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.

Lights Out as Thinly-Veiled Doctor Who Fanfic

At one point in Dark Fall: The Journal, the player has access to an character’s smartphone and can read his recent emails. One of them was a reminder to renew his membership to a Doctor Who fan club. I read this as the writer trying to show that this character was a bit of a nerd. After all, this game was made in 2002, three years before the show was revived, which means he was still an active fan — active enough to pay fan club dues — of a show that had been canceled 13 years ago.

Lights Out was written by a different author, with a different perspective. [Correction: Both games have the same author. I don’t know why I thought differently.] Rather than mocking Doctor Who fans as nerds, he’s sending out dog-whistles to let them know he’s one of them. There’s a Sarah Jane mentioned in the historical materials in the lighthouse museum, as well as repeated mention of an oceangoing vessel called the Ribos. And of course the whole business of a glowing madman in a lighthouse is basically lifted from The Horror of Fang Rock. Apparently the Doctor even quotes the Flannan Isle poem at one point in Fang Rock.

And even apart from these directly-referential details, much of the story’s shape so far just feels Doctor Who-ish. It starts with a period piece, then throws in a mysterious anachronism. Some of the best episodes of classic Who started the same way. It gives us the framework of a ghost story, but then starts giving the ghosts sci-fi explanations like time travel and possibly aliens — one document mentions a large cylindrical object falling from the sky. And it’s all about figuring out what’s really going on, which is a large part of Doctor Who‘s charm — much of the time, the Doctor’s initial motivation for getting involved in the story is curiosity. This, it strikes me, is a point where licensed Doctor Who games have generally fallen down, by focusing mainly on confrontations with well-known bad guys.

Now, there are enough references to characters from Dark Fall: the Journal — most notably Polly White — to make it clear that this game takes place in the same universe, if not exactly the same timeline. And that makes the shift to the Doctor Who world-view strange, because the events of the previous game were pretty definitively supernatural, involving actual ghosts and evil spirits rather than time-travel and extraterrestrials. I suppose Lights Out could be about to retcon it all into rationalism, but that seems disrespectful. No, as far as I can see right now, we just have two coexisting stories, one about ghosts that are ghosts and one about ghosts that are not ghosts.

Lights Out: The Twist

Things took a major turn in my latest session. I finally found a cave that had been mentioned once or twice in the lighthouse keepers’ notes, with the aid of a map found in a locked drawer in a locked room — see, this is how to do hard-to-notice hotspots right. Let us pass them by, then tell us there was something we missed, and then, if that’s not enough, give us more explicit help. And what was in the cave? A tunnel through time. It’s daytime on the other side, and more importantly, it’s the future, which is to say, the present. This is not something I was expecting, even with the anachronistic disc I had already found.

The lighthouse is a museum now, with a snack bar outside, some kind of exhibit about the island’s role in World War II, and bunch of plaques containing random facts about lighthouses and a truly excessive number of quotations from that Flannan Isle poem. Random objects that you were able to pick up and inspect back in the previous chapter are now behind glass and labeled. There are books in the gift shop about the vanished keepers — and one of the popular theories is that they were killed by the player character, Benjamin Parker. They don’t know that he was sent there to investigate disappearances that had not yet been made public; all they know is that he went out to the island for unknown reasons, and shortly afterward it was discovered that everyone was missing. Well, I had already learned that the man who sent him there was up to no good, and that Drake, the lighthouse keeper who went mad, was anticipating Parker’s arrival, but it’s unclear just what the scheme is. Maybe Drake knew Parker was coming because he had read the books too. He definitely knew about the tunnel.

Also at the site is Polly White, one of the ghost-hunters from the first game. Nigel doesn’t seem to be with her this time. You can find her camera, which has a few selfies on it. They’re rendered in CGI, rather than as a scanned photo of a live actor like Nigel’s selfies from before, so presumably we’re going to be meeting her. This makes it seem like we’re supposed to be adding “find the lady” to our list of goals, which fits with the rugged seagoing Edwardian bishounen thing that Parker’s got going on to form a potential time-crossed lovers scenario. For the moment, though, Polly is hiding from me, because she thinks I’m a ghost. Which, given her vocation, also means she’s hunting me, observing me from distance. If she still had her camera, she’d probably be taking photographs.

There’s one odd thing that the format does to that story. Your man-out-of-his-own-time is supposed to fumble with modern technology, be baffled and amazed by it as part of coming to terms with the unfamiliar (as a metaphor for the early stages of courtship). Parker, though, is under the control of the player. When you see a computer with a floppy disk drive, you know exactly what to do with it. The mysteries are elsewhere.

Dark Fall 2: Lights Out

Dark Fall 2: Lights Out (or Lights Out: Dark Fall 2; the game itself isn’t entirely consistent about this) isn’t a direct sequel to the first game. It shifts the setting from Dorset to Cornwall, and from the approximate present day to 1912. This time around, the primary setting is an ominous lighthouse, where three men disappeared without a trace one day, leaving nothing but “a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal, and an overtoppled chair”.

