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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.

Dark Fall: Almost Done

I admit that my posts about this game have gotten a lot of small details wrong. For the most part, they’re not worth going back to correct, but there’s one rather large point I feel I need to set straight, incase it leads any future players astray. I said that, to perform the ritual that puts the lurking evil sometimes known as Dark Fall back into its cage, all I really needed to remember was the words, not the runes associated with them. This is sort of true: the ritual does only ask you for words. But noting which runes go with which words turns out to be crucial all the same. It turns out that the words have to be recited in the right order, and the ordering is given only in terms of runes.

This is a slight inconvenience for me, because I had been taking most of my notes in a text file rather than a physical sheet of paper, and obviously I can’t draw the game’s made-up glyphs in a text file. I made this choice mostly because it accommodated playing in the dark, which seemed appropriate for both the game’s palette and its subject matter. When I found a rune, I turned a light on long enough to copy it down. But I stopped doing this when I thought it was unnecessary. And so I’ve had to go through the game and re-solve puzzles I had already solved to fill in the runes my notes were missing.

And that occupied my latest short session. At this point, I have all of the runes, but I’m still one magic word shy of victory, and who knows how much random poking around I’ll need to do to find it? I suppose the next step is to try to remember where I found the one rune that I don’t have a word for, on the basis that the word, or at least hints for where to find it, it will be nearby. Once again, I wish I had taken better notes!

Dark Fall: Goggle Guess

I said before that the reveal-stuff goggles only work in some places. I think I’ve noticed a pattern to it. The goggles specifically work on spots that are in view of Polly and Nigel’s remote cameras.

This is strange. There is no obvious reason for the two things to interact in this way. The cameras themselves do have a tendency to flicker briefly to the same alternate view that the goggles reveal, but I had taken that to be just a matter of the two devices responding to those spots in the same way. You might think that the cameras were specifically placed to capture the phenomena detected by the goggles, but Polly and Nigels’ journals attest otherwise: they just put the cameras all over the place, before they had any notion what the good places would be. Polly actually saw a spook an the women’s bathroom and regretted having installed the camera in the men’s. So why is it that the goggles reveal stuff in the men’s bathroom only?

The obvious but strange answer is that the cameras are actually causing the stuff I’m seeing through the goggles. It’s worth mentioning here that all of this state-of-the-art ghosthunting equipment — goggles, cameras, computers, software the works — was gifted to Polly and Nigel by a generous patron, Hadden Industries, whose logo is an ominous omega. I’m guessing they have some sinister agenda, and that the cameras aren’t merely cameras. Possibly they want to weaponize the monster. In a different sort of game, that would be my first conclusion.

Dark Fall: Sound

5Before I wrap up the rest of the game, I’d like to comment on its use of sound. This is a game that relies on sound a lot. There are puzzles that are solved entirely from audio clues — for example, there’s a secret compartment opened by pressing a sequence of buttons, and the only clue to the sequence is that the click of a correct button press is different from that of an incorrect button press. Even the various ghostly voices count as audio-only clues, I suppose, as the game doesn’t support subtitles, a failing that would be almost impossible to imagine today.

But that isn’t really what I wanted to mention. It’s sound as ambiance that interests me here. There’s a large number of creaks, footsteps, snatches of song, and other noises that play at various times and places, usually pulled at random from location-specific pools. And they’re pretty good sounds, given the limitation of the recording quality. I assume the goal is to creep the player out, just like they would if you heard them when exploring an abandoned building at night for real. One thing that’s repeatedly mentioned in the game’s written matter is that the hotel’s lurking menace can be heard lumbering around on the other side of doors, and the very worst thing you can do is answer when it knocks.

But I don’t think the sounds work very well for that purpose here. They’re just too frequent to produce that sense of nervousness — and, for that matter, too definite. A sound when you were expecting silence can trigger the greatest sense of apprehension, largely, I think, because the brain interprets is as a sign that you’re not actually alone — that you’re in the presence of someone (or something) who is being very quiet, and is therefore up to no good. But in Dark Fall, you’re basically never alone to begin with. There are ghosts, and they talk to you, and they’re mostly pretty friendly. There’s also the fact that you’re never really in danger, because the game mechanics don’t even support danger as a concept, but I don’t want to overstate that. There’s another haunted house mystlike I recall, called Amber: Journeys Beyond, which gave me severe creeps at the time, even though it too had no real danger. It just had things like a shadow that moved a little for no apparent reason and a background hum that suddenly stops. This only really lasted for the first half of the game, mind you. After that, you started dealing with ghosts in more concrete terms, which, as in Dark Fall, took all the scare out of it.

