Broken Age

I suppose I should at least say a little about Broken Age. I backed its Kickstarter back when it had no title other than “Double Fine Adventure”, and played the first half during this blog’s hiatus. Act 2 was released about a month ago, and I’ve managed to find the time to complete it.

I recall seeing some grumbling of dissatisfaction from other supporters when the first half was released, but I find the whole thing highly satisfactory. We were promised an old-school point-and-click adventure game, and that’s what we got. The style is gentle and sweet, even when people are being fed to monsters. It’s got the old familiar Tim Schafer sense of humor, somehow zany and wry at the same time, involving absurd situations and people taking them seriously — but somehow, the feel of this humor is changed quite a lot when it’s overlaid on soft and rosy children’s-book-like illustrations. Really good, well-paced 2D animation — sometimes I just sat and watched the character idles. So much good voice acting — there are some big-name actors here, but I felt the best performances came from the minor characters. Basically, a delightful world to be in, except in the few occasions when I got stuck. And even then, there’s a good lot of humorous quips to be gotten from trying wrong things.

The game wasn’t originally planned to be released in two parts, but it’s at least thematic. The whole story is broken in two, with two protagonists that you can switch between freely, like in Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. Except where Maniac Mansion put all the player characters into the same environment, and Day of the Tentacle put them into disjoint but linked environments where one character’s actions affect another’s situation, Broken Age almost puts them in completely distinct games. It isn’t until the end of Act 1 that the two characters meet, and it isn’t until the ending sequence of Act 2 that you have to control the two characters in tandem to solve puzzles. Before that, the only link between them is at the story level, and even that takes a while to become apparent. At the start they seem to be in completely separate stories.

Opposed stories, even, juxtaposed for contrast. We have two youths, Vella and Shay. Vella lives in one of those ahistorical sort-of-pre-industrial-seeming fantasy worlds with modern attitudes. You’ve got people living on clouds and the occasional talking tree there. Shay lives on a spaceship. Vella is suspicious and argumentative; Shay is naive and easily-manipulated. Vella’s story is full of people — entire families, sometimes — with their own desires and agendas. Shay lives alone, apart from some robots whose entire existence is devoted to him. That’s his base situation: pampered, infantilized, kept safe. Shay’s story starts with scenes of him being showered and his teeth brushed by automated systems, just another day for him; he’s taken to a bridge decorated like a playpen and given a choice of various important-sounding “missions”, which turn out to be fake play scenarios arranged by the doting ship’s computer, or “Mom”. A jab at videogame plots, perhaps, with all their save-the-world bluster? Anyway, this is his life, and he’s extremely bored with it, craving new adventure, just like the player after a few iterations — the whole thing repeats in a cycle until you figure out how to break out of it. Vella, meanwhile, is being rushed against her will into a grotesque parody of a rite of passage. Once every 14 years, her village sacrifices maidens to a monster called Mog Chothra so it will spare everyone else, and nearly everyone other than Vella treats this like a good thing. Not just “It’s good that we have a way to spare the village”, or even “We honor your sacrifice”, but “I can’t wait to be eaten by the monster!” The maidens wear elaborate prom dresses for the occasion, and the ones that don’t get eaten wonder “Is there something wrong with me?” Such is the power of social pressure that Vella goes along with this to an extent (with the result that she winds up spending the rest of the story in her prom dress), but she ultimately escapes, determined to find a way to kill Mog Chothra and bring her society to its senses. So, both stories are about youth rebelling against an authority that’s placing unreasonable expectations on them, but in opposite ways: eternal inconsequential safety in an environment that’s all about you vs demands for complete self-abnegation. Shay rejects this because he doesn’t like his life as it is and wants change; Vella, because she does like her life and doesn’t want to throw it away.

