Darkstar, a long-awaited graphic adventure game from the independent studio Parallax, bills itself as an interactive movie as well as a puzzle-solving experience. There is a long backstory both within the game and about the game — it has been in the works for the past decade, having originally been conceived as early as 1992 by its creator/director J. Allen Williams. In style and gameplay, and in its mix of live actors and rendered virtual environments, it sits solidly alongside Myst III and Myst IV in terms of the experience it delivers. It is remarkable that it manages to do so, given the size of the studios that created those games as compared to the nearly solo effort by Williams to create an adventure of the same detail and scope. It's a ridiculous achievement that probably won't be matched anytime soon. Knut Muller may toil alone to create his Myst-like Rhem series of games, but he keeps the graphics relatively simple. Williams, on the other hand, has apparently sculpted and texture-mapped billions of polygons to a level of detail that no one man should ever attempt to do by himself, as well as fashioned a series of ten unlockable space-opera movies (and more, if you figure out how to prise them out of the game) that make up the world and story of Darkstar.
I say all this because it does bear appreciating as you undertake the adventure. Ultimately, though, the game must be judged as a game, and its movies as movies, without knowing how bastard-hard one man worked to achieve it. Having produced a work that can be considered alongside large studio efforts, now the work has to be judged by those same standards. Is the game any good? Is it fun? Is it challenging? Is it fair? Is it worth buying?
I have to say yes, it is, on all those counts. I did gripe all the way through it, and relied heavily after a certain point on a cheat booklet that came with it (thank goodness a cheat booklet came with it), but I'm old and cranky now and less thrilled by games that are designed to challenge the hardcore puzzle solvers. I do enjoy the Rhem series, which are notoriously intricate puzzle-contraptions, but those games' logic has an iron core to it, and the feedback they deliver as you explore is consistent across the board. A dull buzzing sound means a gadget isn't working yet, no matter where in the Rhem world you find it. A clunk always means a door is locked. Color coding (and shape coding, and audio cues) is always reliable. So, in the world of Rhem, even though it's bloody difficult to figure out the puzzles, the puzzles themselves let you know whether you're cold, getting warmer, or have finally solved something.
More patient puzzle solvers will probably gripe considerably less than I did, then, playing Darkstar, but I found the feedback the game gave me to be inconsistent and maddening. Sometimes an active button is green, but sometimes an inactive button is green. Sometimes an active button is red or purple. Sometimes you pull a lever and see an animation but nothing has actually happened, and sometimes it has happened but you don't realize that it has, and undo it by pulling the lever again. You are often called upon to do something an extraordinary number of times (I got stuck once because I pushed a button that did nothing the first five times I pushed it, when in fact I needed to push it six times) or stare at something for an unreasonable length of time (I watched a tank of fish for 35 seconds before moving on, only to learn from the booklet that a clue appears after 43 seconds).
In the worst offenses, the game deliberately cheats you to make it harder because, according to Williams, people reported that an earlier version of the game might have been too easy. When you go to look at something that is just scenery, the game animates you to face away from it to let you know that it's just scenery — though sometimes it does the same for items that you must interact with. Sometimes you click on a laser gun next to a dead body and have no idea that you've just swapped the laser gun you were holding for the one on the floor, because both your inventory and the room look the same after you do this. Little do you know that you've just made the game unwinnable, something you won't learn until 10 hours of gameplay later. This isn't just cruel, it's ludicrous.
The story begins with Martians destroying the Earth, presented in a sort of stentorian narration that invites mockery, though it becomes clear later on that it's not quite that silly. These Martians are Earth colonists who have moved to Mars and become hostile to the Earth government, and there is a fair amount of politics and espionage woven into the tale. Your ultimate mission, in fact, is to lead a small fleet of ships back through time (through the "Darkstar" wormhole) and deliver a message that will prevent Earth's destruction. The problem is that there's a traitor on your crew, and your mission is a disaster, delayed by hundreds of years as you chill in a stasis tank before awakening on a disabled spacecraft, the Westwick, with no memory of your mission.
When I say "you", I mean Captain John O'Neil, ably played by actor Clive Robertson. For the most part, you are inhabiting O'Neil's body and looking out through his eyes. Click on a lever and you see his hand reach out and grab it. Walk into a bathroom and you see his face in the mirror. Occasionally, the game provides a little movement cutscene or a reaction shot of O'Neil, glancing grimly around the room, taking in what both he and you are seeing there. In this manner the game keeps alive its sense of being an interactive movie throughout the experience.
One of the ways in which the video footage of actors is especially well done is that the lighting and contrast of the composited footage always matches the rendered backgrounds perfectly. This is something I always notice when it's not done correctly, and I was glad to see it done seamlessly. I know some people might complain that actors' faces seem at times underlit or obscured, but the environments are supposed to be dark and shadowy.
You spend a long time on the Westwick, meticulously exploring its different levels and areas, both repairing what needs repairing and finding clues socked all over the place that fill O'Neil in on who he is and what he's doing there. The game gives you ten "biolok" marker points that give you a sense of progress, distinctive control panels that you put your hand on throughout the ship to unlock ship functions and open closed areas. They also unlock the ten backstory movies that you can watch any time you please. I waited until I had all ten of them and watched them all in a row, but it might have been a better idea to watch them as I collected them, now that I look back on it, because they might have provided a little bit of emotional involvement that I was missing and that would have helped allay my frustrations.
One interface feature I sorely missed was a "zip" movement feature, like that of the Myst and Rhem games, that lets you skip walking animations once you've gotten your bearings. Walking back and forth and back and forth across the breadth and depth of the ship gets to be a slog rather quickly, and at some point I don't care that it wants to be a consistent interactive movie experience and would rather it relax and let itself be a game that I'm trying to solve. In terms of solving time, the game does give you a lot of hours for the money (it took me two weeks to finish, even with the cheat booklet as a crutch), but a large chunk of those hours is spent watching animation of shuffling from one VR hotspot to another.
There is a lot of game here, although quite a bit of it is optional, listed in the cheat booklet as a form of "easter egg" — and personally, I missed a lot of stuff I might have liked to see. A snarky robot named SIMON appears early on, and it was ages before I saw him again, at which point O'Neil acidly reacted to him as a constant nuisance. This only makes sense if you hit all the easter egg scenes with SIMON, but since they were optional, or deliberately hidden, I never even saw them, so I never felt like I had any kind of relationship with SIMON at all. A pity, since he was voiced by TV's Frank, a castmember of Mystery Science Theater 3000 who never got to play a robot before this. Trace Beaulieu, on the other hand, ably acquits himself in the second-most prominent acting role of Perryman, the only other crew member of the Westwick to emerge from stasis besides O'Neil. Alas, I also never got to see Joel Hodgson perform in his role as Captain Kane Cooper, because all of his scenes were optional, and I failed to unlock them before events rocketed me towards Darkstar's conclusion. I must also mention the narration by Peter Graves (his final performance), which is lovely and does a lot to set and sustain the mood of the game. There's a little bit of a wink, there, somehow, in his resonant voice, that cuts through the sometimes self-serious tone of the storytelling and reminds you that this is all just supposed to be for fun.
In the end, though, Darkstar is challenging, fun, lovingly and painstakingly rendered and crafted, and worth playing. If you have any kind of heart, you'll also want to buy it just to support J. Allen Williams's unequaled effort in creating it in the first place. He went to all that effort because he thought he had a neat idea that would entertain people, so I say, by all means, let him.
This article copyright © 2010, J. Robinson Wheeler