DARKSTAR: The Interactive Movie review
Adventure Gamers Awards
The gaming industry today is often filled with development delays, some of them permanent. It can take years to craft and produce a successful adventure, and some sadly never see the light of day. Parallax Studio’s DARKSTAR: The Interactive Movie was an ambitious project from the start, and only grew more so as production continued, promising an epic sci-fi cinematic experience with more than 13 hours of FMV footage starring the entire original cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. After a decade of waiting, however, it was hard to keep believing the game would ever be released. But at long last DARKSTAR has indeed arrived, and now the question is whether it was worth the wait. The answer to that is something of a mixed bag, as there are several key issues that plague the experience, from some shoddy acting to a bafflingly inefficient interface, but the game is every bit as epic in scope as advertised, and behind it all is a remarkably intriguing plot.
Amnesia stories have become cliché at this point, but they’re still a favorite of mine. They set up so many intriguing questions right off the bat. Who is the protagonist? Where is he? How did he get here? It’s a strong way to start off a mysterious tale when even the identity of your character is in doubt. DARKSTAR uses this classic device, as Captain John O’Neil emerges from a cryo chamber on a deserted spacecraft after sleeping for 300 years, with absolutely no clue how he got there. The fun of amnesia stories is discovering the plot yourself, so I won’t give much away here except to say that O’Neil is on a damaged starship called the Westwick, with only the detached, female voice of the ship’s computer to inform him of what’s going on. Predictably, the computer is only able to provide a little information about his predicament.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that John is not alone in this sector of space, orbiting high above an alien planet. Nearby, three other cryo chambers sit: one empty, one with a still-sleeping woman, and one with a corpse that for some reason is missing a hand. Notes and logs reveal that a malevolent enemy spacecraft is circling nearby, and it seems than not all of the crew members of the Westwick may have been allies. Worst of all, soon John discovers what players get a glimpse of in the game’s introduction: Earth has been completely destroyed by an armada of starships from Mars, and still more questions begin to add up. Why has John awakened now? Who killed the man in the cryo chamber and why did he or she cut off a hand? What is the significance of the enigmatic cosmic presence known as Darkstar, and why was the Westwick trying so desperately to reach it? Exploring the ship is the only way John can find these answers.
Exploring is where things start to get a little difficult in DARKSTAR, but not for the right reasons. The first-person interface is simple enough: clicking and dragging the mouse allows John to fully look around at any angle of each predetermined position. When the mouse is over a hotspot, it turns into an arrow icon, otherwise it defaults to a circle. The problem is that the arrow stands for absolutely anything John might do. This runs the gamut from walking in that direction, picking up or using an item, pressing a button, commenting on something, or backing away from that location. Using a single cursor to represent all these actions makes the game confusing to navigate, and leads to frustration more than a few times. I clicked on a body of water at one point, expecting John to comment on some swimming predators I had noticed earlier, but John responded to this command by diving in and dying. Elsewhere, it took forever to find an item in a cabinet because clicking on what I thought was a drawer backed me away from it (I was supposed to click a little bit below the spot I was trying to actually open the drawer). This happens a lot when looking at computer panels. There are often one or two buttons that can be pressed, but figuring out where to push is a frustrating game of trial-and-error, as clicking the wrong place backs you away from the panel so you have to re-approach to try again. Navigating the ship also proved disorienting at times, as John often went in an entirely different direction than I expected him to, given where I had clicked.
In contrast, inventory use is as streamlined as can be. John carries many objects that can be viewed at any time, but all items are used automatically when needed. That being the case, one may ask what challenge the puzzles could possibly hold, but the answer isn’t straightforward. On one hand, DARKSTAR makes it very clear (even in its title) that it thinks of itself more as an interactive movie than a game, only offering puzzles that are easily solved so as not to bog down the story and frustrate players. There are a couple of simple-to-assemble puzzles, some basic anagrams, and one or two other varieties. At one point I found a couple of letter-substitution coded messages that I happily solved, until I later realized that I wasn’t supposed to solve them. I was meant to find a special decoding device that literally solved both of the cryptograms for me instead.
Where DARKSTAR does provide challenge is through its sheer size. This game is huge, and unlocking different sections of the ship requires combing over every location very carefully. Elevators and lifts won’t work until you find a hidden button that activates them; doors won’t unlock until you track down their codes, often concealed in more than one place. And the game can’t be completed until you discover and activate several handprint sensors called “biolocks” to allow you greater control of the ship. It’s a bit of a haphazard way of establishing obstacles, as the ship is so large you may often find the solution before you find the puzzle. Many times I found myself pushing a button with absolutely no idea of what it unlocked or activated until much later.
Of course, exploring every nook and cranny is something you’ll want to do regardless of the puzzles. DARKSTAR’s backstory is told through hidden logs, both video and written, and other notes and scraps of information. The vast majority of these are completely optional, as the game can be completed without finding them at all, but you’ll miss some of the more interesting character moments. Unfortunately, it’s also possible to miss key items or locations and find yourself unable to go back to get them. An example of this happens on a desolate, rocky planet that John eventually explores. There’s a locked door, behind which are several juicy video logs and other interesting tidbits, but if you missed finding the key to this door while you were on the Westwick then you’ll never be able to open it. And in a design decision I haven’t seen since King’s Quest, it’s also possible to miss key items and find yourself unable to complete the game. Miss meeting one character on the Westwick before you leave it and you’ll be trapped on that planet forever. And if you don’t find one of two important objects before you reach the game’s climax, you’ll also be completely stuck. With a game that clocks as many hours as this one does (the developers claim it takes 20, and it’s not far off from that), it can be extremely annoying to reach the end and find only an inescapable death for O’Neil waiting.