Now, I don’t want to get too deep into spoilers here, so I’ll only describe Act 2 briefly. Act 2 has a theme of unmaskings. The ending of Act 1 is a kind of great unmasking, a peek behind the curtain, but smaller revelations come thick and fast in Act 2, including the true nature of the ship’s computers, the exposure of the guru in the clouds, and the literal unmasking of the deliciously shifty Marek. Marek spends the entirety of Act 1 in a wolf costume, and, given the game’s style and content, it’s reasonable to think he might actually be an anthropomorphic wolf. He admits to being human within Act 1, but it isn’t until Act 2 that we see his face. The biggest revelation, though, is Shay and Vella getting to know each other. Through Act 1, they’re unaware of each others’ existence, and even in Act 2, they can’t interact. They’ve seen each other briefly, exchanged no words. (The extent of their communication was Vella throwing a punch at Shay.) But at the end of Act 1, they swap environments. Vella is now trapped in Shay’s ship, while Shay is in Vella’s world. In both cases, the presence of the other person is unavoidable. Vella is basically snooping around Shay’s house, looking at his old toys and embarrassing childhood photos. Shay is meeting Vella’s family and everyone who was affected by her passing through in Act 1, for good or ill, and they all have things to say about her. Neither of the pair is exactly looking for the other, but it’s clear that the story is preparing them for remeeting.

And what then, after they remeet, at the story’s very end? One of the things that I like the best about this story is that it doesn’t try to force a romance. Oh, there’s room for one. If you play this game and want to imagine Shay and Vella getting married after the credits roll, there’s nothing to contradict that. But I think I’d rather imagine them becoming friends, and the story affords that just as easily. But there is one thing hinting at some sort of deeper connection between the two, and it’s something that’s left mysterious within the game’s content.

Now, I said that the two stories are basically distinct games. The stories sync up at the end of Act 1, with the result that you have to complete both sub-games before either can proceed to Act 2, and a similar thing happens just before the endgame. But for the entirety of Act 1, the game never forces you to switch characters. And some players respond to that by, well, not switching characters. By playing through the entirety of Shay’s story before starting Vella’s or vice versa. I’ve even had conversations more or less like: “I’m giving up on Broken Age. I’m stuck on a puzzle in Vella’s half.” “Maybe you should switch to Shay’s half for a while.” “No, I wanted to finish Vella’s half first before starting Shay’s.” Now, I generally don’t like telling people other than myself that they’re playing a game wrong, but: This is the wrong way to play the game. The links between the two stories are set up to be optimally discovered gradually as you play through them both at the same time; if you play one to the end first, you’ll get a lot of the other half’s foreshadowing as aftshadowing.

In Act 2, though, the author forces the issue. The two characters still can’t affect each other directly, but there’s a puzzle in Shay’s half that can only be solved with information from Vella’s half, and vice versa. Thus, the obstinate player has to switch between characters to solve it without a walkthrough. The mystery comes in when we try to interpret this diegetically. In both cases, the player is acting on knowledge that’s unavailable to the player character, making us ask: I knew what to do, but how did Shay and Vella know? In the endgame, this happens frequently enough to become normal, to the point where the two characters are cooperating on complicated time-sensitive actions without any intercommunication whatever, occasionally saying things like “I have a good feeling about this combination. I don’t know why.” And they trust this good feeling above the advice of the grown-ups who get in their way. And so they should — both have been betrayed by the older generation plenty.

I imagine that there’s been a lot of complaint about this. That the game is breaking its own rules, forgetting to provide character motivations for player actions, and making the player do things that don’t fit into the story. But I personally dig it, because of the implications if it does fit into the story. There’s something special about these kids, something that links them, and the game isn’t telling us what. I mean, obviously you know full well what it is that links them: it’s you, the player. They are linked by the single mind that controls them both. But what are you, within the story? Usually the player is represented by the player character, but if there are two distinct player characters, what are you? Through Act 1, you can pretend that you’re nothing at all — you’re subsumed into Vella and into Shay. But the information-sharing puzzles wake you up, make it clear that you’re something distinct from them both.

