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Intro
Dark Fall: The Journal

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Dark Fall II: Lights Out
The Lost Crown

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Dark Fall: Lost Souls
Barrow Hill: The Curse of the Ancient Circle

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by Bryan Cebulski - July 1, 2012

As H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Though Lovecraft mainly explored horrors so ancient and grotesque they prove to be beyond human comprehension, this quote remains relevant for other creatures of the night: Those entities which cannot be seen yet still plague the living, indecipherable whispers, shifting shadows, dimming lights, moving objects, that uncanny sense of being alone yet not alone.

Ghosts.

People have been fascinated with ghosts since time immemorial, from old wives' tales to today's cheesy Travel Channel reality shows. Their motivations differ from source to source, but their basic eerie nature remains undisputed. Ghosts are silhouettes, memories, cursed, the spirits of the dead trapped on this plane of existence. A wonderful basis for horror.

In videogames, ghosts are generally cast aside for more outwardly threatening enemies like zombies or demons. Either that or they're dumbed down into an easily combatable common foe. (Looking at you, Pac-Man.) One of the only series that uses ghosts effectively is Fatal Frame, whose enemies are frighteningly malevolent, doing an incredible job of freaking the player out of his wits. But what about subtle ghosts? The ghosts that giggle in the distance, that creak a door open, that bring a chill whenever they're near. The ones who won't kill you outright but will bring you to the very brink of sanity. Such a ghost would be difficult to use well in a videogame, wherein the player has the attention span of a rodent and needs constant tension or action. But it has been done. Though it falls into a niche category under a niche genre, the delightfully chilling ghost-hunting adventure games of Jonathan Boakes are a celebration for ghost enthusiasts everywhere.

Jonathan Boakes, born November 7th 1973, has been fascinated with the paranormal since childhood, growing up amid rural England locales (known as "The Garden of England"), which, depending on the time of day, could strike both unadulterated awe and terror . His youth in this setting was an influential period in his life.

Come adulthood, Boakes pursued a career in photography, often using these Anglo-Saxon towns and countryside as the focus. Over the years, however, Boakes' photography shifted toward the digital medium. He loved the idea of using a computer for his art, and was heavily drawn toward adventure games like Myst. He created a couple such games and multimedia works, which all received some small acclaim. His piece "Cortexa" - which is more or less a virtual tour of the brain -was shown at the Poitiers Film Festival in France. In this time he formed his own label, XXv Productions (which in 2005 joined with Darkling Room), and released under it a graphic adventure called "The Displacement".

While enjoyable, Boakes did not find these humble works lucrative enough. He supported himself first at a big web company and then as a sushi chef. He preferred the latter, saying that it was good clinical exercise as compared to the soul-crushing monotony of putting together gif web banners. So when not folding bits of fish in seaweed and rice, he created his first full-fledged commercial product: Dark Fall: The Journal.

The game was an 18-month labor of love, completed at last in April of 2002. When the independent production gained a little momentum around adventure gaming circles, it was met with rave reviews, critics lauding the one-man effort for its intricacies and atmosphere. About a year later, in May 2003, games distributor The Adventure Company approached Boakes with the proposition to pick up Dark Fall and publish it as a professional, global title. The deal was made, the game received a wide release, and the series' humble legacy began.

Dark Fall: The Journal

Dark Fall II: Lights Out

The Lost Crown

Dark Fall: Lost Souls


Dark Fall: The Journal - Windows (2003)

American Cover

The camera focuses in on a nightstand by your bedside, upon which is an answering machine. The screen slowly pans out at a frame every few seconds and the answering machine plays back a message from your brother, Pete. Pete is a well-regarded architect currently working on the redevelopment of an abandoned train station. He hardly ever calls except in emergencies, and this seems to be a dire one. He says something's wrong. He says that there were two ghost hunters in the station, Polly and Nigel, but now he can't find them anywhere. He fears that what they were looking for has found them.

"I think it's found me too," he goes on. The opening credits and theme song...which is a lovely mixture of violin with eerie radio static...fade in.

"Please help," he says. "You're always good with things like this ...Come to Dowerton Station. It's abandoned. I'll be waiting...This place is beginning to freak me out ...This all started a few days ago. It was when?... I can hear it. It's right outside my door, whispering. Whispering my name... It knows my name! I've got to open the door, I've got to open the door!? (click)

With the message cuts off, you, Pete's brother, the protagonist, wake up in a cold, lonely train tunnel, beckoned by the voice of a young boy. He says his name is Tim. He's friendly, helpful, and cheerful, yet nowhere in sight...

From the start, you know that things aren't quite what they seem here. You pick up a newspaper. The headline describes six disappearances in and around the station. Then, with a deepening sense of dread, you move onward toward the station and its connecting hotel. As you begin to explore these environments, you find journals and articles, hear the voices of the dead, and slowly begin to unravel the great evil which lies under this quaint little place.

