Darkling Room and THQ Nordic‘s supernatural first-person adventure game Dark Fall: The Journal brings a bit more subtle horror to the Halloween gaming special week.
Dark Fall: The Journal (PC)
(UK 2002, developer: Darkling Room, publisher: THQ Nordic, platform: PC)
Mr. Crowhurst is asked by his brother and architect Pete to come to the small town of Dowerton, as the redevelopment of an abandoned train station and hotel has been haunted by ghost sightings and disapperances of people, with Pete having become the next target.
Real locations and DIY storytelling
The main story about people disappearing in a hotel isn’t particularly new in the horror genre, but as the game borrows from South-West England myths and takes place in real-life locations, it has a rural realism to it that sets it apart from the recent Blair Witch game that focused a bit too much on superfluous war and family drama elements.
Of course anyone who has watched the Insidious movies won’t be surprised about the spirit world invading reality. However, with the obvious budget constraints, the scare factor is quite effective here if one gathers enough information oneself. As one is relatively free to roam the places and investigate the rooms in the hotel, storytelling doesn’t work as linear as in other games, which requires quite a bit of thinking and imagination on the player’s part.
People to remember without seeing them
Identifying with the main character is difficult, as one receives scarcely any information about him and he doesn’t make any comments about objects or the situations he finds himself in. Fortunately the other characters are much better fleshed out, even if one never actually sees or meets them. Going through the hotel guests’ rooms as well as reading the staff notes helps getting to know them better. They’re certainly much more memorable, as can be seen with Matilda Fly, an actress who has fled the stage because of critics badmouthing her past performance.
Familiar places and fears of the unknown
Immersion in games can come in different forms, but they’re usually connected to places one spends a lot of time in so that they almost feel like home. In case of Dark Fall: The Journal one mostly explores various parts of the hotel and learns about its history which goes far back to when it was an inn that had its fair share of ghost sightings, too. The further one discovers the hotel or the inn’s secrets, the scarier the game becomes, but in a subtle way.
Even if there are a number of jumpscares, the real horror happens inside the player’s head, as he or she starts reading disturbing letters of the innkeeper’s family or other people. With a sinister presence seemingly haunting the building, it’s reminiscent of the cosmic horror Lovecraft’s writing evokes, only that it’s not monsters, but an unseen entity that is as old as time itself.
Whispers and noises in the dark
Going through each room and the personal belongings of the guests and hotel staff sometimes makes the spirits comment on the player’s actions, adding to the chills one feels when exploring the abandoned hotel. As one often hears strange noises, like whispers or footsteps, there’s always a certain sense of dread, even if one can’t die in the game.
This doesn’t mean that the atmosphere is consistently scary, as the sounds and voices repeat themselves everytime one enters the same location, so one soon gets used to them. What is a bit more problematic is that one has to solve puzzles again if one forgot to write down a clue afterwards.
Ghost hunter history
One doesn’t only learn about the individual hotel guests’ private lives, but about ghost hunting, too. This is no surprise because two of the people who disappeared made it their job to find out about the strange goings on. The way how this is introduced is ingenious, but only if one follows the correct order of exploring the hotel, i.e. if one tries to enter the room of ghost hunters Nigel Danvers and Polly White first.
Going through their personal computer files or browsing through various websites that discuss supernatural phenomena is a great way of mixing fact with fiction, as quite a few historical persona that disappeared are mentioned, too. Nigel and Polly’s notes and journal entries don’t only provide information about each hotel guest and the rooms they were in, but the two also set up cameras in the house. In addition, they point the player in the direction of using various modern ghost hunting tools.
The tools of the ghost hunter trade
These gimmicks are required to further investigate apparently empty rooms. Being equipped with special goggles, one can see hidden messages or paintings on walls that would otherwise simply show nothing at all. Using a sound manipulation device to make out scary voices from beyond through distorted recordings creates even more goosebumps, while photos that were taken with various cameras in the house show floating chairs or paintings as well as ghostly lights, adding to the creepy atmosphere.
Non-linear tour through a strange hotel
Exploring the hotel can be a daunting task with so many floors and rooms to remember, and even if some doors are closed, it’s easy to get lost. Making a map and taking notes where certain objects are is essential to progress, as there’s neither a fast travel nor diary entry option to make navigation any easier. As clues can be found in all sorts of documents and sudden appearances of strange symbols are vital to complete the game, one does as much work inside and outside the game. With so many cross-references to people and rooms, one has to pay a lot of attention to even the minutest detail.
This obviously becomes a problem if one doesn’t follow every small hint, but it helps to really become immersed in the game world. Not every information is essential, but it usually fleshes out both the background story and the characters, making the player care more about them, even if it means deciphering some coded messages.
The biggest issue, as is so often the case with first-person adventure games, is not only disorientation, but various camera angles. It’s already difficult enough to find parts of the scenery that can be interacted with or objects that can be picked up being easily overlooked without the option of a hotspot key, but having additional zoom-in perspectives further complicates matters.
Attention to puzzle details
The puzzles themselves are mostly logical and are usually about finding the right connections between clues and the environment. A really great but also problematic example is the way how one acquires the password for Nigel’s PC: In one note he mentions that it’s the name of his favorite food, so one has to first find the number of a Chinese restaurant, then call the take-away service which informs the caller they have a special menu number registered for Nigel. One then checks the brochure in order to find out what the food and thus password is.
If this sounds like a lot of work, then it is, but it just shows how important even the smallest detail is, which holds true for other puzzle solutions, too. It goes without saying that constant backtracking is the order of the day, and while many puzzles can be solved in any order, one will still be stuck more than a few times.
Minimal but effective presentation
The static graphics were already outdated when the game was released, so they can’t win in any beauty contests now, although the various ghost effects and strange photos still work rather well. Voice acting is pretty amateurish, though, while quite a few spelling mistakes in the many texts have a negative effect on the usually tense atmosphere. Fortunately, the sound effects and subtle music make up for these shortcomings.
Immersive horror for those who invest the time
Dark Fall: The Journal isn’t easy to get into if one expects a linear story with lots of characters to talk to. One also has to overlook the outdated graphics and subpar voice acting. The non-linear approach to storytelling and game progression is rewarding, but it’s also highly frustrating if one runs through the same rooms only to have missed something in the environment, turning the ghost hunt more into pixel hunting. So depending on how meticulous one explores each scene, playtime can range between 5-10 hours or more.
The game doesn’t have the most original story or memorable characters, but it creates an atmosphere of isolation and fear that can compete with more popular survival horror, only without the drawback of dying all the time. With the right ghost hunter tools, it almost feels like a simulation at times, which is only a good thing.
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