Lost Souls: Wrapping Up

OK, last post about Dark Fall: Lost Souls. Time to kill this thing and move onto something else. I finished the game about a week ago, but I’ve been taking about a week to write each post lately. This isn’t really the game’s fault — it’s a perfectly respectable representative of its genre, even if it is a different genre than the first two Dark Fall games.

So let’s talk about the ending, or, what amounts to the same thing, let’s talk about Amy. This gets a little confusing, because it’s not entirely clear where the boundaries are between Amy, the Inspector’s imaginings about Amy, and the Dark Fall.

The backstory presented at the beginning of the game is this: Amy, aged 11, disappeared. The Inspector was for some reason convinced that she was kidnapped by a local vagrant known as “Mr. Bones”, who he arrested. Apparently the Inspector was caught faking evidence against him, which ended both the Inspector’s career and any hope of finding out what really happened to Amy. Some time later, the Inspector seems to have attempted suicide.

Now, Amy appears several times throughout the game, in ghostly form, no older than when she vanished, demanding that the Inspector play childish games with her, then vanishing. Documents from her school days and from the Inspector’s investigation show her as having creepy powers, and befriending dark “angels”. The other ghosts in the hotel fear her, speak of her as the reason they’re trapped in the hotel. This can’t be taken completely literally, because they died decades before Amy was born. The words “Dark Fall” are spoken in reference to her.

Now, there are two ways of taking this. One is that the Dark Fall, which has existed since ancient times, has simply taken Amy’s form, or possessed her. (Can that happen? Can you possess a ghost?) The other is that this is all simply reflective of the Inspector’s mental state. The case of Amy is what brought him personally to his sorry state, so his mind turns her into a being of malevolence and power.

I mentioned how the ritual for freeing a ghost involves placing three significant objects. The Inspector perform something of the sort for either Amy, himself, or Mr. Bones, piecing together three dolls found throughout the game that Amy considers to be her “sisters” and placing them into mock graves that have been prepared for them in a room full of oversized scissors. On the way there, he has a breakdown in which he confesses/realizes that he didn’t just falsify evidence when he couldn’t make a case against Mr. Bones, he actually stabbed him to death. It’s not said what the murder weapon was, but my money’s on scissors.

Unlike the mostly free-roaming first two Dark Fall games, there’s a definite linear progression to Lost Souls, as you gain access to the floors of the hotel one at a time. Early on, you receive a key for room 3F, the last room on the topmost floor. Every ghost has its room, and this one is yours. Inside, with dream logic, it turns out to be the police interrogation room where the Inspector confronted Mr. Bones. Amy shows up, and you get a choice: “I need to go home”, she says, “but someone must stay. You are old and grey, you should stay.” If you refuse, you have one last puzzle to solve, and then wake up in the hospital; if you accept, she disappears, laughing, as you are consumed by darkness.

But why would you accept? In both interpretations of what Amy is, it seems like a bad idea. If she’s a demon, the last thing you want to do is set her free. If she’s just a figment of your unprocessed guilt, leaving her behind is clearly the first step toward healing. So the choice reminds me a bit of the Little Sisters in Bioshock in its obviousness, except that there the obvious choice was to save the little girl, and here it’s just the opposite.

Lost Souls: Ghost Stories

Another repeated pattern in Dark Fall: Lost Souls comes to the fore in the later parts. Or not so much a pattern as a ritual, a multi-stage process for laying ghosts to rest.

It starts with a text message from the mysterious stranger who goes by the name “Echo”, telling you that a new guest has checked into the hotel. After procuring a formerly-absent key from the lobby, you go to their room, where you can move back and forth between 2010 and (a vision of) 1947. The disembodied voice of the person who stayed in that room talks to you while you’re there, commenting on things you examine, in both time periods. (There’s some unfortunately conspicuous reuse of lines.) Ultimately, you have to find three specific items of importance to that person, no more and no less, and put them onto a table or other surface in the present. Now, at this point I’m just doing what the UI lets me. Only certain indicated spots can have items used on them, and only the specific items they require will do anything, so when you find a table that can have items put on it, it’s not hard to find out by experiment out what it’s willing to receive. But if there’s an in-fiction justification for the Inspector knowing what to do, I’ve missed it.

