Dark Fall: Lights Out review
Two truths about art and artists occurred to me while I was playing Dark Fall: Lights Out. The first is that an artist's sophomore work is always incredibly difficult, having to straddle the line somewhere between striking out in a new direction and simply doing more of the same. The second was that the fan of a once-obscure artist can find themselves in the confounding position of both enjoying that artist's newfound popularity while worrying that it will dilute the nature of their work.
The first Dark Fall was originally written, programmed and self-published by Jonathan Boakes. I discovered the game through the 'net, and contacted Mr. Boakes directly to get a copy. It arrived in an unassuming DVD case inside of which were a blank, unlabeled disc and a small piece of paper containing the game's installation instructions.
The original Dark Fall ended up being one of the best adventure games in recent memory. The railway station in which the game's story was set felt like a real place, its history fleshed out with literally generations of poor souls trapped in the evils of the place. I filled an entire notebook with notes and diagrams trying to get a complete understanding of what had gone on before I tackled the endgame. Dark Fall was one of the few games that I can say actually frightened me, and I'll admit it was with mixed feelings that I tackled the sequel.
Lights Out comes packaged as a professional product, published by The Adventure Company, who also eventually published the first game under the name Dark Fall: The Journal. It comes complete with a jewel-case for the game containing a well-written manual. Some part of me missed the home-grown feel of the original as I opened and installed the game, and it was then that the two truths of second works and the mainstreaming of artists came to mind.
Would Boakes follow the tried-and-true method of his first game? Would Lights Out simply be more of the same? Was that necessarily a bad thing? Would the combination of professional publishing and the sophomore curse make this a cookie-cutter sequel?
I'm both pleased and sad to say that Lights Out is not more of the same. Boakes has taken some of the basic ideas of Dark Fall and expanded them in new and interesting ways. Not all of them work, and ultimately the game does not play out as well as the original with regards to both the story and the gameplay, but in the end, it's an admirable attempt.
The professionalism of Lights Out is apparent from the very opening screens as the program's titles and credits are picked out by the sweeping circular beams of a lighthouse's lamp. The graphics have been greatly improved from Dark Fall's somewhat grainy 640x480 display to a much crisper 800x600.
The story begins with a nightmare. Benjamin Parker awakens after a strange dream full of images and whispered voices he cannot understand. You, as Parker, awaken in a tiny bedroom to a short, sharp knock at the door. It's still night, though, and the fog is rolling in off the bay of Trewarthan. Who would possibly try to wake you at such an hour? You soon learn that Parker is a cartographer, called by a mysterious benefactor to map the treacherous, shifting coastline of Cornwall in the spring of 1912. In his first attempts to sketch out the landscape, he sees in the distance what he believes to be a lighthouse, but no such building exists on any map he can find. And mentioning the lighthouse to his benefactor has the strangest of results...
Since Lights Out is a mystery, it's difficult to speak of the game's story without giving away spoilers. But early on, it's apparent that things aren't what they seem.
Lights Out uses a wide-screen view, with an inventory area at the bottom and a meta-command menu (save/load/quit) at the top. Each location is displayed as a rendered image, with hotspots linking to close ups and linking screens. Unfortunately, this is a portion of the game that has not been improved from its predecessor as linking hotspots aren't always logically placed and it's very possible to miss what the designer most likely considered an obvious exit.
Also carried over from the original game is the inventory interface. A special hotspot (in the shape of a wrench) indicates when an item can be used, and simply clicking on the proper object utilizes it. It's unusual, but works for the most part, though it can lead to random clicking when it's not obvious what use a particular hotspot represents.
That's not usually a problem, though. In reality there aren't that many puzzles in the game, and those you'll encounter are both logical and well-embedded into the game world. There's a reason that some doors are locked with codes, and the solutions are usually to be found in the most likely of places. Most of the gameplay is spent in pure exploration--learning the rules of the strange worlds Parker finds himself in--and then applying what you've learned.
