Review: Dark Fall

Dark Fall (official web site); Jonathan Boakes / XXv Productions (creator)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good
Writing and dialogue
Very good
Not too hard, if you pay very careful attention
Mostly good, but some places where action sequences degrade to mechanical clicking
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake.

I am, as you may know (and I beg your pardon for talking about myself -- I promise I'll work around to Dark Fall pretty soon), a fan and sometime author of latter-day text adventures.

The modern text adventure movement is not all that modern. It was getting into its swing just a couple of years after Infocom's last text game was published. High-quality development tools and portable player programs appeared and spread; communities grew up around them. A few games were released, for free or for small shareware fees; then several games; then a whole lot of games. We had competitions, zines, discussions of the theory and practice of interactive fiction. We equalled and then surpassed -- I have no hesitation about saying this -- the quality and scope of the commercial text adventures of the 1980's.

And surpassed the quantity, by orders of magnitude. The 2001 IF Competition attracted more games than Infocom produced in its existence. Even allowing that IFComp is for short works, it's a massive outpouring -- of free, self-published, unrecompensated amateur games.

Yes, I have a point. The point is: where are all the amateur graphical adventures?

Some answers are obvious. Writing text is easier than composing images. I don't mean text takes less skill; I mean it takes less time. I can write a good text description of a room in fifteen minutes, and descriptions of the important contents in another hour. I don't know how long it would take to lay out the same room in a 3D modeller -- I have almost no experience with such things -- but I bet it would be more than an hour, even for an expert.

But then... graphics are getting cheaper, too. Some of the cost is work and attention; but some is disk space, rendering CPU time, software costs. And practice, and skill. But disk and CPU and software have gotten exponentially cheaper since Myst... and practice and skill are available to anyone who can afford the tools.

Everyone and Goob's brother are using Flash on the web, creating brilliant (or crazy, or ugly or dumb, but we still want to see) interactive graphical elements. Graphical IF at home is entering the realm of the possible.

On the other hand: anything possible, is possibly crap.

I recall picking up three independently-produced, self-published graphical adventures in the past few years. There was Cracking the Conspiracy, which I threw across the room after an hour, because the interface and puzzle design was painfully clumsy and awful. There was Adventure at the Chateau d'Or, which I threw across the room after two hours, because the interface and puzzle design was painfully clumsy and awful.

And now I have wasted an entire page talking about history, text adventures, and games which are not Dark Fall. I will cease forthwith. Dark Fall is not clumsy, it is not painful, and I did not throw it across anything at all.

I beg pardon (again); I'm being cute. What I mean to say is: Dark Fall is a large, detailed, tremendously fun and creepy game -- in a style which I had nearly given up on ever seeing again.

This is unquestionably a puzzle-fest. A broad puzzle-fest. By which I mean, information is scattered widely. There are only a handful of locked doors in this game; once you pass the introductory sequence, you will have access to nearly the entire map. And then you will spend time exploring that map -- under your own direction. You will find riddles, puzzles, locks, ciphers, and mysteries. For some, the answer will be nearby. For others, the clues will be elsewhere. You may have an idea where to search, or you may not. You may be able to gather the information immediately; or it may be inaccessible until you make progress somewhere entirely separate.

This form of game has slowly and steadily been squeezed from the market. The earliest puzzle-treasure-hunt text games were extremely broad -- their audience was dedicated computer geeks, people who expected to spend months sifting the game world for clues and hidden secrets. Myst was quite broad. The great Cliff Johnson games, The Fool's Errand and 3 in Three, were mostly self-contained puzzles, but had tremendously broad endgames. You had to go back through the entire explored game and look for second meanings, clues hidden in answers and outcomes of earlier puzzles.

But this style of game, I find, is somehow abandoned. It happened in text games in the Eighties; it happened again with graphical games in the Nineties. Games become more linear -- to use a miserably overused word. Players find themselves in shorter scenes, strung together in a more scripted way.

I don't mean to say "games are going downhill". Not at all. I think this tendency comes from the best motives. Game authors begin conceiving storylines with more depth, more background: better stories. They themselves become better writers. They want to present their stories with more craft, skill, power. And craft means control over form. I do this myself, in the text games that I write.

But there's a second trend, which is intertwined with the first; a tendency that I'm not so sanguine about. The tendency, bluntly, to treat the player as a novice. Not necessarily an idiot, mind you. But a novice gamer. A puzzle may be difficult, but the rules will be spelled out. The clues will be nearby, or else obviously marked as relevant to this puzzle. Previously-explored areas will be sealed up -- unequivocally labelled "You don't need to think about this."

