In Homer’s Odyssey Argos, the dog of Ulysses, awaits his master’s return for twenty years. When they finally meet again, Argos recognizes Ulysses even though he is covered up as a beggar, and then dies. This is one of many examples across time, cultures, and media that show the extent of canine fealty, and if anyone is lucky enough to have experienced a dog’s love, then they know it is more than a mere representation. This premise is the basis of Midnight Party’s Don’t Disturb, a 2D third-person adventure. You play as a dog whose owner has just died, the introductory sequence showing the funeral of an old lady. People have come to pay their respects to the deceased, yet no one seems to pay attention to you, sad and depressed as you are. You seek comfort but find none, at least up until a bell-like noise rouses you from your catatonia, urging you to follow it. You run out to the streets and suddenly find yourself searching for your beloved one in the underworld. Cue the beginning of your adventure. Unfortunately, it is a rather limited adventure, both in effect and content.
Don’t Disturb is very short, offering only about an hour of play time. That fact alone would not have been a flaw if the game were concise, but instead it comes off as rather lacking in both story and gameplay. The main objective is to find your owner in the afterlife, which is an interesting idea, especially because it is inspired by Asian traditions that have not been explored much in the video game medium. Alas, for someone not familiar with those beliefs, the game does not provide sufficient context. Its world feels more like an amusement park visit with informational sign posts than a comprehensive exploration. There are certain interactive spots that provide background knowledge about particular objects you come across, yet they are scarce and miniscule.
The language used in these textual descriptions also strives to be cryptic, supposedly in connection with the otherworldly undertones, and is maybe intended to be funny, while in reality it is unreasonably complicated and ludicrous: “No human food a day, get to the Netherworld the second day.” Here I must point out another problem, namely the many mistakes in both the talk-bubble letter alignment and the grammar. Presumably the texts were localized from traditional Chinese to English, yet the translation is not properly done and this creates a certain sloppiness like: “Only one card I haven’t get.” One text-bubble is not translated at all. Moreover, I encountered a bug in the middle of the game that caused the whole screen to freeze. What is worse, the manual save option malfunctioned as well, so I was forced to quit and restart the game, losing all my progress.
Not that I lost much time in starting over, as Don’t Disturb’s gameplay aspects do not offer much challenge. The controls are very simple, as you move around using the arrow keys – not WASD, just the arrows – and engage with in-game items by pressing space. The objects you can interact with become subtly enlarged when passing by them. These include certain items you can pick up to carry around one at a time in your mouth, and people or other entities you talk with. Or more accurately, they talk to you since you are non-verbal.
The puzzles are very clear, easy, and unoriginal. In one case, for example, you have to solve a maze minigame that appears on the screen by simply directing the cursor – in the form of a dog paw, a nice detail – using the arrows from one end of the maze to the other. In another you have to find the combination to a safe box, the clue to which awaits you in mere screens away. I appreciated the fact that the two main obstacles are resolved by reuniting people with their four- or two-legged loved ones, which resonates well with the game’s raison d'être, yet overall the opportunities to interact with the different elements of the world are rigidly system-determined.
There are many titles that do not care much for player agency, instead purposely downgrading it to accentuate their story and atmosphere. Sadly, Don’t Disturb is not successful in that part either. In order to find your owner in the underworld you have to complete some tasks, like bypass the two monsters that guard the gate to the underworld and demand that you show them your permit. However, while the narrative is coherent most of the time, how you even manage to find the underworld in the first place is not adequately explained. Although still alive, you are able to change realms on a literal run, the scene transitioning from colors, buildings, and human civilization to a vast wilderness, almost black and white. Yet soon the underworld – or Netherworld as the game calls it – becomes as colorful as its living-world counterpart. The music is the same, the palette is the same, and the imagery uses the same style. In that manner, there is no succinct depiction of the discrepancies one should expect of a game that deals with an otherworldly adventure.
