Dark Fall screenshot

Video games are often seen as the poor country cousin of the other creative industries. Even when the gaming industry is stealing an increasing number of punters away from cinema, television and music, its elder siblings tend to blame their decreasing audiences on illegal downloading rather than acknowledge there’s a new kid on the block. Video games tend be viewed as a species of toy rather than a medium in itself, and rightly or wrongly, video games are seen as incapable of delivering the same level of art as a good film, a literary novel or a classic album.

Unusually for a medium that is over three decades old – the first widely available video game being the coin-op Computer Space in 1971 – there are still no clear aesthetics in place for judging a game’s artistic values. And when the mainstream media covers video gaming, it concentrates on just two things - either the latest hardware/title as the tax on parents’ pockets at Christmas, or outrage over the violent content - effectively writing off gaming as either a gimmicky consumer craze or a medium analogous with cheap exploitation films.

It’s a somewhat ironic state of affairs, as the mainstream media has been banging on about ‘interactivity’ for the last few years and at the same time ignoring the most interactive new medium of all. Frequently the concept of interactive story telling is predicted as the Next Big Thing in film and television but video games have been delivering this style of content for years.

But all too often, games are written off as merely serving up shallow repetitive thrills and being incapable of delivering an emotionally engaging experience. And it’s true many games are repetitive, shallow and catering to the lowest common denominator. Yet, the same charges apply equally for a great many blockbusters and TV shows, or for that matter any art form. As the famous Sturgeon’s Law points out “Ninety percent of everything is crud”.

The closest the video game has come to being recognised as an art form was with Myst. This adventure title was ground breaking in many ways; no only did it help popularise the CD rom disc as a format and take the adventure game to a new level of sophistication, but it’s blend of striking imagery and immersive story led it to be hailed by the likes of Wired magazine and even the New York Times as signs that the video game was in fact evolving into art.

However despite Myst spawning as many clones as its contemporary Doom, an equally ground breaking title, not long after the adventure game started to decline in popularity. And largely this was due to the huge advances in graphics. The advent of chipsets able to render 3D environments populated with numerous polygon denizens brought exciting new depth and dynamics to RPGs, sports sims, and most of all, first person shooters, but left the adventure genre behind. The point and click slideshow format now looked very static and so the adventure genre found itself slipping into a niche market.

But also this waning of popularity was perhaps partly due to the hordes of Myst-clones themselves, which often consisted of little other than pretty scenes framing logic puzzles. However of all the different types of video games, the adventure genre was always the closest to that fabled media grail, interactive fiction and some did see the potential to create a title that could combine artistic and literary depth in the game format…

Now, over the last few years, I had become somewhat disenchanted with the whole video gaming shebang. I was finding that increasingly new games were just retreads of older titles but with ever flashier graphics, and fostering the feeling that I really should be finding more constructive ways of spending my time. However while reading various internet forum discussions on what were the scariest games of all time, as well as a good many of my old favourites like Doom, Quake, Resident Evil, Thief The Dark Project and Silent Hill, one name kept coming up which had bypassed my radar – Dark Fall: The Journal.

Some cursory research revealed the reason for this – Dark Fall was a point and click adventure, released for the PC back in 2002. Now I’d played Myst and a few other adventure titles back in the day, but like a lot of gamers of my generation I’d been seduced away from the genre with the advent of 3D environments, and despite hearing glowing reports about Myst’s successors such as Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword, I’d never bothered to check them out, being more interested in games that offered a wide range of weaponry than puzzle solving.

However now I was somewhat bored with slinging rockets, building armies and crashing cars, and so checking out something that offered a less familiar style of gameplay seemed just the ticket. But more importantly, I was highly intrigued by the accounts of the sheer terror and dread this game invoked. And better yet several people were claiming this game captured the eerie strangeness of the ghost stories of MR James and of cult TV series Sapphire & Steel – two of my all time favourites in the field of weird fiction. And so I took the plunge and tracked down a copy…

Dark Fall screenshot

“I know what you’re thinking - he only ever phones if there’s something wrong. Well there is something wrong. Very wrong… Come to Dowerton Station, it’s abandoned. I’ll be waiting. I really need your help on this… The sooner you can get here the better as this place is beginning to freak me out… I can hear it. It’s right outside my door, whispering. Whispering my name... It knows my name!”