It is, I'm sure, a desire to broaden the potential audience. Adventure gaming has always been the most popular computer game genre. (Okay, except for Tetris and Solitaire.) Die-hard gamers develop their reflexes to hairline madness, plan hours-long strategic onslaughts, optimize endless lists of skill points and magical paraphernalia. And the die-hards play adventure games too. But so do the casual gamers -- the folks who own not-so-expensive computers and want to lose themselves in some wonder for a few hours. And there are a lot of casual gamers. And the publishers, they don't want to alienate those gamers if they can possibly avoid it. And so step by small step, they... simplify.

(I admit, I'm exaggerating my thesis both ways. Focus is important; you can't have your players entirely lost about what to do next, they'll say "This is boring and stupid" and go home. And there is no firm line between a strong progression of storyline and a strong progression of puzzles. They overlap. In a good game, they're inseparable.)

(But... there are degrees to which a thing may go. And somewhere between the totally aimless scenario, and the complete hand-holding giveaway, is the artistic blur of directed uncertainty where dwells true interactive fiction. Go ahead, laugh. This is how I think about this stuff.)

I appear to have gone another page without mentioning Dark Fall.

Hey, this Dark Fall. It's a horror game -- a haunted house. Haunted hotel, rather. Abandoned rooms, ghosts, diaries, WW2 photographs, and ancient evil. And, I must say, it's very effectively haunted. The designer uses a few understated visual effects, and a great many background sounds, to invoke a heck of a creepy environment. Things change, whisper, waver, mutter, and hum at you without warning. There is no musical soundtrack, but quasi-musical harp and violin sounds provide the same effect: spare but unworldly audio effects. This must sound pretty mundane as I'm describing it. It's not. If Dark Fall had no other virtues, it would be worthwhile solely to show how simple, low-budget sound production can create an atmosphere fully as convincing as any number of blood-drenched polygon models.

But Dark Fall has other virtues. Yes.

I call it an unashamed puzzle-fest, but I do not mean it has no storyline. Much history reveals itself, slowly, as you move across the wealth of detail that Dark Fall has to offer. The main story is, of course, "What happened here?" -- a question whose answer is built of several separate occurrences. But there are quite a few incidental plot threads, as well.

If you didn't completely skip my theoretical ranting above, you might expect a broad-spread game like this to have a broad-spread storyline. Not a carefully-constructed sequence of chapters, but a cloud of information, which you encounter in nearly random order. And this is indeed what occurs. You learn more about one character, and then another. One incident makes sense; then another, unrelated one. The order is not entirely random. Certain revelations require you to have reached certain points in the game, or discovered certain objects. But this only provides two or three sequence points, at most.

The result is not a tightly-plotted drama. The author does well in spreading information around; you can encounter it from several directions, in several possible sequences, and still find the whole satisfying. But it doesn't -- it can't -- provide the strong pacing of a game like Riven or Silent Hill, in which revelation and action are carefully intertwined and brought to a dramatic climax at the end.

Instead, Dark Fall is an almost restful game. Strange to say about a story which involves death and soul-devouring evil; but that's how I felt. By the time I got near the endgame, I knew just about everything that had gone on. I just had to work out the last few puzzles; and then I knew I could win. I approached the final sequence with a feeling of triumph, but not of tension.

Not that the ending was an anticlimax. The author avoided that; it was a properly satisfying conclusion. I just mean that it's very hard to scatter information widely before the player, and still ensure that the last tidbit the player picks up brings it all together in a soul-shaking rush. Oh, certainly, you can add an endgame sequence, with its own puzzles and concluding story elements. But that often feels artificial -- tacked on. Dark Fall does have an endgame, but it's not completely isolated from the body of the game; you can see into it from earlier on, as it were. The ending forgoes much surprise in favor of better integration. I approve, I think; it fits the shape of the game.

(Although that ending ran in an unexpected direction, and I'm not convinced that followed coherently from anything in the body of the game. This is a quibble about the story, not the game design.)

The puzzles are properly satisfying, as well. Most of them are information-gathering puzzles (although there are a few hidden keys and other objects to find). And there is, as I have said, a lot of information to gather; and it is spread far and wide. Dark Fall rewards -- requires -- meticulous attention to detail. To be blunter: you have to take notes. You have to copy diagrams, note down references, and keep track of names. You have to write down what you've found out, and where you found it -- because you'll have to come back and check on the details you forgot to write down. If you don't, it's walkthrough city for you. Got it?