That’s a quote from The Ballad of Flannan Isle, which the game is loosely based on, and which it quotes liberally. The ballad is in turn inspired by a real event. The poem leaves the mystery unsolved, as it is in real life. The likeliest theories involve inclement weather and rogue waves and lack of proper safety precautions, but apparently there were more fantastical speculations at the time, involving things like ghost ships and sea serpents. Even the poem can be read as suggesting that the lighthouse keepers were turned into birds. The game, of course, comes down firmly on the side of supernatural explanations. Mysterious disappearances were the modus operandi of the Dark Fall back in the first game, and I’ve already found notes indicating that one of the three lighthouse keepers went mad and then started glowing.

So far, I think I like this game better than the first one. It’s done a better job of conveying the story in its early stages, at least, creating a sense of mystery rather than of confusion, and the emphasis on atmosphere combines really well with the nautical theming. And it pulls some playful formal tricks. In the starting area, there’s a journal written by the player character, which contains a reminiscence about another place where he’d rather be than Cornwall. Reach that point in the journal, and the game shifts into a reverie, an interactive flashback, signaled by fuzzy edges on the viewport. I’ve found an inventory item in that state, and brought it back with me to the real world. I can believe that this is a bug, but right now, I’m inclined to see it as deliberate, especially considering how weird that item is. It’s the one concrete thing I’ve seen that suggests a link to Dark Fall: The Journal: a 3 1/2 inch floppy disc, labeled “Hadden Industries”. Yes, in 1912. Like I said: it’s wasting no time at creating a sense of mystery.

Hadean Lands: Stack Shenanigans

I almost regret taking off the wrapper.I’ve received the last of my Kickstarter rewards for Hadean Lands: a copy of the game on CD-ROM, which Zarf accurately identifies as more a memento than a medium, a token of a game you’ve probably already downloaded and finished by the time the discs were mailed out. Nonetheless, it is a game on a physical medium, and that creates some problems for the Oath.

The Oath in its current form was written on the assumption that if I acquire any games on physical media, it’s because I haven’t played them yet. Taking the terms of the Oath strictly, I now have a CD that I duly played and blogged from start to finish while the Oath was active, but which went directly into the Trophy Case without passing through the Stack. This isn’t how I intended things to work. So I’m going to change the phrasing of the Oath slightly to recognize anomalous cases like this, and claim my self-granted reward for the posts I’ve already written.

There’s one other iffy matter, though. Hadean Lands isn’t actually the only game on the disc. It also contains a folder with 20 other games by Zarf — 19 previously released works plus one incomplete prototype. I played most of them to completion back when they were first released, but do the ones I haven’t completed count as on the Stack now? Even the ones I’ve completed are arguably in the same position as Hadean Lands itself. Ah, but there is in fact precedent for bonus text adventures on this blog. When I played the bonus text adventure included with Icebreaker, I didn’t count it as a separate game on the Stack, even though I did post about it. That very game is on the HL CD as well, and it would be strange to suddenly declare that it counts here but not there. And if it doesn’t, none of them do.

Dark Fall: Light Rise

I ultimately gave up and consulted a walkthrough to find the final missing word, apprehensive about accidentally reading spoilers for other things even though there really wasn’t anything left to spoil. It turns out that I had seen the word already. It was just presented in a way that was too subtle for me.

And with that, I could conclude my part of the story, trapping the Dark Fall and freeing all the spirits it had been holding, in some cases for centuries. The closing cutscene shows them in the form of points of light, rising up through a peculiar funnel-like structure in the ceiling. Then it shows a number of changes happening throughout the site that seem to indicate that you freed them retroactively, making it so that the spirits were never trapped at all, there were no disappearances and no investigation. One of the more famous disappearances occurred in the 17th century, and is the basis of the a folk song that you can see framed on a wall; this vanishes before your eyes. So this can’t possibly actually be the same ritual that trapped the beastie in the first place, because obviously it wasn’t written out of history yet when you first arrived.

I suppose it’s a good thing that they got to do a sequel, because there’s quite a lot left unresolved. My suspicions about Hadden Industries were never addressed, nor was the peculiar behavior of their equipment. I never did learn anything from talking to the ghosts that I didn’t also learn from documents. There’s some slight suggestion that the player character is dead and doesn’t know it — in the end, the player’s view seems to fly up through the ceiling with the rest of the spirits. But if so, your death is erased from history along with everything else. I’ll be continuing with Lights Out: Dark Fall 2 shortly, and keeping an eye out for answers.

Overall, this game is actually a pretty satisfying specimen of its type, despite all my complaints. It’s got a good variety of puzzles, including a few that require you to put together information from both documents and the environment. I do think it would be improved by some way to highlight hotspots, though. And even that much would be inadequate for some. In most places, you can rotate the camera to face any of the cardinal directions, even if that means facing a blank wall. One of my last breakthroughs was realizing that there was a hotspot to go through a gap in a fence that I hadn’t actually looked at since my initial foray. Perhaps this is part of the author’s intent; perhaps making discoveries by assiduously searching every surface is part of the desired experience. But if so, I say there’s just too much of it.

And there I go complaining again. Maybe I should just stop now and see if I can be more positive about Lights Out.

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