The Dark Eye
First posted on 07 February 2008. Last updated on 10 August 2009.
There are many kinds of horror fiction. There are numerous subgenres, each with a specific set of narrative devices and a certain amount of well-tried clichés. The scares are evoked by showing flashes of horrible monsters, playing with light and darkness, or having terrifying danger to suddenly appear around the corner. Computer games have even a particular advantage in stirring up fear with those kinds of tricks, due to a specific emotional involvement of the gamer that cannot be so easily recreated with tools available in movie making and story writing. Yet, does it make for a supreme achievement in scariness? Do these intensive gaming experiences reveal the true aspect of what is fear inducing, disturbing, grotesque? They seem to represent more of a hunger for ephemeral thrills than a reflective interest into the elusive basics of fear itself. Perhaps the fears that stay in our mind the longest are the fears that are connected to our own experiences and, while seemingly unexpected and disturbing, give true insights into the human psyche. They give insights to a side of humanity that we usually keep hidden deep in our minds, though not always deep enough.
What if a computer game would propose a phrenological study of your mind? What if you could see through the eyes of a person whose mirror image shows a faceless clay mold of a head? What if, in the face of an impending unnatural nightfall, rather than being afraid of what you would meet in darkness, you were terrified of what demented individual you would come to embody, at the very moment of seeing your reflection somewhere?
The Dark Eye is an adventure game based on the works of the iconic Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was a 19th century American author who has gained immediate recognition with his eerie poem "The Raven". His other works have largely been marginalized during his lifetime, though later not only poetry but also his mystery stories have given him prominence. Nowadays he is widely if often superficially embraced by pop culture. Even his own persona is identified with the ominous demeanor of his fictional characters in many over the top parodies of his writing style. Still, Poe is recognized by philologists, scholars, and fin de siecle artists themselves as a founding father of Symbolist, Modernist, and Surrealist aesthetics in poetry and a pioneer of the narrative driven mystery fiction.
The Dark Eye, rather than being just a tribute to Poe, follows and expands on a prominent theme of his works: the exploration of the human subconscious. The game takes its inspiration primarily from Poe's prose, but Poe's poetic mind's insights are also ventured upon. The mystery stories, on first sight, have somewhat similar tendency as the poetry of keeping away from the earthly, the tangible, and mundane. They almost always focus on introspective minds radically detached from reality, people not unlike the narrators of the author's poems. However, the stories are mostly concerned with elements that the poems have left out of their sphere of interest, namely with the horrible consequences of when such minds crash with reality.
A particular psychological fascination of Poe that is prominently utilized in The Dark Eye is the discipline called phrenology. Popular in the 19th century, it has had a major influence on that period's practice of psychiatry. However, it is now considered to have no scientific basis and has since been abandoned. In short, phrenology is both an art of telling about a person's mental capabilities and personality traits by the shape of the person's head (by reading so-called bumps and fissures) and a theory of dividing the brain into smaller organs representing specific faculties of human behaviors and dispositions. It is thus intriguing that the game makes a claim on its stylized menu screen that it will analyze the player's mind in a phrenological manner. The game will even draw out a rough phrenological chart of the player's brain that becomes increasingly complete as the player progresses further into the game.
So, how are all these elements reflected in the core of the gameplay? At the very beginning, in a rather disorienting perspective, you see the face of a man that is best described as disturbingly featureless. It is somewhat like a shadowy blur of a face or an unfinished model of a head made out of clay in which the individual features of a person have yet to be carved. What you see is a reflection of the face of your character, your avatar, in the surface of a lake.
The strange individual you impersonate has just arrived, after a long journey, at the house of family relatives. The transitional animation from the lake to the doors of the house is shown in a sequence of impressionistic paintings that include a great part of the encompassing landscape. Later in the game, there will be more such uses of paintings, subtly expressionistic in contrast, to cover some of the game's more dynamic events.
