Dark Fall: Sound

Before 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.

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