Dark Fall takes heavy inspiration from the British science fiction serial Sapphire & Steel. The second season of this series involves an abandoned railway station and a man hunting ghosts within. The general mood and storyline are very similar. Some of the areas in Dark Fall, such as the reception desk, are ripped straight from the sets of Sapphire & Steel. The difference is that Boakes draws a more unnerving, isolated atmosphere, whereas the television serial is more reminiscent of Dr. Who. Curiously enough, Boakes made a point of having the graphics seem like a TV set in order to instill in the player a sort of "no man's land" reality, akin to what one might see in games like Myst or RHEM.

As for the graphics themselves, despite their low production values they work pretty well. While lack of a big budget makes for some occasionally cheesy visuals, the slideshow style makes every slight movement on screen that much more uncanny. One such example is when while staring across a long hallway you see a faint white orb float across the other end. These little touches make the player fear for something sinister to appear despite their better judgment. Complaints can certainly still be made, as certain objects look unrealistic and after a while one may long for something a little more kinetic, but when taken in the context of its practically one-man development critics will be hard pressed not to praise the effort.

Dark Fall's story is approached in that uniquely minimalist adventure game way. That is, with journal entries, letters, postcards, articles, notebooks, and any other written word or symbol that can be found etched into one surface or another, as well as (in this case) the occasional disembodied voice.

The game's cast of characters ends up being somewhere around fourteen, but you never really get to see any of them. This can be seen as an acknowledged weakness turned strength. This lack of true character interaction deepens the sense of isolation the player is met with while exploring Dowerton Station. On the other hand, some may be turned off by the exhausting effort of pouring over so much written word. This is all a matter of taste, of course. The laborious information collecting still arguably adds up to a well-rounded, creepy storyline.

Many, though not all, characters are fantastically (and ironically) fresh and alive. Each has a unique backstory, such as the failed actress living out her days hiding in the hotel or the amateur astronomer with a taste for red wine, and they help immensely in coloring the history of the location.

The sound effects were almost entirely recorded by Boakes using his own home and voice as well as two professional voice actors who each played a few of the characters. The voice acting is a bit above B-movie quality, but sometimes it can strike the player as awkward, jarring, and unrealistic. Just listen to your brother's message in the opening?it gets neither better nor much worse than that. Some sound effects are cheesy and detract from the overall dread (such as the repetitive rat squeaks in the bathrooms), yet others are used with spectacular results. Where others games make you jump from blood and screams, this game gives you goosebumps whenever you hear the stairs creak. It is heavily recommended that you play alone in the dark with headphones.

Puzzles drastically differ in terms of challenge. Some are devastatingly simple item collecting affairs. You'll occasionally suffer from a lack of apparent hotspots. In fact pretty much all of the hot spots could have been much larger, from door handles to the directional arrows. One day a point-and-click adventure game won't have this problem, but until then...

The main puzzle is sweeping and game-length, requiring the player to memorize and put in order twelve lyrics that will be used during the game's finale. All other puzzles are little tributaries that will eventually lead to one of the lyrics. The game isn't too difficult, but it cannot be held against him for peeking at a guide once or twice if only for lack of guidance. It isn't a long game, but it is nonlinear, which can be daunting to modern players. It also has an in-game hint system, in which little ghost boy Timothy will give you advice on how to proceed, which is nice.

The puzzles are inextricably tied into the atmosphere, which is very admirable indeed. You will use ghost-hunting gear like EVPs, Ouija boards, and surveillance cameras. You will point out constellations through a telescope, you'll be sorting keys, you'll be doing all sorts of things that one would expect to do in this situation. The player is challenged without the feeling that the puzzles are arbitrarily crammed in, like, say, in The 7th Guest. They're meant to work seamlessly.

The game runs at a 640x480 resolution, which would be fine, if not grainy and outdated, except the player has to set it manually back and forth. Plus many newer computers don't even allow for screen resolutions lower than 800x600. Aside from that though, technical problems are surprisingly sparse. Boakes debugged his game pretty well. It was a labor of love, after all.

Dark Fall is devoted to cultivating atmosphere, and rightly so. Atmosphere is the game's main draw and charm. Everything about it works in order to better develop that sense of subtle terror and solitude. For a discerning, patient player who has a penchant for an eerie, isolated mood in his videogames, Dark Fall cannot be recommended enough.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • XXV Productions

Publisher:

  • The Adventure Company

Designer:

  • Jonathan Boakes

Genre:

Themes:


Dark Fall: The Journal

Dark Fall: The Journal

Dark Fall: The Journal

Dark Fall: The Journal

Dark Fall: The Journal

Dark Fall: The Journal


<<< Prior Page

Next Page >>>

Page 1:
Intro
Dark Fall: The Journal

Page 2:
Dark Fall II: Lights Out
The Lost Crown

Page 3:
Dark Fall: Lost Souls
Barrow Hill: The Curse of the Ancient Circle

Back to the Index