The Dark Crystal: Final Thoughts

dark_crystal-endHas it really been more than a week since my last post? Believe it or not, I haven’t abandoned the Oath. I just haven’t played any Stack games in the last week, owing to a confluence of (a) tax preparation, (b) nice weather, (c) the release of the new DROD demo (about which more soon), and (d) a certain amount of dread about continuing The Dark Crystal from where I left off, stuck near the end on one of those one-turn guess-right-or-die puzzles that plagued Time Zone. A nudge from a list of recognized verbs got me through that one, and the rest of the game was smooth sailing, aside from some more difficulties guessing the right commands to do things that I knew I needed to do. This game seemed to have that problem more than the other two games, perhaps because of the way that the necessary actions were chosen to fit a pre-existing story rather than designed to fit the game engine.

The guess-the-verb problem is basically how most people remember text adventures. This may seem like an ignorant prejudice to a fan of modern IF, but it has its foundation in these older games. Especially the early illustrated games, where, as I’ve said, the emphasis in development was on the pictures rather than the gameplay, the story, or the prose. I keep being reminded of the ad campaign that Infocom ran in 1983, extolling the ability of prose to create more vivid images than graphics. Sierra’s games were a large part of the reason this was so convincing at the time.

And yet, I think that if you wanted to make a better adaptation of the movie, the graphics, not the prose, is the main thing you’d have to improve here. The Dark Crystal is a more visual movie than many, and the Apple II is stretched to its limits just making a skeksis recognizable as a skeksis and a landstrider as a landstrider. It must have taken a great deal of work to get it even this far — creating graphics was a laborious process in the days before the mouse, and it looks to me like this game contains far more vectors per illustration than its predecessors. But even if you filled the game with still frames from the actual film at full cinema resolution, it would be less than satisfying: the puppeteer’s art is about movement. To really do this movie justice, you need animation.

I understand that there’s a sequel to The Dark Crystal in the works. I’m not sure how I feel about that, especially with the original creators uninvolved, but I definitely look forward to the inevitable game based on it. May it be a better representation of Froud and Henson’s world than this one.

The Dark Crystal: Plot and Characters

dark_crystal-chamberlainI’ve reached the point in the story where Kira, the female lead, shows up. This makes all of the background illustrations different. They could have generalized the problem of adding another gelfling to all the pictures by overlaying an unvarying image of Kira on the same images, like they do with dropped objects. But they chose not to, and it’s probably a good thing. Unless the room graphics are very uniform in layout — which they’re not in this game — that approach frequently winds up displaying things floating in the air or in the middle of a river or something. I wonder again if the experiences gained in making this game led to King’s Quest, with its uniform perspective and sprite-based engine.

Kira’s presence causes the landstriders, which have been present in one room thoughout the game, to suddenly become ridable, something I don’t think I’d have guessed without knowledge of the movie. The Dark Crystal follows the movie pretty closely. It inserts puzzles into the movie’s framework — for example, you have to solve a puzzle to find the double flute that Jen was playing in the movie’s first shot of him — but a significant amount of the game consists of simply replicating Jen’s actions from the movie. The whole thing would probably be bewildering to someone who hadn’t seen the original, but that’s really to be expected. It’s a rare adaptation that really stands on its own. But here, we have the additional handicap of lacking one crucial piece of the game designer’s art, one that hadn’t really been developed yet at this early juncture: cut scenes.

Yes, cut scenes. Strange to think that there was a time before them, seeing what a simple idea they really are, but it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1980s that they started showing up to any significant degree. It just wasn’t part of people’s idea of how games worked. And without some means of showing things that aren’t happening to the player character, this game has to leave out everything that goes on in the Skeksis castle before Jen gets there. That’s a big chunk of the plot. Instead, the Chamberlain, a major character in the film, just shows up in Jen’s path with no precedent or explanation, and disappears shortly thereafter.

The Dark Crystal

dark_crystal-stonesI have a perverse fondness for games adapted from movies. There’s a kind of art to them that isn’t found in original works, a balancing act on the designer’s part that I find fascinating, like a highly constrained poetic form. Much of the enjoyment comes, not from the gameplay itself, but from seeing how they used the techinques of the new medium to try to reproduce the feel of the original.

Of course, the answer is often “badly”. Sturgeon’s Law applies, and games based on movies don’t have to try as hard to get an audience. And so it has become common wisdom that games based on movies are hackwork, and best avoided, with the possible exception of those based on the Star Wars franchise (which are more often original works set in the Star Wars universe than adaptations per se). But I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, movie adaptations cannot be judged by the same criteria as other games.

And in the case of The Dark Crystal, it’s also separated from the bulk of games by history. This seems to be one of the earliest games based on an official movie license — it was released in 1982, the year that also gave us the Tron coin-op game and the infamous Atari 2600 E.T. It was certianly the first movie to be officially adapted as a graphic adventure. So, unlike today’s adaptations, it didn’t have a lot of established techniques to work with. Roberta Williams had to figure the whole thing out from scratch: how close to adhere to the source material, how much to add.

Probably the strangest choice she made was to include Jen, the player character, in the illustrations. Understand that there is no animation, and that Jen’s picture is not a player-controlled avatar. He’s just part of the illustration for each room. This probably makes it the first adventure game with third-person graphics. Appropriately, the text is also in the third person: instead of the Infocom-standard “You are in the Valley of the Stones” or the Scott-Adams-style “I am in the Valley of the Stones”, it’s “Jen is in the Valley of the Stones”. This is very unusual for an adventure game, but I can understand why it was done this way: the illustrations are mostly based on still images from the movie showing Jen, and once you have that, you’re clearly not seeing it through the player character’s eyes. Also, unlike previous Sierra games, Jen is a character distinct from the player, rather than a projection of the player into the gameworld. This would become the norm for them, even as they dropped the third person grammar and addressed the player as the player character (“Oh no, Sir Graham! You’ve fallen off a cliff!”)

I wonder how much these experiments with presentation inspired the development of King’s Quest? The on-screen player character seems like it could be a stepping-stone towards the fully-animated player-controlled avatar. Perhaps this game’s importance to the history of the medium has been grossly underestimated, due to its being regarded as merely a movie adaptation.

In other respects, the environment has a lot in common with both King’s Quest and Time Zone: it’s mostly a grid of exterior scenes, sparsely scattered with usable objects. This is actually pretty appropriate to the source material, as The Dark Crystal is in large part a travelogue of a bizarre fantasy world, with lots of shots devoted to showing off the sets. I only wish the game had more interactive details. The setting is more fully implemented than in Time Zone, at least to the extent that you can often get one-sentence descriptions of scenery objects, but it doesn’t do justice to the film’s twitching, chittering wildlife. There’s a bit in the film involving what I can only describe as mountain sea-anemones. They lie still, looking like tentacled plants, until, at Jen’s approach, they all simultaneously and busily withdraw into their crevices in the rock. I’d love to be able to trigger that kind of reaction in a game.