There’s one sound gimmick that I find kind of interesting, though: the sound effects associated with some of the printed matter. Sometimes you’ll be reading someone’s diary, and a page will mention, say, a knock at the door, or a train pulling into the station or something. The sound of the thing described will play when you turn to that page, after enough of a delay to make it play at around the same time that you’re reading about it. I’ve said before that text with a soundtrack always feels a little weird to me, due to the confusion of levels involved, of trying to stimulate both the senses and the imagination at the same time. But for this game, it might be the right kind of weird. It’s unsettling, it pulls you out of the text, and that’s appropriate to the context, in which you’re supposed to be reading that text inside a haunted building.

Dark Fall: Progress and Plaints

I’ve made a great deal of progress since my last post, even though most of my playtime has been spent wandering around stuck due to missed hotspots. I found that important cellar I was looking for — as I had guessed, it was behind a hotspot I had missed. Just before stopping for the day, I finally found the subtitular Journal, which basically gives me all the remaining backstory. It was behind a particularly galling locked door. The way through this door was obvious: it was the old chestnut where they key is still in the keyhole on the other side of the door, so you poke it out and catch it with a sheet of paper slid underneath. (How is the room locked from the inside when there’s no one in it? I blame the ghosts.) The problem is that the game recognizes only one item as being capable of poking a key out of a keyhole, and that one item was on the other side of a hotspot I had missed. The galling part is that the whole environment was littered with plausible poking devices — pencils, pushpins, the chopsticks in Polly and Nigel’s Chinese take-out — which couldn’t even be tried because they were scenery items. Even worse, I had in my inventory another key for a different room of the hotel. Presumably it wouldn’t turn in the lock, but you’d think it would at least fit in. This is the sort of thing that text adventures usually handle a lot better than graphic adventures. Even if a text game just told you “That doesn’t fit” for each of the non-approved items, it would at least give you the satisfaction of acknowledging the attempt.

The cellar holds a doubly-secret passage to what is clearly the end-of-game room. Just getting into that passage involved putting together some information that I had previously thought to be merely atmospheric, and the passage itself is barred by three layers of floating glowing runes that function as mystical combination locks. I solved one of these locks the right way, but I brute-forced my way through the other two, because I was at the time otherwise stuck and didn’t have any better ideas. Brute-forcing a combination is mindless and unsatisfying, but so is searching for hotspots, and iterating through combinations is at least guaranteed to work eventually. Indeed, when you have only four floating runes in front of you, and reasonably assume that each is used at most once in the combination, you have only 24 possibilities to try. Nonetheless, this felt cheaty enough that I went back to an earlier save afterward to try to solve the runes as intended — but only after getting to the final room and seeing how it worked. I still have more to do back in the hotel before I can execute the end-of-game ritual, but at least I learned a thing or two. So once again I’m doing things in the wrong order, but at least this time I’m doing it consciously and deliberately.

Now, about that endgame. Although it isn’t obvious about it at first, Dark Fall is a treasure hunt at heart. There is a set of twelve runes written on scraps of parchment, and an associated magic word for each one, and you need to find them all. Often the rune and its incantation are found together, but sometimes they aren’t. I had been finding them haphazardly throughout the game, long before I knew what they were for or why they had been hidden. As such, the runes and words I’ve found are in my notes. But now, it seems like all I’ll really need is the words. You’re expected to type those in, so you have to know what they are. The runes become activated just as a result of finding them.

This is not the only place where you can type in words. There are a few ghosts you can talk to with typed words, including one that responds via Ouija. It took me a while to notice this, though. The talk prompt, like those hotspots I was complaining about, is easy to miss. The game’s documentation doesn’t seem to mention typing at all, and it uses a pretty weird UI for it. It appears in the lower right, visible only as a button labeled “SAY” or “ASK”. Your typed text appears to the left of this, and is right-aligned, so it moves leftward as you type it. When you’re done typing a query, you have to press the button with your cursor. It took me a while to realize that pressing the Enter key on your keyboard like you would in a normal text-entry interface does nothing. The result is that you have to keep moving your hand between mouse and keyboard, which isn’t ideal. If you typed something the ghost recognizes, your text disappears. If you didn’t, it doesn’t. I hope the sequels changed some of this, if they use a text entry interface at all.

