Dark Fall

2002 XXv Productions
Designed by Jonathan Boakes
Reviewed 2002 August 2

Rating +3 Linearity open
Reasonability deductive Connectivity moderate
Difficulty pedestrian Relevance strong
Interface 1st paned simple Real-time minor

Your brother Peter calls you from a small town in Dorset. While working on an architectural project there, he has run afoul of a ghost or two. Things look scary, and he wants your help. His call is ended abruptly, so you dash off to save him. Arriving in Dowerton, you are greeted by a ghost boy, and come upon an obviously haunted train station and adjoining hotel, the site of mysterious disappearances going back centuries. You must unravel the mystery or risk disappearing yourself.

The story mostly focuses on the high profile disappearance of six people at the hotel in 1947. You uncover bits of their lives and relationships. But the story also involves Peter and two ghost hunters, Polly and Nigel, that were there with him, and who seem to have also disappeared. The characters are all well drawn, simply but with enough idiosyncracy and subtlety to make them more than game devices.

Ultimately, though, the story is about their disappearance, and the creature responsible for it. The beast is mentioned right at the start, but it's nature is revealed gradually. The great charm of Dark Fall is how that nature is revealed. Everything is small and subtle, quietly building flake by flake into an avalanche.

This is one of the most non-linear story-based adventures ever made. Rather than a series of challenges leading from one to another, you have to gather information, clues, leading to the final solution. There are a few puzzles along the way, with a few of locked-box puzzles, and a few codes to to piece together from clues. Some challenges require synthesising clues from different locations into a pattern. It's not overly convoluted, but it's a nice change of pace from the narrow scope common to contemporary games.

One nice touch is the use of redundant clues. If you can't figure out what to do with something, just keep exploring, and more clues will pop up; or, rather, the same clue will pop up in different guises in different places. Eventually, one of them will catch your attention. If you still have problems, there's an in-story help mechanism.

There's more to ponder in this game than just the challenges needed to complete the game. There are a few challenges that exist only to flesh out the story. It's not always clear at the time that these deductions are superfluous.

Dark Fall is basically a one-man project done on a hobbyist budget. The interface is very simple, but also clean, lightweight, and functional. The inventory was a bit too simply done, but the challenge design accomodated the limitations, so no foul. Three small, unobtrusive buttons provide all the system interface you need: save, load, and exit. Why can't mainstream games get this right?

The setting is dark and dingy. Much of the buildings are run down, abandoned for over 50 years, but some rooms are unchanged from their heyday. This wasn't the Ritz, so there's nothing terribly impressive to see. Despite the gloom, everything is clear, objects are distinct. They competently serve the game, not the E3 reporters. Once again, the story seems to work within the limitations of the medium: the subject material obviates the need for stunning graphics.

One touch I appreciated was the navigation. Your viewport is a fixed pane, like Myst. When you turn left or right, you always turn 90 degrees. I never had any doubt about where I was, or where I was heading.

The star, though, is the audio -- sound effects and voice acting. The sound effects are just the result of good, creative direction. I don't know how XXv managed to hustle up such a good group of actors, given how so many other big (well, -ger) production games have failed.

The entire production of Dark Fall seems focuses on being a good adventure game: good setting, atmosphere, and story, and plently of actual game to play. It works within the limits of its production, rather than fighting them. The result is one of the best horror experiences in an adventure game.

Beware! Here are some spoiler-ridden notes on the game. They're only recommended for people who have played the game and want to see some of my rationale for my evaluations.

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    Here's a description of all the gobbledygook in these reviews. It's also a bit of an essay on the nature of adventure games.