Dark Fall is in many ways a throwback to 1994's Myst. It brings the same point-and-click interface, the same graphic backdrop of still images instead of a scrolling environment, the same intricate layers of backstory and red herring plot devices that must be sifted through, and the same frustrating puzzles that involve a lot of tinkering with levers, buttons and enigmatic gadgets. Those who "got it" will "get" Dark Fall as well. As one who did not "get" Myst, I struggled to remain objective about a game that was created so closely in its image.
It was no coincidence that most of my friends who loved Myst were also artists and graphic designers. The new CD-ROM technology gave Myst's graphics a scope of beauty and detail never before seen. Myst was all about the presentation: the lush vegetations on the island world, the life-like sky, the shimmering water.
Unlike Myst, however, Dark Fall is not set on a fantasy Age where the possibilities for graphic noodling are endless. Instead, most of Dark Fall takes place within the drab, brown interior of a hotel and its adjoining train station. More specifically, the setting is the Dowerton Hotel in Dorset, England, which many years ago was the scene of a series of strange disappearances among the hotel guests and staff. Many years later, two ghost-hunters investigating paranormal activity in the hotel, along with an architect sent to evaluate the site for renovation, have also disappeared. As the sister of the architect, the player also journeys to the haunted hotel to discover more about the malevolent presence there.
Since the hotel had been sealed off after the first series of disappearances, it remained a perfectly-preserved museum of 19th century England. A lot of research has gone into making Dark Fall an historically accurate experience, and it's rather like being inside an Agatha Christie Mystery novel. Unfortunately, the game is also a history lesson as to why the point-and-click genre never took off.
The fixed-perspective approach is frustrating for a number of reasons. It's a pseudo first-person perspective, oppressively restricted by the fact that the player can't even turn their head to view things out of reach to the eye. The simple act of turning to view an adjacent wall sometimes takes two or three mouse-clicks of navigation to maneuver into position—a result of the game's way of doling out atmospheric detail in a tightly-controlled manner.
The archaic pasttime of pixel-searching has also been resurrected. Certain objects in the rooms can be clicked on and manipulated, while others can't. There's no rhyme or reason to the process, and the unfortunate result is a lot of random mouse-clicking over every object in the room until something gets activated. In some point-and-clicks, the cursor will change shape to indicate that an item can be clicked on. Not so with Dark Fall. Again, I chafed against the artificiality of being able to click on this piece of paper, but not that one, and being able to investigate one drawer, but not another.
And of course there are the puzzles: levers to pull, boilers to activate, puzzle-boxes to open, journals (and now computer files and palm pilots) to read, obscure scraps of paper to ferret out, and copious note-taking to do (that's on real paper, mind you). This is how the genre defines gameplay instead of using devices like interaction between characters, stat-building, weapons, combat with enemies. The genre even eschews movement in the traditional sense of running, jumping and climbing.
Chiding a game for being a perfect embodiment of its genre is dangerous, and runs the risk of missing the point altogether. But I can't help feeling that the genre lacks one crucial feature that forever cripples it: there is no risk of failure.
Lack of conflict, and a lack of enemies that can actually harm the character, translates into a feeling of being a passive observer looking out onto the environment through a window of bullet-proof glass. It worked for Myst, arguably, because the atmosphere created there was not one of fear but one of exploration. Dark Fall, with its backdrop of malicious spirits and its claustrophobic Silent Hill-esque hotel setting, tries to be scary and fails for this very reason.
The game tries its hardest to evoke a spooky atmosphere. But finding scrawled messages like, "There's something out there. Don't open the door for anyone," has no impact since I know nothing can hurt me. The crucial fear-factor is missing—the sense of fight, flee or die that makes survival horror so effective.
Interactivity is the most exciting thing about the videogame genre. The idea that I can't simply sit back and be passively frightened, that I have to react by either fighting or fleeing the monsters that hunt me or else succumb to them, is what makes the videogame medium so uniquely powerful. Without the interactivity, I might as well be paging through a graphic novel or watching a scary movie with a bowl of popcorn at my side. Both are enjoyable enough within their own contexts, but neither can compare to actually being inside the experience. This is what games should be. They have the power to do so, and it's baffling why certain games that claim to be part of the same medium do not take advantage of this most basic principle.