Anyway, despite my best attempts, I have yet to get any useful information by conversing with ghosts. It is very much a guessing-game, and most guesses either are unrecognized or don’t go anywhere. It reminds me why guess-the-keyword has lost favor in text adventures, giving way to choice-based dialogue or suggested keyword lists. Maybe this aspect of the game will turn out to be non-crucial. Even if they do have useful things to say, a lot of the important clues in the game can be obtained from multiple sources. But I think it likely that I’ll need to get a word and/or rune directly from at least one of them — probably the Ouija ghost, because that one can show me the spelling.

Dark Fall: Ghosthunter HQ

Okay, the last post may have been overly harsh. The author actually does want the player to exhaustively search the hotel rooms, even the unoccupied ones, which, although less dense in pokable detail, do have a few important things hidden in them. Certainly there doesn’t seem to be any way to identify the door that the key from the teapot unlocks other than by just trying all the doors. And that’s actually a fairly good bit of player-manipulation, if I read the intent correctly, because it means you’ll have done a reasonable amount of exploring before opening it, and be all the more impressed with what you find as a result.

What you find is the room where supernatural investigators Polly and Nigel were staying shortly before the start of the story. Throughout the game, I’ve been finding the remote cameras that this pair stashed around the place, and now I have access to their data hub. This isn’t a surprise if you paid attention to that telephone call from beyond, but it is kind of surprising what a difference it makes to the experience. Up to this point, I had been straining to eke whatever information I could from the environment, trying to glean the various vanished persons’ roles and relationships. Now I have Polly’s files on each of them, confirming what I learned and filling in the gaps. At last, the story is on a solid footing, and I feel like I’m making good progress. I’m even pleased with just Polly and Nigel’s notes on little details of their investigation that tie into what I’ve seen, like how they had placed a thermometer I had found to monitor sudden temperature drops. (But why was it shut in a drawer? They had put it in front of a camera…)

Goggle goggle goggleIn addition, this room contains the game’s neatest gimmick: the goggles. I didn’t notice them at first, because they’re somewhat hidden, but they’re mentioned so often in the ghosthunters’ data that I searched the room again just to find them, and I’m glad I did. They’re some kind of high-tech electromagnetic imaging goggles, and when activated, they surround the cursor with a greenish binoculars-shaped aura that reveals things. With it, you can see the pictures that used to be on the walls, furniture that isn’t there any more, and spectral graffiti from some mad soul. But only a little bit at a time — reading the graffiti means waving the cursor over an entire wall to reveal as much as the aura covers while the rest of the wall stays normal. It’s a nice effect, and gives the scenes an interactivity beyond clicking on hotspots. It only works in certain specific places, though, and those places are hinted by a ghostly voice whispering “Here”. This seems like a cheat on the part of the designer. I know I’ve seen other games with similar mechanisms that can be applied anyplace, but I guess two versions of every single full-screen image was beyond this game’s budget.

Polly and Nigel’s notes on their investigation raise a couple of big questions. One is the matter of the cellar. Nigel in particular seems to have done most of his investigating down there, and it’s where he made some sort of vague but amazing discovery. It’s clearly an important place, but I haven’t seen any sort of cellar entrance at all. Maybe it’s only accessible from one of the few still-locked doors, but it’s also possible that I’ve just missed a hotspot somewhere, and knowledge of that possibility bothers me.

The other thing that puzzles me is the way that the two of them had to work for days to get even the slightest hint of ghost activity. My experience is that the whole place is a thick stew of ghosts, with disembodied voices or other phenomena in nearly every room — heck, the first ghost started talking to me before I even reached the station proper. Maybe this is just one of those ludonarrative dissonance things, with stuff happening more quickly than makes story-sense for game’s sake, like how the hero in a CRPG takes a matter of days to become the greatest warrior in the world and solve problems that baffled the greatest NPC minds for centuries. Or maybe there’s an in-story explanation. Either the player character is unusually sensitive to this stuff for mysterious but probably destined reasons, or there’s just been a sudden spike in manifestations, probably caused by whatever Nigel unearthed in the cellar. We’ll see.