Thoroughly exploring the Westwick is a time-consuming task, as the ship has many rooms and levels from living quarters to the bridge, and even a large recreational level complete with a movie theater and art gallery. All of these locations are laid out on a very helpful and always accessible reference map. There are also tons of secret passageways and maintenance tunnels that link these rooms together. It all adds up to a very large area, which is good because the Westwick comprises the vast majority of the game. The game also has many hours of live-action video, showing everything from logs and communications between the crew members to dialogues between O’Neil and the somewhat small number of characters he actually encounters throughout the game. Every biolock you access will also open up a new video for you to view, which fills in much of the backstory and explains why the Westwick is in space to begin with. They’re like an extremely long narrative introduction given to you to view only one portion at a time. These videos feel like they’re being presented to you, the player, and not to O’Neil himself, as there’s no in-game visual display that would allow him to view them along with you. This creates a subtle rift between you and your protagonist, as you seem to be getting information about his world that he remains unaware of.
The video quality is somewhat hit-and-miss. DARKSTAR is a cinematically impressive game, showing everything from tense, emotional scenes to epic starship battles. Obviously the special effects can only go so far on the budget of an independent game like this, but the developers have done well with what they had. Firefights, explosions, and ship-to-ship combat may not look as crisp as in the latest sci-fi movie, but they’re still fun and exciting to watch, even though most of these exciting moments are part of the ongoing backstory that isn't directly connected to your protagonist. Where the videos sometimes misfire is the acting. To be fair, a good portion of the cast does the job fairly well. The late Mr. Mission: Impossible, Peter Graves, plays the voice of the narrator, and although this mostly consists of him waxing philosophically whenever O’Neil dies, his relaxed and resonant voice adds a nice, professional touch to the story. As O’Neil himself, Clive Robertson seems to have only one reaction to everything, which is to smile roguishly, but he still manages to pull off a calm, confident hero. The first officer, Perryman, also does a great job as the milder but incredibly competent confidant.
Unfortunately, it’s largely downhill from there, as the other crew members have some rough moments in scenes that are supposed to be deeply emotional, particularly the portly Burk. Most of the performances in the biolock videos are downright abysmal. Some of the actors simply overplay their parts a little, which actually provides campy fun and doesn’t seem all that out of place in a space opera like this one. But others give performances that are so flat and disinterested that it almost feels like they’re reading their lines off a cue card for the first time. One space captain reacts to being betrayed and having her ship attacked by enemy fighters in a hopeless situation much the same way many would react to seeing distant storm clouds.
Where DARKSTAR really frustrated me the most is that whenever John moves from one hub to the next, the camera will actively move along the path he takes, occasionally showing a clip of him walking, glancing around, and staring long into any mirror or reflective surface he can find. This isn’t a bad idea at first, as the ship can be confusing and it’s helpful to know exactly how John moved to where he is now, but it quickly wears thin since only rarely are these walking sequences ever skippable. Once you’re more familiar with a room, or with the ship as a whole, these sequences stop being mildly helpful and start being unbelievably repetitive and tedious. Imagine playing Myst where every time you clicked to move to a new spot it took between 3-10 full seconds to get there. Every. Single. Time. Just walking across the ship, a process that should take a few seconds normally, takes full minutes of watching the camera move forward through places you’ve already explored.
To prevent losing even more time, one has to remember that familiar adventure game idiom: “save early, save often”. Clicking on the wrong location or item occasionally brings instant death, similar to old Sierra games, and you’re forced to replay everything since your last manual save. Since many of these deaths are triggered by harmless actions and cannot be anticipated ahead of time, there’s really no way to avoid a certain number of reloads. An autosave just prior to fatal moves would have been far preferable. I also ran into numerous crashes, despite having a recent version of QuickTime, though this may not be the case for other players.
The good news is that you’ll generally have nice music to listen to as you wander the ship. The soundtrack was composed and performed by professionals, and it shows. With more exciting rock pieces for scenes like space battles, to eerie and haunting pieces when exploring strange parts of the ship, to quieter and reflective piano pieces when searching the crew cabins, the tunes never get overly repetitive. This is absolutely key for a game like DARKSTAR, where the primary goal is clearly immersion in its cinematic experience. The bad news is that the visuals don’t hold up as well as the music. DARKSTAR has been in production for a decade, and the graphics show their age, with hazy, often heavily pixelated lo-res backgrounds. Everything is very clearly designed, however, and most of the focus on story is done in video format anyway. But next to some of the crisper, newer titles being released these days, this game seems a little bit lackluster in the visual department.
DARKSTAR: The Interactive Movie is a game that takes a lot of patience to truly enjoy. It’s not a game for everyone, as some are sure to be turned off by the rarity and simplicity of its puzzles, while others may not relish a return to the infamous days of live actors as their game characters, particularly when some of the acting reminds us why this isn’t always a good idea. Regardless of preferences, just about everyone will be frustrated by the poorly designed interface, unfair deaths and dead ends. But for those who appreciate a good mystery/space opera in an engaging sci-fi environment, there’s a lot of fun to be had. It’s an epic, ambitious adventure by modern day standards, with hours of filmed footage to immerse you, and finding hidden messages and trying to deduce who you can or can’t trust never gets old. DARKSTAR may be light on actual gameplay, but it’s rich in cinematic storytelling, and for many science fiction and FMV fans, that’s sure to be more than enough.
The highly ambitious DARKSTAR delivers a great sci-fi story that’s unfortunately hampered by serious interface flaws, questionable design decisions, and occasional bad acting.