Review: Dark Fall 2: Lights Out

Dark Fall 2: Lights Out (official web site); Jonathan Boakes / XXv Productions (creator); The Adventure Company (publishers)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Really excellent
Really excellent
Dialogue and writing
Very good
Not bad
Pretty good, if somewhat unfocussed at the end
Not too hard, but you have to be into careful searching
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake.

I'll spare you the introduction, and the speech about the Great Hope of Independent Adventure Gaming. Er, that is -- the speech about Independent Adventure Gaming being our Great Hope. My Great Hope, anyway. Which it is. And the Dark Fall games are one. Two, I mean. Indie-developed adventure games. Both of them. Which are now out from a major publisher. Which is good.

That was the speech, anyhow. Now you've heard it.

Okay, okay. So Lights Out, like its predecessor, is a ghost story. A thickly researched, heavily detailed ghost story. More than a ghost story, in fact; but that's how you enter it. It's 1912. You're a young cartographer, Benjamin Parker, who's been sent to investigate a lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall. It's a puzzling lighthouse, particularly for a cartographer, because it's not on any map. And a passing ship has just reported that it's gone dark; so it's urgently puzzling. So in your rowboat you get, my boy, and off to Fetch Rock.

All that (and more) is in the opening scene. It's a particularly nice opening. The setting, your character, and the plot hook are given through dialogue, flashback, and exploration, in addition to the traditional letters and journals. (The flashback itself is expressed as exploration, deftly and without any fuss.) It's not an introduction you'd point out as shockingly innovative -- but by the time you reach the lighthouse, you really know a lot, and you haven't had to sit through any long cut-scenes or excessive numbers of diary pages. Good technique.

Of course the whole rest of the game is more of this learning process. A ghost story is about discovering lost history, by definition. You find more letters and more journals; you read books and listen to stories. Later in the game, you acquire those spectral-vision goggles from Dark Fall, and begin seeing and hearing the supernatural directly. (Yes, 1912 is much earlier than the modern setting of the first Dark Fall game. By the time you get through the introduction of Lights Out, you'll be wondering about more anachronisms than that.) By the endgame, you'll know much more about what happened at Fetch Rock Lighthouse; and at the end, you put together everything you've found and... end the game.

I don't need to talk about the style and setting of the game, because they're just great. All the detail you want, and you can examine most of it close up. The author could have gotten away with much less, while putting in the framework of his storyline and puzzles. Instead, he chose to layer on the environmentals. There are several areas... I won't give away the plot... but they each have their own style, and they're all furnished with plenty of stuff to poke through. And stuff to creep you out. This isn't a Silent Hill buckets-of-entrails sort of game; it's little things. Ghost stories to read. Bits you catch out of the corner of your eye. It's amazing how a video game -- portrayed on a rectangular screen directly in front of your face -- can duplicate the nerve-wracking effect of movement in your peripheral vision. I'm still trying to figure out how the author does it. Careful layout of the primary visual focus of a scene, combined with perfect timing?

This is all backed up with a stupendous sound design: a mix of ambient sound, background music, and atmospheric incidentals which truly makes the game go. The incidentals are neither random nor predictable. You hear footsteps in some places, whispering in others. Coal clattering in the coal cellar -- or near it -- but not always. Never a sound when you expect it; and you always wonder if it means something. Is something sneaking up on you? It's impossible to dismiss the idea. And when you find a diary, and you're reading about some poor sod's horrific experience, and then you realize that you're hearing hints of it too -- well, eeek.

The gameplay, unfortunately, is a little bit shakier. Lights Out is another example of the Search Every Corner Game. You really, truly have to look at absolutely everything, and turn in every direction, and click every hotspot -- twice to be sure. Then, when you get the spectral goggles, you have to go back and check it all again. (The goggles beep when you're facing something which can profitably be viewed through them... but you still have to go around and face everything. Including the close-up views.)

I enjoy the Search Every Corner Game, but it's a tricky line to walk. If you miss something -- and I did miss a few things -- you're stuck. The clue you missed could be absolutely anywhere in the game. You have no logical course to pursue, except (1) go back and search it all again for the hotspot you missed, or (2) go to the walkthrough. Neither is really any fun, so you and I and every other player will go for (2), because that gets you unstuck.

Now, I'm not saying this makes the game pointless. It's your job to explore, and you can certainly have fun doing it. I had fun, and I found many, many clues. If you have more patience than me, you may have fun searching everwhere the second, third, and x'th time. (The environments, as I said, are terrific.) And you may find every clue, and never need the walkthrough. However (ego moment here) I am good at methodical searching, and I still missed several things, and I wound up using the walkthrough. So there.

On the other end of the balance -- and pardon me for contradicting myself -- the gameplay is a little bit weird, because you don't have to find every clue. Several puzzles can be solved from incomplete information. That is to say, partial brute force. Filling in gaps by trying every possibility. In fact, it seems that some puzzles can effectively be solved by pure brute force, without finding any of their clues.

So does this mitigate my previous complaint? Yes and no and sort-of. It's certainly true that you can fail to find a clue, and still solve the relevant puzzle, and therefore reach the end of the game. It's better than being stuck forever.

But I find it frustrating, because I never know how much I missed. Maybe I just failed to look in a particular spot, and therefore missed one clue. (This happened to me.) But maybe I failed to find a door, which leads to a whole new area, which contains lots of background information and creepy experiences plus one clue. (This also happened to me.) I can't tell. All I know is that I'm proceeding in the game's plot, but I missed some stuff.