Once the items are in place, you can have an actual conversation with the ghost, in the course of which you will be prompted to remind them of details of their backstory that you learned over the course of snooping around the room. This fits into the theme of recovering memories: you’re giving the ghosts exactly the kind of help that the Inspector himself needs, because they’re all in basically that same position as you. I said before that the whole game seems to be a dream that the Inspector is having in a hospital after a suicide attempt. All the ghosts in the hotel are suicides.

The ghosts are kind of hard to reconcile with the dream business, though. They’re largely the same ghosts as in Dark Fall: The Journal, and there’s information about them here that the Inspector could not possibly have known. For example, one of them was secretly an infamous bank robber known as Sly Fox. In The Journal, you could find her loot stashed under the floorboards. In Lost Souls, it’s still there. As I’ve said about other games, it might be a dream, but it’s clearly not just a dream.

Now, the game is kind of subtle about communicating this, but: helping the ghosts seems to work by actually altering history. It’s like your final conversation after placing the three objects isn’t really with a ghost, but across time, with a living person, who you talk out of suicide. Well, it’s hardly the first time I’ve altered the past in a Dark Fall game. It just usually happens all at once at the game’s end, not piecemeal throughout. It seems likely that the Inspector is headed for the same conclusion, reaching into his own past to prevent his own suicide. Maybe he’ll even talk to himself and fill in his own backstory. We’ll see.

Lost Souls: Putting Together the Pieces

Apart from the hunt-for-hotspots and find-key-to-open-door aspects, which are more like emergent properties than mechanics in themselves, there’s one thing puzzle type that Dark Fall: Lost Souls uses more than any other: the jigsaw-style assembly minigame. There was a puzzle like this back in Dark Fall: The Journal, but only one. Here in Lost Souls, there’s a torn-up (or cut-up) document of some sort in pretty much every new area you open up.

These documents seldom seem at all pertinent, honestly. There’s a lot of newspaper front-pages and magazine covers, some with scribbles and scrawls on them, like a particular person scratched over in a photograph. But you have to restore them to be arbitrarily allowed to continue with things. The last one I encountered was necessary to get a ghost talking to me, but was it necessary at all? Isn’t this stuff just filler?

Well, mostly, yeah. But I can see some thematic justification for it as a repeated element. Remember that this has turned out to be a game about recovering memories. Piecing together obliterated words and images seems like an apt symbol for that.

What’s more, it dovetails with another repeated image: scissors. I remember a pair of scissors stuck in a wall back in Dark Fall: The Journal. Like so much else that was memorable about that game, Lost Souls turns it up to eleven. Here, the author really wants to club you over the head with symbols, and so fills rooms with them. There’s a room with dozens of pairs of scissors stuck into a bloodstained mattress, and other caches of them besides, sometimes uncomfortably juxtaposed with another repeated image: eyes. You use scissors from that mattress to extract glass eyes wedged into cracks. Your first glimpse of the scissor-mattress room is through a peephole, specifically exposing your eye to the blades in a way that makes the player character express discomfort. Even the main menu is shown on a background consisting of a hallway covered with drawings of eyes, and uses a pair of scissors as the mouse cursor — an uncomfortable UI choice, giving us a pointer with two points!

Scissors combined with eyes yields permanent blindness. This is the game’s threat. But scissors applied to paper produces a loss that can be recovered through diligent effort. This is the game’s promise.

I’m not entirely satisfied with this analysis, though, because in the player’s hands, scissors are more a tool of revelation than obfuscation. You use them to break through barriers, prying up loose floorboards and the like to uncover what the past has concealed. And I’ve recently discovered that you can use them to kill the Gross Things I had been finding, which has a general cleansing effect on the area, removing filth and darkness and opening up new avenues for exploration. But then, the first Gross Thing I encountered turned out to be hinting towards the dire truth, so maybe what I’m really doing there is blinding myself by extending the illusion. But the illusion is the thing I can explore, so I pretty much have to take it.