From the beginning, Lights Out seems to have a more concerted effort towards a single, strong narrative than The Journal. Most of the original's story was told via a loose web of information: diaries, notes, letters, computer files. While the station contained several sets of stories, spread over the entire history of the site, the main character remained something of a cypher--an anonymous observer whose only connection was the fact that one of the station's visitors was his or her brother.
By putting the player in the shoes of Parker, the game immediately gains a sense of context that the first Dark Fall lacked. But in continuing that context, it may have lost some of the open-endedness that made the first game so great. Having played the game, I have to say that while there are some wonderful moments gained from this change, I'm not certain it was worth the price.
The initial portions of the game are the most frustrating: completely linear and generally confined to two small areas (the village and the lighthouse), which are, in turn, connected by a one-way road. Parker encounters his benefactor, who tells him that the lighthouse has gone out and he must find out what happened. The NPC is handled in an interesting way, from a technical perspective. Rather than dealing with the technology to lip-synch voices, the author has simply placed the character's mouth out of view. The extreme close-up is rather disconcerting, but fits with the initial claustrophobic setting.
The next paragraph reveals some minor spoilers about the beginning of the game. Those of you who wish to enter the world of Lights Out untainted may wish to skip it.
As the game opens, Parker heads to the lighthouse and encounters a set of puzzles that must be solved before the game can continue. I was incredibly disappointed at this point, thinking that Boakes had decided to change the wide-open nature of the first game. After jumping through several hoops, Parker finds himself at the lighthouse on Fetch Rock in the year 2004. The lighthouse has been converted into a museum, centered around what happened that night in 1912--events that you, the player, have just experienced. For me, this part of the game worked incredibly well. I felt a sense of anger and frustration and, for a moment, I was Parker, ill-used by history. It was amazing to walk through a museum about myself, reading about my background, and what various historians thought of me and the mystery of the place.
As the game progresses, the game finally opens up in the way that the original game did, with puzzles, information and stories being presented over a wide range of locations. Each time a new section opens, the game gets subsequently larger and the background more detailed, revealing such diverse locations as an extensive underwater research complex and a primitive settlement. But again, I'm not certain that this expansion was worth the price. While the railway station of Dark Fall was small, it was consistent and coherent. The restaurant was beside the inn, which was, in turn, part of the station. In expanding the game to include such diverse locales, the game loses something of its consistency. The new areas became something like the Ages of Myst - interesting in and of themselves, but not feeling like a coherent whole. Worse, it's this expansion that ultimately affects how scary the game is. The first Dark Fall felt real, immersing me to the point that when the lights went out and the voices started, I squirmed in my chair. The surreal time travel of Lights Out distanced me from the action to the point that when the scary moments arrived, it simply felt like one more weird thing that was happening.
I also found the story's climax and ultimate resolution to be disappointing. Where the first game left several important questions unanswered, Boakes attempts to jump genres from pure 'haunted (light)house' to science-fiction in his explanation for the happenings at Fetch Rock. Fans of the second genre may enjoy the shift, but in the end the storyline didn't work for me, particularly since the story's "scientific" explanations felt rather vague. In all honesty, I would have preferred an unexplained mystery.
Lights Out is very much a sophomore work, an artist's attempt to expand his repertoire while still trying to hold on to the magic that made his first effort so great. Some of Boakes' experiments work wonderfully; those first few moments on Fetch Rock in 2004 were incredibly immersive and strange and exploring the same location throughout its long, twisted history was a great experience. But ultimately, the new directions the game goes in dilute the qualities that made the first Dark Fall so great, and it ends up being much less immediate, real and frightening than its predecessor. Still, this slightly lesser Dark Fall still contains a deeply realized world that's definitely worth the effort of exploring.
An intriguing and interesting--though not completely successful--attempt to head in a new direction from that of Dark Fall: The Journal.