Dark Fall: Wrong Orders

Not much progress in my last session, beyond revisiting places and taking better notes this time. I’m starting to think I’ve been approaching this game wrong. I started out the way I’d start any mystlike: by exploring the entire accessible environment. In fact, most of the rooms of the hotel are empty and uninteresting, apart from atmospheric details like ominous and incomprehensible muttering heard in one room, or a pair of scissors embedded in the wall in another. Only a few have details you can inspect more closely, drawers you can open, and so forth. When I went back to the lobby again (finding a few more clues in the process), I think I finally understand the purpose of those breakfast orders I had noticed before: each one mentions a room number. Those specific rooms are ones of interest. It makes sense, I suppose. The orders show that those rooms had guests in them immediately before the hotel was completely abandoned.

Then there’s the matter of the telephones. There are two: one in the lobby that rings spontaneously when you enter the room, one by the station waiting room that you have to use a coin on. In both cases, on my first interaction with them, all I heard was a sound like a radio being tuned. It turns out that I was too impatient. If you sit and wait on the phone long enough, eventually you get a voice on the other end, giving you some slight orientation. One of the voices says to find a key that he hid in a teapot, although he can’t remember where he left the teapot. This could have lent some meaning to my earlier explorations. There are multiple teapots around, so every time I saw one, I could have been thinking “Maybe that’s the one!” But in fact, by the time I heard the hint, I had already found the key.

There’s a problem here, and it has two halves. One half is that the stuff that the author wants to hint at is too easy to find without those hints. The hotel isn’t large enough to discourage exhaustive exploration. Interactive details are sparse enough that each one of them attracts interest even if you don’t have the context that’s supposed to motivate that interest. The other half is that the motivating context is far too unobtrusive. I suppose that the ringing telephone was supposed to be a solution to this, and it certainly got me to head straight for the phone and pick it up, but it was derailed when I didn’t hear anything useful. Put the two halves together, and you have solutions that are easier to find than clues. There’s actually a general source of gentle hints, an invisible friendly ghost who hangs out on the bridge over the train tracks, but he’s the worst of all. As the ghost warns, he can only help you if you come directly to him from the thing you want help on, but there isn’t any obvious direct route to the bridge from most of the hotel, so I’ve only managed to get him to comment on one puzzle located very near the bridge. It all seems like the sort of thing you get when an author makes assumptions about what players will do, instead of doing adequate playtesting.

There are other cases where things went in the right order, mind you. For example, I found the correct coordinates for the theodolite puzzle by reading a journal, rather than by twiddling the theodolite at random. But that was just good luck. I did find the theodolite and spend some time twiddling it first.

Dark Fall: UI

There’s a clunkiness to interacting with Dark Fall. It’s mostly just the clunkiness endemic to Macromedia Director mystlikes, of waving the cursor around to look for hotspots, and of not being sure whether clicking on a journal page will turn the page or close the journal. But it’s also got some clunkiness all its own as well.

Mainly it’s about hotspots going away. Let’s say you find a desk. You click on the desk and it goes to a close-up view from which you see a drawer. Click on the drawer and it opens, without leaving that view. When you’re finished looking in the drawer, you might try to back out to the main view of the room, only to discover that you can’t. As long as the drawer is open, the hotspot to leave the desk is gone. You have to close the drawer first. Most games of this sort would let you back out and, as a consequence, close the drawer automatically (by forgetting that it was open). Even weirder, there’s one close-up view I’ve seen where there are two drawers visible, and you can only open one at a time. If you open the left drawer, you have to close it in order to open the right drawer.

It makes it seem like most things are modeled simply as a graph. Moving from place to place in an adventure game usually means moving between nodes of a graph, and in a first-person game with discrete and unmoving camera positions, each camera position is a node on a graph, including the close-up view of the desk. But here, opening a drawer or examining a newspaper also moves you to a new node on the same graph, no different from walking into another room. Not everything is modeled this way; there exist a few machines and combination locks with multiple twiddlable controls. But they’re pretty sparse.

