Archive for April, 2015

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”.

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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.