Similarly, the land of the dead is populated by characters that talk and behave exactly as a living person would. Among others, you come across a sad dog owner whose pet has been taken away, a group of monsters playing card games, a man who is hungry for “meat buns” (as he calls them) and an extremely bureaucratic regulatory system for the dead. Understandably, these may be explained as an effort to portray both the living world and the underworld as spaces characterized by the same principles and ethics that accompany human societies everywhere. Nevertheless, due to the brevity of the game this impression is not properly developed; on the contrary it simply seems like a lack of imagination. The detail that should help us understand the difference between worlds is simply not there, and in a journey through the afterlife the importance of ingenuity cannot be overlooked.
Despite the timelessness and universality of its subject matter, the game does not carry any significant or original message. It would not need to do that if its presentation were spectacular, but although stylish it still ends up falling short. The imagery is conceptual and brings to mind the eastern techniques of calligraphy with water brush strokes. The music rings traditional, at least to the ears of someone that has not been much exposed to Asian culture. In that, the atmosphere succeeds in bringing out a different flavor than that of western video games. Yet it is only a small taste that functions more as decoration than real substance. The underworld entities are drawn somberly with slouched body figures and downcast facial expressions, something that insinuates the gloominess of the Netherworld. This, together with the absence of voice-overs and sound effects, creates a feeling of loneliness, melancholy, and eeriness that should accompany the land of the dead. However, this sentiment is not enough to be impactful, but rather a basic prerequisite for a game that wants to deal with the essential themes of life and death.
Don’t Disturb can be cute. It has, after all, a dog as its playable figure. It can occasionally be funny, if one appreciates the macabre; in a world with injuries dripping blood, who needs red ink? It even has a sentimental ending – actually two – which force an emotional response from the player, especially if you are a dog owner yourself. Nevertheless, the experience fails to leave a lasting impression. Playing as a dog is not thoroughly explored in all its possibilities, and your avatar is not developed enough for you to really feel like your owner has just died.
Even the option of two endings does not add much to the game’s general effectiveness. With such a short play time and limited interaction, you are not made to feel the weight of your choices. You can easily go back and play the game again or simply save before the finale and see both endings. It is not so much a metaphysical choice to follow your purpose or accept its impossibility and come to terms with it, but rather a matter of curiosity. As the path through the whole game feels pre-determined, the choice you are asked to make brings no consequences. Nothing influences you to this or that decision, because the game has not managed up to that point to suspend your disbelief. Hence, you can easily choose both. Each selection may result in a different outcome, but since the story and the characters (especially the canine protagonist) are so underdeveloped, the option of alternate endings is just an additional feature and not a final manifestation of player agency in a believably fleshed-out world.
So do all these criticisms make Don’t Disturb a weak game? As always, it depends on your point of view. If you are the kind of seasoned adventurer that plays for their mental stimulation from puzzles, a thick plot, and/or complex meanings, then this game is really not for you. On the other hand, if you are interested in unusual cultural viewpoints rarely seen in this medium, then it may be worth a shot, especially if you love dogs. Despite its drawbacks, it fits sufficiently – albeit clumsily – into the type of game one could even call interactive poems. Even so, it remains at an entry point without delving deeper in either content or form, needing further refinement in many aspects like story, design, and technical soundness. If it were a demo, this would be a great first taste. As a full product, though, Don’t Disturb does not satisfy. The game has potential, yet it needed a much more inventive, if not valiant, approach to its powerful universal themes.
To sum it all up, Don’t Disturb is a game that does not offer much, yet at the same time does not ask much of you in return. Many of its problems stem simply from how short it is, because it takes a lot of mastery to create lasting effects in such a limited time, not unlike short stories in literature. This may work to its advantage in the sense that it can be seen as a quick little adventure to pass some time and be appreciated as such. Yet unlike the inhabitants of the game’s underworld, we do not have infinite time on our hands, so in the digital era with so many options competing for our attention, life is worth spending on much more fulfilling enjoyments.