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.