Look: the shape of a game, like the shape of a story, can be narrow or broad. The gameplay of Lights Out is broad: you have many areas to explore (once you reach the midgame), and there are many routes back and forth between them, and there are many clues to find, in pretty much any order you want. The story is also presented in a broad way: you get a scattering of background information, and then a heavier scattering, and then more pieces come in from every direction, until you understand the whole.

But the balance of the story is not identical to the balance of the gameplay. It's not like every clue is presented along with an exactly equivalent amount of plot. That would be stupidly artificial. Gameplay information and story information are scattered through the game, large bits and small bits, in a realistic, world-mimetic way. So if you miss an area, you may find that the puzzles are slightly impaired but the story is severely weakened -- or vice versa.

And even if the story isn't weakened -- even if there are overlapping pieces, so that you don't really miss anything -- you may feel it's weakened. Accepting a broad, multilayered story is an act of trust. (Just like solving a complex puzzle, come to think of it.) If you believe that all the pieces will come together, you can wait for them. If you fear that you're missing pieces, the pacing stumbles. You anticipate more setup, and instead you get a denoument. Or you decide it's all about to come together, and instead the game feeds you more stuff you already knew. It's easy to say "The story works or it doesn't"; but the fact is, expectation makes a difference.

If my verbal handwaving has entirely lost you, let me get back to some sort of point: the pacing of Lights Out went wrong for me. Not badly wrong. But I wound up knowing most of the story when I'd missed several of the puzzle clues. I expected to get more story, because I knew I was missing stuff. But when I looked at the walkthrough and found the stuff, it was mostly clues and not much story. So the last part of the game was anticlimactic for me.

And it could perfectly well have been the other way around. If I'd found (or brute-forced) more clues, and found less story, I would have reached the end of the game -- and found it murky and underexplained. Again, anticlimactic.

Do I have a general solution? Of course not. Pacing in adventure games is a hard problem, and balancing it against the player's sense of freedom is the harder problem. When I design games (sheesh, this really is turning into the ego-moment review), I tend to be strict about the plot. I may push the player from area to area, or I may allow free exploration (as Lights Out does); but the story is going to be expressed through a sequence of key scenes, and the player is going to hit all of those scenes -- in the order I intend. I know how to get the effect I want, if I have that much control over sequence and pacing. If I loosen the strings, my stories tend to fall apart.

I'm not saying this is a general rule. It must be possible to express a story with genuinely unordered exploration. (Shadow of Destiny does this, in a way.) But I think the design of Lights Out does work well, and then badly, in the same way my work does. To demonstrate: in the early part of the game, your exploration is constrained. You first have to reach the lighthouse; then you have to explore the lighthouse basement; then you have to solve some puzzles to reach the rest of the lighthouse; then you reach other areas. Each of these stages reveals story and background, intermingled with puzzles and clues. And for this part of the game, the narrative pacing works very well. What you learn, you learn in an effective progression.

In the latter part of the game, you have much more freedom; you can go basically anywhere (once you find the paths). A great deal of story information is revealed, and lots of clues, in an order which is essentially random; it depends entirely on what you happen to explore first. And the narrative just doesn't work very well. There are story-parts, but they don't move forward in the same effective way.

Furthermore, this un-ordering includes the ending, because -- as I said -- you can miss information and still reach the end. You can also miss clues and still reach the end. In fact, you can miss a whole area of several rooms -- it happens to have no important clues in it. (This too happened to me, and made an unintended red herring of one puzzle.) And that just makes the story feel incomplete.

So, if you asked me for a specific solution, I would say: put plot constraints on the endgame, as well as the introduction. A loose midgame is fine (and traditional). But keep control of the ending. That's how you can effectively tie together all the threads, and spotlight the critical background elements. (Such as the protagonist, who has a good introduction and a great mid-game story position, but kind of fades away at the end -- his personal story is never resolved.)

This is not a rule for all games, but it would have improved Lights Out.

(As a complete tangent: I had trouble hearing the ending. The creepy, spectral-distorted voice is a great sound effect, but it was hard for me to understand. Particularly in the closing monologue. Yes, I got the gist of it -- but it exacerbated the feeling of incompleteness.)

And now that I have spend two pages talking about an abstruse pacing flaw, I will buzz through the rest of this review in four paragraphs.

There are a couple of NPCs to interact with, but the interactions are very brief and limited. This disappointed me -- perhaps unfairly, considering how many adventures have no NPCs at all. I also noticed that the conversations don't maintain any state. If you talk to someone, leave, and come back, the conversation starts from the beginning -- as if you'd never met. An unfortunate hole in the game's overall technical polish.

The interface is exactly the same as in Dark Fall, and I think I said it all in that review. I don't like the "use some object here" icon which these games make use of. It doesn't cause me to think about what to use; it causes me to rapidly click down my inventory bar, waiting for a reaction. The more traditional "click on inventory, then on hotspot" interface isn't much better, but at least it induces the sensation that you're using something there, in the game world. And, simply by being more awkward to do, it makes you think ahead. A tiny bit.

The lamp was a particularly weird case. Much of the game is dark. You have a lamp. You can use the lamp... in about six places. (In several other dark places, the lamp is automatically lit, illuminating your immediate surroundings. But others are just plain dark.) The result is obviously optimized for atmosphere rather than consistency. Which is fine, but, you know, inconsistent. It's hard to think of your lamp as a useful tool, when it acts like a glowing key for a particular set of doorways.

But the dark areas were unquestionably creepy.

Summary: Despite my design kvetching, Lights Out is a solid piece of work. It's got a huge wodge of creepy history to explore, and you'll be unnerved all the way through. It looks good and sounds better. The writing is first-rate, although the ending may come off weak and off-balance. And, hey, it's a labor of love -- of old-fashioned adventure gaming -- and love always shines through. So play it.

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