Lost Souls: Massive Spoiler Time

I’ve hit a point in the game that all but outright tells me that everything I’ve seen so far is a hallucination.

It happens when, for the first time in the entire series, there’s a puzzle with a time limit. The puzzle is a simple matter of repairing a television by rotating some tiles and trying to match colors, but while you do it, you’re menaced by a lurking monster. It’s a sort of distorted human figure that seems to be made mostly of arms, with no head — I didn’t get a very good look at it, though, because its appearance provided extra impetus to pay attention to the tiles instead. This freak of nature materializes briefly, then vanishes, then appears again a little closer, and so forth, until either you back out of the puzzle (which causes it to revert to its starting state), or until it gets so close that you wake up in terror. And the time limit is short enough to basically guarantee that the latter will happen at least once before you solve it.

The waking up doesn’t last long, and you just wind up back outside the room with the monster afterwards. You first get a confused jumble of images flashing by — the same images that I had seen when I tried to touch the gross thing in the bathroom sink. They showed two items that are in your inventory from the beginning, a bottle of pills and a bottle of vodka. I hadn’t really processed what they were trying to tell me at the time, but now, it’s all followed by opening your eyes to the hospital operating table lights above you and hearing alarmed doctor-like shouts of “We’re losing him!” and such. And now it seems clear that the player character, the still-nameless Inspector, attempted suicide shortly before the start of the game.

It all seems very Silent Hill 2 all of the sudden — particularly considering that this revelation is preceded by finding a television in a hotel room. I need to be interpreting what I see as symbols of the Inspector’s mental state rather than taking them at face value. And yet I still need to think in terms of literal, physical puzzles: unlocking doors, repairing machines, etc. It seems to me that this emphasis on the practical is part of what makes the suppressed-knowledge theme work as well as it does. I spend most of my time methodically searching rooms for hotspots and loose items, my mind far from the backstory that the Inspector is trying to not think about. The pills and vodka are right there in front of me every time I open my inventory, but as long as I’m thinking in terms of how I can use things, I won’t be wondering why they’re there.

Lost Souls: Tonal Shift

I’ve described some of the mechanical differences between Dark Fall: Lost Souls and its two predecessors, but the tonal differences are even more striking. The second game was set in a different place and time than the first, and veered into sci-fi where the first stayed firmly supernatural, but nonetheless the two games had pretty much the same feel: the feel of the lonely Mystlike, augmented by glimpses of the uncanny. The feel of exploring someplace desolate and unsettling, but not exactly dangerous. They were ghost stories, but not horror stories.

Lost Souls is more horror. Partly it’s the horror of the gross. The hotel’s dining room makes you dig through decaying meat to find things, and there’s something odd in one of the bathroom sinks, something red and slick that looks like an internal organ, but seems to be alive and fitfully breathing, making sounds like a clogged nose. The previous games had nothing like this. They were more about dust and cobwebs than blood and other fluids.

Partly it’s the horror of guilt, like in Amnesia or Silent Hill 2, where you’re somehow to blame and you can’t remember why. The backstory involves and eleven-year-old girl who went missing five years ago, and the player character seems to be the police inspector who was assigned to the case and failed to find her. Posters showing the girl’s face are all over, and I’ve gotten taunting phone calls and text messages holding me responsible for whatever it was that happened to her. The known facts don’t seem to support such blame, but that just means we’re heading for some kind of dire revelation. In contrast, the first game made you just a random innocent trapped in someone else’s story, and in the second, the accusations leveled at the player character by history were blatantly wrong.

(A side note: In the previous two games, the protagonist was silent, as is usual in Mystlikes. Here, the PC occasionally talks aloud, in a worried British baritone. This was so unexpected that I didn’t understand it at first, and assumed that the voice I heard was from some unseen NPC. When the player character utters words that don’t come from the player, it tends to establish that the PC is distinct from the player, for good or ill. Perhaps I would have thought of Benjamin Parker more as a character than as a proxy for myself if he had spoken aloud in Lights Out. Here in Lost Souls, I think the PC’s voice helps me to remember that he’s personally involved, but at the same time makes that involvement his, not mine.)