One other peculiar thing about the UI: its treatment of inventory. There is some small number of inventory items displayed at the top of the screen, which I suppose means it’s not a pure mystlike, but then, neither was Myst by that standard. And there are environmental objects that are clearly flagged as things you use inventory items on — when the cursor is over them, it changes into a stylized wrench. But the UI doesn’t support clicking on that wrench area with an inventory item. Instead, you just click on an item in your inventory, and if it has a use from your current camera position, it will be used. The wrench cursor looks like it’s a hotspot highlight, but it’s not. Perhaps this is another example of the graph-node mindset. Even the inventory is treated as links you can click on to transition to a different node.

Dark Fall: The Journal

There are three games in the Dark Fall series. I have the first two on physical media, although I never got around to playing far past the opening scene of the first one. I’ve somehow acquired all three on Steam as well, and the third one has Steam trading cards, where they’ve been tantalizingly out of reach due to my stubborn insistence on playing games in order when possible. So I started again on the first last night, and have already seen a lot more of it than I did back in the day.

Dark Fall: The Journal is a Mystlike set in a abandoned and decaying hotel and railway station in Dorset, haunted by several people who went missing in the 1940s, as well as some vague Great Evil that was presumably responsible for their disappearance. The ghosts manifest mainly as disembodied voices, either talking to the player directly or repeating sound snippets from their lifetimes. It’s something of a period piece — the voices are stuck in the habits of their time, and even if the decor is moldering and weathered, it’s full or moldering and weathered period touches, largely in the advertisements around the station.

By now, the work as a whole seems like a period piece at the stylistic and technological level as well, all pre-rendered still images populated with cruder objects than you’d expect in realtime today. It must have been behind the technology curve even at its release in 2002, although it makes a good effort at hiding it by keeping things dimly-lit.

I think the reason I gave up on it the first time around was that I wanted puzzles, and it wasn’t giving me any. You can go for a good long time before encountering them. The focus is instead on exploration, atmosphere, and oodles of printed matter: letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, all giving backstory. Having just browsed around, I haven’t yet really got enough of a grip on the shape of the story to put the details together into something coherent. There seem to have been some people doing dangerous rituals, which probably summoned the lurking evil presence. Six people went missing, including a young boy. One of the guests was an actress who became a laughing-stock through a failed theatrical production, but I don’t know if she’s one of the ones who went missing or one of the ritualists or both. There were flood warnings. The station was closed. Closer to the present day, some ghost hunters showed up and put cameras in various places. There’s a strange emphasis on breakfast orders. I’ll probably need to start taking notes, associating names with room numbers and the like. I think it’s probably possible to reach the end of the game without taking the effort to understand the story — certainly the few puzzles I’ve solved so far have been simple adventure-game material, such as finding a lamp for a dark corridor or a combination for a lockbox. But putting together the backstory seems like it’s the point of the work.

Hadean Lands: Ending and Speculation

My last few sticking points in Hadean Lands weren’t about things I hadn’t discovered, but about things I had discovered and then forgotten about. There are enough one-use rituals in the game that it’s easy to assume that you don’t have to think about a thing any more after you’ve found one use for it, and there’s such a sheer quantity of stuff in the game that any such forgetting is a welcome simplification. I think that some of my earlier sticking points may have been blessings in disguise, because being unable to perform a ritual kept me from discarding it as already-used and kept me sensitive to additional uses.

That’s about all I can say about the ending without spoilers. So let’s get on with the spoilers already.

The ending itself is something of a downer, at least if you misread where the story is going as badly as I did. By the end, I had only two listed “doors” left: the fifteen “fractures” that I didn’t expect to actually get past in the game (mainly because the in-game map stopped at them), and the marcher’s main entrance in the portico. The latter was sealed shut, because the entire ship was stuck on a Hadean land — a planet without atmosphere — and opening any exterior door other than the airlock would be disastrous. To my mind, that meant that I had to get the marcher safely home, or at least to some more hospitable planet, before I could open the portico doors. This implied that I would see the marcher successfully reach home during gameplay. Opening those doors would be my ultimate moment of triumph.