The double doors open and you are invited to enter. The insides of the huge house are full of empty spaces, devoid of anything but a few plain ordinary objects, seemingly unused rooms, and walls with white plaster that is tearing away, some even completely crumbled. For decorations, there are only some paintings (and, in the course of the game, new paintings will appear). It is not surprising, because the owner of the property is a painter. On the top floor, there are also some stained glass works of a peculiar graphical design that you will encounter again later in the game. Despite the emptiness of the interiors, the graphics are superbly rendered and very atmospheric.
Over the course of several days, the house will become a stage for dramatic events tying romance with tragedy. During the waning hours of the first day you will witness how the newcomer's brother and his younger female cousin develop feelings for each another. However, her uncle, who most of the time stays consumed in his art but still can be very strict, may not want to give his consent to this union.
Your indistinct companion will spend the following days by delivering messages, listening to other characters commenting on their actions, and sometimes eavesdropping or idly witnessing developments between his relatives. He himself, however, remains constantly silent in the conversations, rarely offers any verbal comment to the situation, and speaks his inner thoughts with a trembling voice full of doubt. This lack of personal initiatives to influence the strained relationships can lead to the player's own distressing feeling of submissiveness to the course of events that slowly unfold inside the game. Additionally, the old painter becomes more and more conspiring, and his monotone, hypnotizing voice gives an increasingly oppressive impression. Actually, it is the voice of William S. Burroughs, an American author who is most famous for his surreal, jumbled descriptions of his own drug addiction experience. This is indeed a very extravagant casting choice by the developer. It gives the game a standout atmospheric quality, but it also leads to problems with understanding clearly the character's spoken lines.
Until now only the part of the game that stays in the limits of sanity is discussed. The truly eerie events start to transpire every time a day abruptly ends. This moment always comes suddenly and unexpectedly. In an instant, a shadow encompasses everywhere. The sky dims and then becomes yellow. The house becomes completely dead, devoid of any signs of life. You start to hear whispers in the dark: unintelligible, menacing, and otherworldly. In some places, they become louder and more distinct. On such occasions, it is important to remember this: beware of your own reflections. It is through them that you are suddenly pulled into other worlds, where your avatar will lose the faceless submissiveness and will become one of various peculiar and sharply defined personages of very expressive countenances. Every one of these personages will soon be revealed to be a truly nightmarish individual. The places you visit in these "dreams" contrast with those inside the bleak, old house. They are visually wealthy, brimming with details, expressionistic, and moody. Some nights you will find yourself inside higher society sublime private interiors, other ones among the rich merchants at an Italian Carnival, where half-starved child beggars loom on the other side of the bridge. At one point, you will come to see a labyrinth like cellar complex, with numerous bottles of wine, skeletons, and other ominous surprises. Finally, you will find yourselves in a modest but cozy flat in a quiet neighborhood, filled with large numbers of delightful equipments crafted by hand.
In the course of several nights, you will be treated with 3 different dream stories, each shown in 2 separate but complementary dreams, from the perspectives of 2 characters that play an antagonist role to each other. Owing to the difference in the character's perceptions, in each story you will experience 2 separate realities in the same surroundings.
The tales told in these stories are very dense with heavy, disturbing themes, madness and murder. A particular narrative, for example, concerns the physical disabling, gradual decay, and an obsession with banal trivialities that block all rational thought connections. A different tale focuses on the fear, guilt, and an obsession about another character's physical deformity. The remaining narrative deals with slowly cultivated anger that leads to a special revenge, prominently encompassing nearly all of man's vices and temptations.
After each dream, the night ends and your featureless avatar returns to reality or at least, the daytime hours. He asks himself, what is the meaning of the insane dream he just had? Are the nightmares completely separate entities from the daytime reality? Or will they find their ways to merge with it?
The musical score in The Dark Eye, while not being played all the time, is adequately disturbing. The music carries vibes of classical horror movie scores, only the compositions turn out to be slightly avant-garde, disturbing travesties of the familiar styles. When the music is absent, it is replaced by a wealth of ambient sounds that are equally convincing, gritty, and scary when needed.