And so begins Dark Fall: The Journal. Once you arrive at the derelict Dowerton Station, you discover your brother has vanished, as have two student ghost hunters. However you are not entirely alone, for the unquiet dead haunt the long closed down station and a dark presence stalks the empty rooms and corridors…

The game’s premise is fairly straight forward – explore the station and its attached hotel and unravel the mystery behind the disappearances. Unlike other games, there aren’t a series of levels to work through; rather there is just one expansive location to explore as you like. And as you make your way through the dim rooms and shadowed corridors, you gradually piece together the story of the strange events that have occurred here.

Technically the environment is presented as a series of screens and the main interface is a cursor, which as you explore the scene, changes to show you the different directions to move in, things to examine and objects you can interact with. Now at first this may seem a little primitive to those of you who are more used to galloping about 3D environments, but hey this is quite an old game. However this old school system does have its advantages, chiefly that you can get more one end of the station to the other very quickly, cutting down all that tedious trudging about that often blights a lot of first person perspective games – what a friend of mine refers to as ‘keying about’ i.e. having to troll through a lot of already cleared areas to return to unlocked a door at the other end of the level.

More importantly, the screens still look pretty lush even on a new high end system. As you can see from the screenshots, Dark Fall’s graphics have the feel of illustrations rather photo realism, which brings the game a good deal of atmosphere and a look all of its own. Also the screens aren’t entirely static – small touches of animation bring the scenes to life with flickering lamps, mysterious lights flitting about and ominous moving shadows.

Dark Fall screenshot

However where the game really impresses is the use of sound. Dark Fall uses audio in the same unsettling way as the classic The Haunting (1963); Dowerton is alive with eerie creaks, taps and scrabbling, not mention the voices of the long time dead. Like Robert Wise before him, creator Jonathan Boakes understands that often the most frightening things are those which you can hear but cannot see.

In terms of gameplay, like most adventure games the emphasis is on finding objects and clues rather than amassing weapons. There are no hordes of monsters and ghouls to slay but there is a dark force to be defeated here. And you will do it through detective work rather than firepower, and having played a great many horror themed shooters, I have to say it was a disconcerting experience not having the usual shotgun at my side.

Which brings me to a key point – from Doom onwards there have been many games where inspire fear – any regular gamers will know what I mean – the slow edging through darkened corridors and the shock as some beast leaps out of the shadows to attack you. However the thing is, the various monsters that stalk first person shooters very quickly lose their fear factor; once you work out which weapon takes them down effectively the creatures that early in the game inspired dread very quickly become mere inconveniences.

Now as Dark Fall is an investigation rather than a bug hunt, the game is populated by presences rather than enemies. So you have the growing feeling that you are not alone, that there are unseen malign forces gathering in the shadows, and a sudden crash or a disembodied voice will have out leaping out of your skin as much as any lurking zombie attack. But that sense of terror is never deflated by combat and the eerie atmosphere Dark Fall builds doesn’t dissipate when you turn off the game. Indeed after a few hours exploring the deserted station, an unexpected creak from somewhere in your own home will have your heart racing.

Make no mistake, this is a very frightening game and like the best ghost stories and the best horror films is best enjoyed at night, alone and in the dark. It really is a master class is atmosphere and suggestion. However there is a good deal more to Dark Fall than some finely crafted chills.

The first frequently encountered curse of the adventure game is pixel hunting. For those who don’t know, pixel hunting is the tedious process of having to carefully sweep the mouse over every inch of the screen in order to discover a hot spot only a few pixels wide. Thankfully Dark Fall avoids this, with all the hot spot areas being of a reasonable size.

The second curse is the arbitrary puzzle, as countless Myst clones discovered, with lots of titles comprising of little other than a selection of puzzles linked by the sketchiest framing device. Now there are plenty of puzzles to solve in Dark Fall, but they are skilfully woven into the story and fit logically into the setting. Hence there are torn up notes to reassemble, combinations to find and codes to crack. And there plenty of clues, and in many cases solutions, dotted around to find. Basically to resolve the challenges of the game as a real detective would, working methodically and thinking logically rather than being a subscriber to Logic Puzzler monthly. Often I found that when I was utterly lost as to how to solve something, nine times out of ten it was because I hadn’t yet found the relevant hint or clue yet. Furthermore, the game has an ingenious inbuilt hint system for the bewildered – one of the first spirits encountered can be consulted for clues on any sticky issues.