The thing is, I think horror is actually what Boakes was aiming for throughout the series. I mean, if he just wanted to tell a ghost story in Dark Fall: The Journal, he didn’t need to put a demon at the end. The real difference is that he’s being less subtle about it now.

Lost Souls: Searching to See

It strikes me that, in addition to their shared themes and shared characters, the Dark Fall games have some common actions, things that the player has to do in all of them to make progress in the beginning. And, appropriately enough for a series named for darkness, they’re all things that help you see. You need to turn on the electricity to light up the site and enable basic exploration. You need to find a portable light source for the few remaining dark corners. And you need to find ghost-hunting goggles to reveal secrets.

I haven’t found any ghost-hunting goggles yet in Lost Souls, but I assume they’re around somewhere, because they seem like an essential part of the character of the series, much like Silent Hill‘s breast-pocket flashlights or Final Fantasy‘s airships. The portable light source this time around is just a flashlight app on your cell phone, part of your inventory from the very beginning. The game makes sure you find it by starting you off in complete darkness. It seems reasonable that it’s not bright enough to light up entire rooms, though, and thus you still need to get the electricity working.

This was the chief accomplishment of my last session, and it’s considerably more involved than in the previous two games. In Dark Fall: The Journal, your ghostly helper (or spirit guide?) tells you without prompting where to go and what to do, so all that remains for the player is a fairly simple self-contained machine puzzle. Here in Lost Souls, in the same setting, the only ghost I’ve met speaks in unintelligible backwards-masked gibberish, and the door to the power shed is blocked with a firmness that left me unsure whether I was supposed to try to get in there at all. And for good reason: the author clearly wants you to explore the grounds thoroughly before making any serious attempt at it.

We know this because activating the lights requires several inventory items that are scattered all over in hard-to-notice ways. All of the Dark Fall games have an emphasis on thorough exploration, to the point of expecting you to inspect blank walls, but here in the new engine it’s more burdensome, because there’s three times as many places to look: where the typical camera position in the first two games had hotspots for turning left and right, the default now includes up and down views as well. I haven’t yet found anything important by looking upward, but I’m sure I will at some point, and I’m fairly certain there won’t be anything indicating where I need to do this, so the upshot is that I have to do it everywhere. Add in the smooth transition animations that I was praising in my last post, and the result is that diligent exploration takes a great deal of time now.

Dark Fall: Lost Souls

The third Dark Fall game was released five years after the second, long enough for the author, Jonathan Boakes — who, I’ve learned, is basically a one-man game studio — to learn a new and different engine. No more Made with Macromedia: this apparently uses a modified version of the Wintermute engine, although it uses it in a way I haven’t seen in other Wintermute games, which tend to be 2D side-view point-and-click affairs. Instead, we’re still in Mystlike territory, with fixed first-person camera positions that you click between, although it has QuickTime VR or something equivalent providing smooth transitions when you rotate in place, which is rather nice. It strikes me that I haven’t seen QTVR used in quite some time, ever since 3D modeling took over the industry.

The setting for at least the first part of the game is the same abandoned train station and hotel as Dark Fall: The Journal. It seems to be haunted again, even though I changed history so that it was never haunted in the first place. We’ll see what that’s about. The passage of time has changed the place as much as it’s changed the engine. It was already decrepit and water-stained in 2002, but it’s even moreso now. There’s new graffiti in the tunnels (supplementing the old familiar graffiti in the restrooms), there are large plants growing between the tracks, and formerly-passable structures have completely collapsed. Honestly, it’s amazing how much it’s deteriorated in five years given how intact it was sixty years or so after being abandoned. It’s still completely recognizable as the same place, though. I remember the backstory in the first game involved someone surveying the site for a new development project. I guess that deal fell through.

