Adventure Gamers Awards
We’ve probably all had dreams of being somebody else. Whether it’s an athlete, film star or astronaut, imagining oneself in a different life is a natural form of escapism. For the young protagonist in Between Me and the Night, that fantasy figure is a video game knight. A hero in the virtual world, the boy feels like anything but in the real one; arguing parents and school bullies are just some of the foes that can’t be combatted with a sword and suit of armour. Struggling through this dichotomy makes for an intriguing premise for a game, but while the end result is undeniably great aesthetically, it falls flat in engaging gameplay and seems more satisfied with imagery than real story development.
Between Me and the Night blends traditional adventuring with some basic platforming, but doesn’t excel in either format. My overriding emotion throughout most of the game was that of frustration: next actions are poorly indicated, the controls are clunky, and the whole experience lacks a true narrative as its emotional centre. However, perhaps the most frustrating part of all is seeing how close it is to being a much better game.
You control a red-haired youth, nameless and fairly faceless, through three key stages in his early life. The tale begins in the loft of his family home: two giggling silhouetted figures are playing a video game in front of the TV, but as you sit to join them they vanish like whispers into the darkness. This is compounded by other mystery figures appearing, like the one that rattles in the closet and vanishes on sight. It’s certainly a compelling opening; the quiet, comfortable familiarity of the boy’s room contrasts eerily against the supernatural elements.
Ten minutes in is when my first problem began, which would go on to plague much of the game. The issue is that it’s rarely communicated what you need to do next. I’m all for puzzle complexity when it’s logical, but it’s a hassle having to spend a chunk of time just aimlessly clicking around to work out what will allow you to progress. There’s a particular point where you have to recover an object but are unable to pick it up. It turns out you not only need help from someone, which isn’t indicated, but to get their assistance you have to perform a seemingly unrelated and unimportant task. It’s a tough sequence only because of the lack of adequate signposting, rather than the difficulty of the obstacle itself.
You can inspect a lot of items in the environment and even pick a number of them up, though you’ll collect far more things than you’ll ever actually need. When I played the launch version, the inventory had a limit on storing multiple objects of the same size, which was inconsistent and unnecessary, but this restriction has wisely been removed in a patch update. Though none of the puzzles require inventory combination, you will need to collect objects to aid your progress. One instance requires starting a fire in a science laboratory, where you must first figure out what chemicals you need before hunting them down and conjuring the flames.
As you begin to explore the large and lonely house, you’ll encounter visions of bickering parents and a grumpy sibling, and discover telephone answering machine messages of someone reaching out. Later scenes pit the protagonist against school bullies and then young adult responsibilities like paying bills. There’s barely any dialogue, none of it spoken, nor is there any real character interaction. Instead, you’re left to piece together the backstory for yourself, which would be fine except that apart from the broad strokes there’s not really anything to get your teeth into. There are tidbits like the medicine present in many bathroom cabinets that provide some allure, but it’s all very superficial. This is a character who feels withdrawn and scared – that much is clear from the atmosphere – but not much is done to delve into this theme and turn it into a gripping tale.
For example, in the school you witness a girl lose her camera, so it’s up to you to get it back and then work your way into the photography class to return it. That’s all well and good, but there’s no reason offered for doing this or what it means in the wider context. Earlier, a clock breaks, so now you have to fix it – but why? These feel like tasks for the sake of it rather than essential, character-building incidents. Perhaps there’s something being said about the mundanities of life – feeding the cat, mowing the lawn, making a sandwich – but that’s a stretch and doesn’t translate well into an exciting gameplay experience, no matter the intention or message behind it.
Each of the three time periods has its own monsters inhabiting it. In the first two, they only come out at night and slowly skulk around. When they see you they’ll speed up, your capture causing you to respawn in a base room (though you won’t lose progress). There are ways of combatting these foes, whether using light or an inventory possession, but it’s unnerving to suddenly come across one. For example, the creature in the school takes a tall and gangly form, a pair of keys clinking at its side which you can hear from down the hall. Unfortunately, while adding an air of creepiness, they can negatively get in the way. Sometimes a monster would refuse to leave a particular corner I needed to get to, meaning it ended up being quicker to let myself get caught and have its position reset. Nevertheless, when it works the presence of lurking enemies makes for a nice change of pace from normal adventure fare.
Between these adventure sections comes the platforming, which probably takes up around a fifth of actual play time. The boy is literally sucked into the virtual world when dictated by the story, through televisions and arcades, armouring up and becoming a sword-wielding knight against an ethereal backdrop. The actual platforming isn’t particularly complex here. You can slash and defend as you fight enemy knights and archers, but you don’t really need to use your shield. It’s essentially a button basher, in the sense that you’re repeatedly hitting the attack key until whatever is blocking your way falls down. When you’re not doing that, you’re flipping the occasional switch and running along ledges and up staircases. Again, these are forgiving in difficulty, apart from a sequence right near the end which is punishing purely due to the clunky controls and bad design.Continued on the next page...