Like many of you out there, I’ve always fancied trying my hand at sleuthing, and like a lot of horror fans, I‘ve always been tempted to give ghost hunting a go. Dark Fall allows you to do both in a highly satisfying and realistic manner. There’s a real sense of accomplishment when you finally work out the solution to some problem or discover a piece of evidence that that ties two elements of the mystery together.

And in this regard, Dark Fall actually delivers a fuller role playing experience than most video game RPGs. To begin with, the setting is highly immersive; the Dowerton station feels like a real place and the game conjures up a distinct atmosphere for this beautifully rendered location. Secondly, you do not only have to think like an investigator, but also act like one – unless you are blessed with a photographic memory, you will need to record your findings as you explore. And if you play in the dark as I did – which I highly recommend – with the only illumination being the monitor screen you’ll need a torch to flick on while you scribble down notes or sketch a copy of one of the many strange arcane symbols.

There is a great deal of depth to Dark Fall. As well as piecing together the events of the central mystery, equally intriguing is uncovering the intertwining stories of the former residents. Rather than mere ciphers for plot development, real characters emerge as you investigate. And this not only lends verisimilitude to the unfolding spooky tale but gives Dark Fall literary weight – the story is not just one of ghostly phenomena but of history and the relationship between the past and the present.

There are also plenty allusions and references made to other works which adds to the fun for the literate gamer. Any fans of Sapphire & Steel will be instantly reminded of Assignment 2, and as you investigate it becomes clear that this is intended to be the same deserted railway station in that story. And additionally there are several nods to the great MR James. Thematically Dark Fall explores the same territory of both Sapphire & Steel and the Jamesian school of ghost stories, playing with the concepts of time out of joint and the baleful influence of the past breaking into the here and now, but creating something that is unique to itself rather than a mere pastiche or tired retread of either.

In a medium so often decried for its shallow story telling, Dark Fall delivers a well rounded narrative. And as the nature of the game allows you to roam at will, doing things in no set order, what we have here is a non linear text in which no two players will experience in the same way but still telling the same coherent story – something that cannot be said for many experimental novels that attempt something similar.

Dark Fall is a tour de force on many levels, and is all the more impressive for being the work of one man, Jonathan Boakes. In my earlier piece on video games, I made much of the value of gamers being able to make games themselves, and Dark Fall is the perfect example of this. Although made with limited means, like a lot of great works, these constraints have inspired creativity, invention and imagination. And the strength of having one man with vision rather than a committee is borne out here.

Since Dark Fall, Boakes has produced a sequel, contributed to a similar eerie investigation game Barrow Hill, and most recently released The Lost Crown, a highly ambitious ghost hunting adventure. Expect reviews of all of these in due course! Currently he’s working on Dark Fall: Lost Souls which hopefully will be released very soon.

Jonathan Boakes himself has said that his games are really interactive ghost stories and really there is no better description of Dark Fall. If Myst was hailed as showing evidence that video games could approach the realms of art, then surely Dark Fall is the proof that the medium can deliver as a form of literature, if not art itself.

Dark Fall has recently been reissued as a special edition available here. This version has been polished and tweaks to run on modern computers and comes but also a host of other goodies. Firstly there is its sequel Dark Fall: Lights Out – appearing in here in a heavily revised Director’s Cut. If the first game riffs on Sapphire & Steel the second takes the scifi gothics of Philip Hinchcliffe era Doctor Who as its inspiration. Additional you also get walkthrough guides to both games by Boakes himself, a rather lovely ebook collecting some of his favourite classic ghost stories and a CD of the marvellously evocative music of both games.

So as the nights are drawing in and the days are growing shorter, it’s the ideal time of year to check out Dark Fall: The Journal, while the shadows lengthen and the air is haunted by mists. Needless to say I heartily recommend it – not only is it one of the scariest games I’ve ever played but also one of the most satisfying.

Incidentally, Dark Fall was the scariest game I ever played until I tackled The Lost Crown), but that's a story for another day...

JIM MOON, 1st October 2009