Thursday, May 07, 2009

Darkfall, The Lost Review (made possible, unknowingly, by Kieron Gillen)

Smart people, when confronted with a bee's nest, avoid it. Others carelessly walk into it and learn their lesson for the next go-around. The rest of us get a stick.

Not letting a crisis go to waste, I present a review of Darkfall, as made possible by Kieron Gillen, edited by me, and published below without permission.
There's an urge to give it one out of ten. Maybe a two, because two sounds more genuine than one. One sounds like foot-stomping petulance. Two sounds considered, as if I really do mean it. I'm not, because I don't, but it'd serve a couple of good purposes. Firstly, if considered solely as a classical game, Darkfall is bloody terrible. Secondly, if you're the sort of person who cares about the review score, it's almost certainly not for you and I should turn you off as quickly as possible.

That's what a lot of this review is going to be about. Darkfall is a strange, unusual, progressive and unique game, which may even be important for the industry and the development of the form in a handful of ways. It's not for everyone. And I've got to write a review which says that, while not turning "It isn't for everyone" into a challenge for people who quite like to think of themselves as one of the Not Like Everyones.

The name "game" is always going to confuse people. You only really work out what something should be called after a name's codified. Names for mediums are always kind of made up on the fly. "Novel" has a particularly tortured history as a word. Comics comes from the fact they were the funny pages in the paper - but soon became anything but. A century down the line, they realized they should call comics "sequential narrative", which cuts to the core of what the medium is. It'll never stick, because it's so bloody ugly and there's already a name everyone knows. C'est la vie. We're stuck with novels, comics and games - and novels that aren't novel, comics which aren't comic and videogames which aren't...

Darkfall is a videogame that isn't a game. Or at least, the game part is deeply vestigial. It is deeply interactive - in fact, in parts about interaction - but in terms of the mechanics which characterize games, there's "sporadically collecting and killing stuff". It's most like an adventure game, but there are no puzzles. The win/lose state is ironic.

That's fine. As a medium, videogames' fundamental characteristic is interaction. The classical "game" is a form of interaction, but it's not the only thing we can do, and certainly not the only thing we've loved - think of the first half of The Cradle in Thief 3, think about the rollercoaster linear scripted sequences in many shooters where you've got no chance of dying, think of selecting jokes to make in old school LucasArts adventures which don't change anything. Games are more than games. Don't come to Darkfall expecting any of that.

Eyes glazed over? It's safe to say that Darkfall isn't for you. It'll try your patience far more than a mere 500-word "what-are-games-anyway-man?" intro. And it's even more pretentious. No, really.

Darkfall is a riff off the old MMORPG. You choose between six races: Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Mahirim, Orks and Alfar. You're then deposited at the start of your racial capital, with little more than a name, some basic equipment, and a neutral alignment. You’re given two commands. One, go kill stuff. Two, be killed. If you obey, another player will kill you in a couple of minutes and you’ll be told by the death screen you've lost all of your gear. You probably won't do that. You go off and find a wolf to kill. Eventually, after the confrontation, you've wandered outside some clan’s city, in the rain, and you slowly limp inside before being presented with a semi-interactive nightmarish walk around the city before you're finally escorted to the death screen with oblique, brutal images. You’ve just been PK’d. Now the death screen says you've succeeded, and you're deposited back on the selection screen with a race played and five more left to go.

In the previous paragraph, read that wolf as "Wolf". It's not that literal. In fact, if you're looking for literal, you're really in the wrong game. The Wolf is what, for better or worse, puts an end to your character. Everything is explicitly shown, and some ends are suggestively brutal. You suspect that the developers would agree with Poe's famous quote about the death of a beautiful woman being the most poetical topic in the world.

So it's a horror game, in an atmospheric, oblique manner. The atmosphere is the point. It's about as goth as Dracula's armpits. And as dark, though less smelly. The visuals are dated, jaggged, and drab. The smears of sound alternate between semi-pastoral and openly nagging oppressive, swelling brilliantly in the game's set-pieces.

And then there's the actual game. You're on a single track, and any interaction with the controls makes you take another step along this delirious route. If you don't keep moving, someone will find you and I've never actually been brave enough to just leave to see what happens. This fact, for me, is one of the finest formalist parts of the game - that step-to-move captures how you feel when you're actually getting PK’d. Running through houses, knowing something's behind you, trying to escape, knowing you're on a track, trapped...

It's not the only place where interaction is reduced for an aesthetic effect - though generally speaking, they're less successful. For example, to interact with anything in the game, you press F, and then your character will wander over and have a nose at whatever's nearby. To interact, you stop interacting. I more admire the elegance of that control system than its obvious deconstruction. The one total mis-step is removing the run option when you're out of stamina, forcing you to walk around. It actually discourages you from exploring these locations as it takes so long to do. The most interesting parts of the game - this misty lake, this abandoned fort, this massive stage - find their effect slightly neutered.

The stars of the game are the other players. From their visual design, to their animations, to the one-liners they respond with to whatever they just did, each is well characterized and memorable. They live and they die and we know them better for that. Replaying the game for a second time, actively seeing what each player makes of something an earlier player did is part of the... fun? No, fun's not the word. But the interest. To see what happens. To explore.

If you put aside its pace - which is its point - the biggest reservations with it are how it both introduces itself to you and how it uses its game elements. The irony of the lose-everything-on-death undercuts somewhat callously any affection you had for your character, for example. When it clicks, the UI is obvious - icons on a hotbar and a map towards the periphery guiding you towards interesting locations - but when a game throws as many visual distortions over itself, it's easy to miss their importance. There's some minor twitchiness around some of the characters - like running into trees or characters magically appearing, which cuts the atmosphere for a second.

The problem with Darkfall is that to explain it is to ruin it. It's an exploratory game, and being surprised by the first time you see something, and wondering what it's for and what it's about is the main thing. The game rarely spells anything out. You spend a lot of time bemused - sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad - and wondering what it's about.

I'll say this: you'll have a strong opinion on it if you play it. Friend-of-Eurogamer Ed Zitron was profoundly perplexed by the game. Others have come claiming it's a rape simulator - which, for the record, I consider unsupportable by the game, even if you take everything on a solely literal level. It is, at worse, a being raped simulator - though I'd say that was a misreading too. What do I think? Metaphorical story of a character’s growth to adulthood, with each "death" leading to the birth of the next. But that's an essay. I don't know for sure. If you play it, you'll have your take. That's kind of the point too. It sticks with you and provokes thought. It's probably art, if the a-word matters to you.

It's totally no fun. It's interesting, but there isn't a fun bone in its mopey body. But I've paid to go into modern art galleries. I've paid for really oddball, minimalist art films. I've gone to gigs where music is divorced from any physical reaction and raised to some cerebral, abstract place - and plenty of gigs where most sane human beings would consider there was nothing actually musical going on. I haven't, but could pay for experimental theatre tickets. Lots of poetry. Whatever.

In our corner of the world, the thing with close-to-pure art-games... well, they're all pretty much free and buried away on the internet. Darkfall is on one of the biggest game distribution systems in the world, for a reasonable yet "proper" price, and still does what it does. Its existence is a statement of belief that, like any other media, there's a small niche of people who are happy to actually pay for this kind of cultural material.

That's who Darkfall is for. And if you're one of them, Darkfall is probably worth it.

If you're not, really, run for your bloody life.
For those of you lost; Aventurine declined Eurogamer's offer to have Kieron Gillen re-review Darkfall. But don't worry Kieron, I've saved you the pain of having to stoop to their level.
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