It occurs to me that there are other games that pull this trick, of revisiting locations from earlier games in the series and showing how they changed in the interval. It’s a theme that I think games can probably do better than other media, due to their ability to emphasize setting just by putting the player into an environment and telling them to explore it. Some obvious examples: The 11th Hour (sequel to The 7th Guest), Escape from Monkey Island, the one ending branch of Myst V where you revisit Myst Island, Ultima V-VII (and, in a different way, The Serpent Isle). It seems like the general trend is for the setting to decay and fall apart between games. Are there any games that show a setting improving?

Lights Out: Time to go home

I suppose that hitting the ending prematurely gave me a sense of license. I wound up impatiently looking at walkthroughs to find the rest of the story, and was puzzled by the fact that they seemed to differ from what I had played in a number of small details. It turns out to be the difference between the original release and the “director’s cut”. Most walkthroughs cover only the former, but the latter is what’s on Steam. I hadn’t even considered that the Steam version might be significantly different from the CD-ROM. Would I need to play both to satisfy my sense of completion?

After finishing the game, I inspected the walkthroughs in detail, and the differences between the versions are not great. Mostly the director’s cut shifts information around a bit, putting more content into the player’s path and cutting out some shortcuts that would allow you to miss stuff. A couple of obtuse-UI puzzles are gone, and to make up for it, a couple of combination lock solutions are split into two pieces and hidden separately. I think what I played is probably an overall improvement, but I don’t understand why certain random things like the access code to the museum’s front door got changed. It’s just a four-digit number. Using a different four-digit number doesn’t significantly alter the player experience.

Most of my final session was spent in a fourth time period that I had failed to find without hints, although I should have suspected it existed for symmetry reasons: the final puzzle involves a sequence of four glyphs, and each of the three ages I had found contained one of them. I really think this age is too hard to find. The sole entrance isn’t even a photograph like the other magic goggles transit points. It’s just a brick wall. The original release provided an alternate entrance through a photograph, but it skips the entire introduction to the area. I imagine it was intended mainly as a quick exit rather than an entrance, but wound up being a lot easier to find than the proper entrance, and so it got cut. This could have used some more iteration, frankly.

This fourth age is the year 2090, when the lighthouse is long gone. The site is instead home to a deep space research facility, now just as deserted as the lighthouse was, and for the same reasons. Between the stark metal corridors, the red emergency lighting, and the time travel, I was strongly reminded of the first Journeyman Project. The staff quarters area is kind of like the Ghosthunter HQ in the previous game: it’s what fills in the rest of the story. It also has most of the game’s inventory items, and a sudden resurgence of Doctor Who references. 1One of the major characters — the glowing possessed guy in this time period — is named “Griel Magnus“. Long-range teleportation is called “transmat“. A “Doctor Romana” is mentioned. There’s a very familiar-looking “laser screwdriver“. Ironically, when you find some old sci-fi TV comics in one of the bedrooms, they’re of Sapphire and Steel. So this area is pretty much the heart of the game, which makes it all the worse that it’s so easy to miss.

At any rate, I have most of an explanation of what was going on. The people of 2090 know all about Malakai, because they built it. Malakai is a space probe with artificial intelligence, teleportation capability, and some kind of matter-manipulation device. That metal barrel I found in the past doesn’t just contain Malakai, it is Malakai. Something went wrong when it was launched, and it wound up returning to Earth thousands of years earlier, with its on-board ethical watchdog severely damaged. Everything it’s done since then, including possessing people and imprisoning souls, was for one purpose: manipulating you into finding it and entering the return coordinates so it can go back where it came from and complete its mission. But being so manipulated is not such a bad thing. When you finally do it, you do it in the distant past, which means Malakai leaves before it can commit any of its crimes. Just like in Dark Fall: The Journal, your victory rewrites history.