I should have known better, considering the author’s track record. Zarf does not write triumphant endings. Zarf writes enigmatic endings. Completing the Great Marriage ritual in the proper location triggers a brief epilogue that puts you back at the moment when all hell broke loose, buried in rubble, and it’s as frenzied and confused as you’d expect an emergency on an alchemical spaceship to be — the text can’t even settle on what tense to use. Your actions are highly constrained, most commands producing just a “There’s no time for that”. You lose all the knowledge you accumulated over the course of the game. It’s not even entirely clear whether you’re controlling the same character as before. And the game leaves things in more or less that state when the story ends, with only some slight reassurance that things are going to be okay and that your actions have made some sort of difference.

It leaves open a lot of questions. What exactly happened to the marcher? Why are all the books in the library blank? Why are there alien glyphs on the walls, why are they so efficacious in dragon rituals, and why, once you can translate them, do they provide such good information about what you should be doing? Where did the new notes that appear after you perform the Great Marriage for the first time come from? There’s much fodder for speculation here, and not much to go on. But there is one thing that seems fairly clear, if you look at all the available information from the perspective of the endgame. And that is the nature of the player character, Ensign Forsyth.

For there’s definitely something peculiar about Forsyth. Examining yourself with the resonant oculus establishes that beyond a doubt — a touch that reminded me of the subtle and optional foreshadowing about the Jester in Zork Zero. But even if you don’t do that, there are hints in the very foundations of the game: the fact that you’re still moving around while everyone else is frozen in time, the way that you easily master rituals that are supposed to be far beyond the abilities of a mere swabbie. I speculated before that the PC is actually a homunculus, on the basis of nothing more than seeing that word scrawled on a clearly important scrap of paper. I changed my mind about that when I found another paper explaining what a homunculus really is: “a seed of animation without volition… It cannot act or move on its own; but in combination with other works, it may become something greater.” The first time you perform the Great Marriage, it creates a homunculus, which appears as a sort of silvery scribble on the walls, following you from room to room until you bring it into contact with one of the ailing dragons, at which point it combines with it and brings it back to its full power.

Now, I mentioned before that fragments of abstract alchemical theory were found near each of the four dragons. These are clearly important, simply because they were hard to reach, but it was hard to see how at the time. To summarize them:

  • One talks about the little-understood “transition echo” phenomenon, “traces left behind, howsoever briefly, when any entity enters the Higher Spheres…”
  • One speculates that “the soul exists in an as-yet-undetected medium”, and that the the echo phenomenon is “a transitory vibration of this substance”, “[l]acking volition or identity”.
  • One alludes to an “investigation of the echo phenomenon” that suggests that “the human soul can be created, destroyed, or duplicated”.
  • And finally, one very incomplete fragment mentions a technique “to combine an aitheric vibration — the transitory structure — with a spark of animation” to “create a self-sustaining aitheric form”.

So, combine all that with the homunculus definition, and the game is hinting pretty broadly that it’s possible to use a homunculus to animate the aitheric “echo” of a human, creating a “self-sustaining” soul duplicate that can last beyond the echo’s normal decay. There’s one more piece to the puzzle: a half-remembered ghost story about another marcher, the Cold Crucible, which has been glimpsed “lost and drowned in a Thalassan sea”, which is odd because the Cold Crucible actually made it back to port without mishap. The echo of something that didn’t happen? The relevant thing here is that entire ships can leave echoes. I posit that, up until the ending, the player character is actually a homunculus-animated echo of Forsyth, walking around on an echo of the ship. This explains a great deal! The other crew members are frozen in time because they’re just echoes, and not animated like you. The books are unreadable because the echo isn’t that detailed. The dragons remain repaired across resets for the same reason that you retain knowledge: once repaired, they too are animated by a homunculus. Actually, there seem to be multiple echoes at different points in time, which you move between (lasting beyond the echo’s decay?) whenever you make a permanent change to the repair of the ship — hence the crew members moving from place to place at such junctures, hence the additional notes.

But it doesn’t explain everything. The alien presence is still as mysterious as ever — moreso, even, now that we’re aware of the possibility that their ship is also an echo. Maybe closer scrutiny could suggest what they’re all about, but any theorizing about them seems iffier than what I get from the echo fragments, which just about spell things out if you piece them together. I’m not at all sure that even Zarf knows what the deal is with the alien graffiti. Sometimes mystery is just there for the sake of mystery, rather than for the sake of solving.

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