy design in many places, but really ground-breaking design in others. Besides, one can't resist William S. Burroughs chanting "...shall never dissever my soul from the soul of the beautiful Annabel Lee!"

Availability: The Dark Eye was released several months ago, so it may be hard to find. I borrowed it from a friend. It's a hybrid Mac/IBM CD, so try looking in IBM shelves or catalogs if you can't find it in the Mac section.

System requirements: 16-bit color ("thousands"). It says it will run on a machine with 8 megs of main memory, but they "strongly recommend" having more. It was zippy on my PowerMac, and ran acceptably even on my Centris 610; there were loading delays, but the sounds and animations never hitched.

Oh, and one nice thing: the installer gives you the option to not install QuickTime and the Sound Manager. This is kind of nice -- considering my PowerMac has system 7.5.3 rev 2 installed, with built-in QT and SM versions much newer than those on the (fairly old) Dark Eye CD. I forgot to complain about this in my Zork Nemesis review; ZN did insist on installing an older Sound Manager, apparently just so that I could have the fun of opening up my System folder and throwing it away. Phooey. Mac programmers take note.

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