I have seven pages filled with Dark Fall notes -- plus another one that I started, covered with disorganized jottings, and then threw away to start over more systematically. In contrast, Myst barely filled two pages.

Why such necessity? Partly, the sheer mass of information. Partly, because of the broad game design I've described. Whatever you've found, you may not know when or where you'll need it. The integration of clues into the world is really excellent -- nearly everything seems natural in its place. I rarely found myself thinking "Well, that's only there to make the game work." (Except in the obvious sense that magical runes and supernatural manifestations could only exist as part of a ghost story.) So don't trust that a clipping, diary, or photograph is there only for historical verisimilitude....

The puzzles themselves span a fair range of formats. (Does everyone's first puzzle game come out that way?) As you might expect, some of these work better than others -- one cipher is much more tedious than challenging, and there's an object manipulation puzzle which has gotten more cliched every time I've seen it since (cough) 1981. But on the whole, the puzzles are good. I enjoying searching the hotel; I enjoyed putting references together into solutions. Most of the puzzles were original, and several were charmingly clever. I was able to solve nearly the entire game on my own -- and I wanted to solve it on my own. I almost never felt that I was hopelessly stuck, or that the author had failed to give me enough information to make headway.

(The one puzzle I did get stuck on was fairly persnickety; it involved dragging four objects around a table. I knew I had all the clues I needed. I just couldn't make the puzzle work. I'm not sure if I was running into a bug, or if I just suck at object placement. But I found a walkthrough with a screenshot of the completed puzzle, and that let me proceed.)

One interesting tangent: a few of the puzzles involve text input. Given my text-adventure background, this immediately caught my attention. A text parser is a very tricky beast to get right (see my boundless irritation with Starship Titanic). Too easy to find the interesting range of commands, or too hard?

Some of these text puzzles involve entering a single word, which you must discover elsewhere in the game. That's no problem, of course: you either know the word or you don't. You don't need to experiment at the text prompt itself.

The other text-entry situations involve communicating with other denizens of the game world. Theoretically, you're speaking to them -- entering full sentences and getting replies in return. No game has ever made this a convincing and effective element of gameplay. Does Dark Fall? Well, no, but it takes the safe dodge: these situations are entirely optional. They're opportunities to learn more about the background of the story, and interact with it -- but no puzzle clues are hidden in these dialogues. I got a little bit of information out of them, and I don't imagine there's a lot more. Ultimately, they're a nice touch, but not significant parts of the game.

The rest of the interface is -- vaguely old-fashioned. It's the classic Myst pre-rendered view; fixed images, not free panning. I suppose what makes it feel old-fashioned is that the layout is very rectilinear. All the rooms are square -- that's fine, it's a hotel, not Grand Cthulhu Station -- but your motion is square too. You nearly always face along the axes of the room, turning 90 degrees at a time. (Think Labyrinth of Time, if you can remember back that far.) It works fine, but it has a somewhat rigid feel to it.

Actually, now that I consider, the rigidity does cause some problems. Important objects are sometimes in the periphery of the view. Sometimes they're in the periphery of two views, or more -- you can turn or step forward, and still see the object -- but the game usually considers only one position to be "really" facing the object. From that position, the object has a hotspot; from any other position, it does not. Because of the inflexibility of the camera movement, the "correct" position to interact with an object isn't always obvious. It may not even be the closest position to that object; in a couple of cases, you actually have to remain farther from an object to examine it closely!

(This seems a like a small problem; it only becomes annoying in a few places. But these small interface irritants can really mess up a game. Because nearly anything can contain a clue, you have to examine everything. If you dismiss something prematurely -- and a missing hotspot can do just that -- you might find yourself utterly stuck later on, with no idea where to go back to search.)

You have an inventory, but it's handled more simplistically than the standard "use object X on hotspot Y." You sometimes see a "use object" hotspot cursor; and then you just have to select the appropriate inventory object. If you click the right object, it gets used.

In other words: you whiz down the inventory bar, clicking everything. The right thing will automatically happen. Now: theoretically, this violates my cardinal rule of adventure games. You should have to think about the choice before you. You should select the right item because it seems right in the game world, not because you mechanically clicked until something worked. (Recall that I complained vociferously about this in Loch Ness.)

Does that mean that Dark Fall has a broken inventory system?