Undoubtedly, the greatest visual impact in The Dark Eye comes from the animated characters. These puppets or clay like figures, dressed in amazing costumes looking like authentic clothes, have faces that are disturbingly frozen in a single emotional or passionless state. Some of the characters have only dark, hollow spaces in place of eyes. In a sense, these characters' fully developed visages are in direct contrast to your avatar's indistinct countenance.
Little is known about the techniques used to make these puppets move. For a large part of the footage, they were probably manipulated like marionettes and were filmed in real time rather than registered frame by frame using stop motion technique. The animations look very decent when the characters do not change places on screen. However, when the characters move about within a scene, the animations look jumpy and crude. There are also several scenes with close-ups of these characters presented as static photo slideshows of changing poses that surprisingly amplify the disturbing effect of the characters' physiognomies.
Poe has long believed that there exists a connection between a person's appearance, primarily the face, and the person's mind. Together with phrenology, these convictions bring forth a kind of framework for studying physical form as means to discover the deeper nature behind it. This belief of Poe has had a great influence on the design of The Dark Eye as the gameplay is very much about touching, feeling, and interacting manually. You are given a large, amply animated hand cursor. As you move it over an object, it changes, for example, into a grabbing hand or a fist ready to hit or a pair of hands preparing to play a piano. However, the real point of interest is that the cursor sometimes changes into a special "touching-examining" mode, enabling you to sense the shapes of certain objects by repeated, delicate movement of the animated hand over them. Depending on the context of the situation, this option can become active around faces, eyes, items, and images. It does not necessarily mean you literally touch all those objects, it is often more like a mind projection of the hand on the observed item. As you touch or observe things in this manner, and also take up trivial, manual actions, you trigger inner thoughts of your character and move the virtual time forward, enabling the occurrences of new events and finally allow you to take an active participations in the weird, unnerving key events.
The Dark Eye's style of gameplay is strongly embedded in the way in which the stories, the worlds, and singular events in the game are presented artistically. This is a game devoted to perception and introspection. Playing it consists mostly of battling with thoughts in the subjective realities of the individual characters. You hear what the character thinks, you see what he imagines, and you grow disoriented by the disturbances of senses that are effects of his or her mental and physical illnesses.
The only strong qualm a player may have with the gameplay in The Dark Eye is that it may not match the expectations of an avid gamer for a traditional adventure game. There are very few actions you take in the game that can be described as puzzle solving. You do not collect items in any kind of inventory. At best, you carry through short distances singular items such as a lamp or a brick visible in the hand before your eyes. The game encompasses also elements reminiscent of a non-playable multimedia demonstration. When the player reaches certain places in the mansion, audiovisual presentations of a poem and a short story are played out automatically without any kind of participation. To some gamers, the game may seem comparably short. It is partially an illusion in consequence of the story being confined to limited spaces for long periods of time. It is not surprising since the game progresses forward by exploring the evolution in your characters' minds rather than by finding new locations to explore.
It is tough to make a judgment on The Dark Eye by traditional adventure games standards. On one side, the writing of an author of Poe's caliber is not common in adventure games, even more so among horror games. The production values are exceedingly high, with plenty of really unique details and features. From the adeptly crafted atmosphere to the very feeling of interacting inside the realities of Poe's stories, every part of the presentation is perfect for the kind of game the developer has set upon doing. On the other side, the game is very linear. The player often feels confined by the very limited decision making that he is offered. Most of the time, the game boils down to a search for a trigger that will allow the passage of time and move the story forward. This often means a methodical search of the environment and the need to complete a lot of mundane actions. While this may prolong the time needed to finish this game, it does not change the fact that the gameplay is very easy.
Were these compromises necessary? Perhaps yes. It would probably take a much bigger budget and extreme storytelling creativity to be able to transform Poe's introspective stories into a full-fledged adventure game. In the end, the satisfaction a gamer can derive from playing The Dark Eye depends greatly on what that person is seeking: a surreal, artistic experience with psychological undertones or a traditional exercise in adventure puzzle solving.