Now, this leaves something to be desired as an explanation. Leave aside the question of how the time travel works — I can accept that Malakai is facilitating it somehow. The thing that bothers me is how you get the return coordinates. Everything you enter into Malakai’s interface at the end of the game is revealed to you by the goggles, burned into the landscape in ghost energy, usually in ways that are difficult to understand. Is this Malakai’s doing? Does Malakai know the coordinates, then? If so, wasn’t there some more straightforward way for it to use them than by scattering them through the centuries in the form of ghost riddles? Maybe to a machine anything that works is good enough. Or maybe I’m just supposed to chalk it up to insanity. Either way, I find it unsatisfying. I can accept contrived adventure-game puzzles on their own terms, or with a touch of supernatural handwaving, but if you’re going to say it’s all the doing of a certain character in your story, I’m going to want it to make sense in terms of that character’s motivations. Even if those motivations are just “It seemed like a good idea at the time”.

References   [ + ]

1. One of the major characters — the glowing possessed guy in this time period — is named “Griel Magnus“. Long-range teleportation is called “transmat“. A “Doctor Romana” is mentioned. There’s a very familiar-looking “laser screwdriver“. Ironically, when you find some old sci-fi TV comics in one of the bedrooms, they’re of Sapphire and Steel.

Lights Out: Goggle Progress

I made a lot of progress in my last session, despite my expectations. I started off stuck in a very specific way: everything seemed to be giving me hints about a combination lock on a hidden storage room in 1912, but the time tunnel was now collapsed, leaving me no way to get back there. I suppose I could have used the adventurer’s implicit time travel device, which is to say, I could have restarted the game, but I wasn’t yet ready to take things that far. I still wanted to cooperate with the game, do to things by the rules.

The way back turned out to involve looking at old photographs with my stolen ghost-hunter goggles, which makes me wonder what’s going on with Parker. Time travel definitely isn’t a capability of the goggles themselves, and recall that Parker managed to do something similar without the goggles back in the beginning. Maybe he really is a ghost after all? But no, the ghosts in this world don’t show up in photographs, and Parker does (as you discover when you fiddle with Polly’s camera).

The goggles work a bit differently from the ones in the previous game. Instead of putting a ghost-revealing aura around the cursor, they just put the whole screen into goggle-vision. I don’t think I like this as much, as it engages the player less. As before, you can only activate them in certain camera views, identified by a beep. The beep is, as far as I can tell, the only way of knowing where the goggles are usable; there’s no way of predicting where you’ll need to use them without just going there. So basically, once you get them goggles, you revisit every place you’ve been, hoping for new info that may or may not be there — particularly in 1912, where you didn’t have the goggles on your first go-round. This is actually somewhat fortuitous, because re-examining everything is pretty much what I was planning on doing while I was stuck anyway. Searching for goggle-spots turned up some new documents that I might have missed otherwise.

The locked storeroom led to a third time period, in the stone age. And this turned out to contain the endgame, although I didn’t understand this until I triggered an ending by accident. It all comes down to a metal barrel with a complicated computerized lock, anachronistic but not alien, the combination to which is scattered in pieces throughout the rest of the game, often in cryptic ways. I hadn’t found all of the combination, but I had enough that I could brute-force the rest, and by this point, after goggling the whole lighthouse in two centuries, I was feeling less cooperative and rule-bound. At any rate, despite having seen the closing cutscene, I clearly haven’t seen the whole story. I never met up with Polly, for one thing. And I still don’t have any clear idea of what opening the barrel was supposed to accomplish. It seems like the story’s villain, a sort of electronic demon called Malakai, was locked in there, and that unlocking it set him free. Perhaps he’s less malevolent than he seems? Anyway, I’ll be going back in, to finish the game the right way. I’ve been taking a lot of time between sessions so far, but knowing how close I am to the end should encourage me.

I have some worry that my lack of understanding of the plot is in part caused by my difficulty in understanding Malakai’s electronically distorted voice. He talks to Parker through the goggles sometimes, and I can understand maybe half of what he says. The half that I do understand is mostly just generic villain taunts, but still, I’d be a lot happier if the game offered subtitles.

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