Actually, no. This game does not depend heavily on your inventory. It's about collecting scraps of information. You have a lamp, and, hey, you use the lamp in dark places. That's not a spoiler. You have several keys -- naturally you try every key in every locked door, but that's what you want to do. No stupid "select the ruby key for the ruby lock!" games; if you have the right key, you just want to pull it out quickly. The interface makes this trivial.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes where I clicked every object, found one that worked, and said "Huh. Never would have thought of that." But just a couple. And to balance that out, there were a couple of scenes where I considered my choices and then chose correctly. But most of the time, the inventory was not a puzzle, for good or for ill. It was just a nice way to interact with, and feel more immersed in, the world.

And it did that job effectively. The designer managed to work in a surprising number of interesting interface actions, on top of the basic "click to activate" -- and without ever being confusing or unclear. Searching around a dark room with a flashlight, for example. The flashlight beam follows the cursor. It requires no more of you than normal room-searching, but, damn, it feels like flashing a beam around a dark room. There are several of these.

On the negative side, the game also has a lot of long action sequences which are implemented only as "click to activate". And you can rarely jump out of these sequences. For example: click on a desk to view close-up; click on a drawer to open it; click on a book in the drawer to shift it aside; click on the letter revealed underneath. This is intuitive enough, but you can't get out of the sequence. You have to hit hotspots to "go back" from the letter, the book, the drawer, the desk -- sequentially. And you can't open a different drawer until the first drawer is properly closed.

This feels restrictive and mechanical even in straightforward cases (such as that desk drawer). When the action sequence is more obscure, such as developing a photograph in a darkroom, the player can become entirely lost -- can wind up clicking at random, trying to get out.

I realize that fully implementing every hotspot, all the time, is a combinatorial explosion problem. It would double or triple the programming work of the game. (And the potential for bugs.) But a few conventions can help. For example, the general "back away" hotspot (traditionally at the bottom edge of the screen) could always function as a "go back one step" or "cancel whatever I'm currently looking at, no matter how deep". (I'm sure I've seen this idea in graphical adventures before. Damn if I can remember which ones, though. Sorry.)

Anyway, this is a minor problem. It never seriously bothered me. It just... continually itched me.

Good grief, I've been working on this review for a week now. (Count that to laziness, not pains taken.)

I suppose I have to mention the apostrophe issue. I first heard of Dark Fall via a Usenet posting. I went and found the downloadable demo; I played it; and I posted back, saying (essentially) "Looks cool, the camera directions seem rigid, I'm not sure about the inventory interface, I'll probably buy it. PS: Apostrophe errors in a demo aren't a good sign."

And that brought down a bit of righteous noise. But it's true. This game contains a heck of a lot of text -- letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, computer files. And there are a heck of a lot of misplaced apostrophes. And misspelled words: "thier", "freind", "wierd". It just makes me sad. It looks unprofessional, is all -- and dammit, I hold home-grown games to higher standards than that.

End that rant. Go read Bob the Angry Flower's "Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots". It'll do you good.

So, do I have anything to say about that "home-grown" status? (Besides the proofreading.) I did start off rambling about non-industry game design. I must have had a point... somewhere... maybe under this pile of... hmm. Okay.

It is clear that there is still a difference between amateur-made graphical adventures, and the kind that come out of high-budget development studios. To a certain point, you can make graphics look better by throwing money. You also need money to hire actors and film live video. And then there's the whole mess of 3D design, and 3D engine coding (or licensing).

But it is also clear that -- impressive as a dozen full-time artists can be -- you don't need them to make good art. Dark Fall is not visually overwhelming, but it is effective. The designer has put care, and animation, and visual detail, where he needed it. He used Macromedia tools (which are inexpensive, powerful, and have underpinned many commercial games). He chose his subject matter carefully: ghosts, being invisible, don't require video shoots. The voice acting is professional-quality -- certainly better than many of the miserable dub jobs that have blighted commercial gaming for a decade.

The result won't be mistaken for Myst 4. But Dark Fall will stand up with the best of commercial adventure gaming -- not only, but not least, because it goes into territory where the commercial industry has lost interest. And I am very keen to see some other amateur designers do more of that.

Conclusion: I buckled down and took careful notes, and I had more fun playing Dark Fall than... well, it's been years since I had this kind of fun. It's an imaginative, intricate, detailed, and wide-ranging world, full of stuff to pay attention to. And you know what? Spooky as it was (and it was)... I miss the hotel. As I was finishing the game, I was sorry to be leaving those familiar darkened creaky halls. I wanted it to not be over yet.

Been a long time since I felt that way about a game. Yes.

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