Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Darkstar: The Interactive Movie

I've been following this game's production since around 2004, when I first heard of it. It intrigued me because it looked like it was going to be awesome! Just check out the trailer.



When was the last time you saw a game that looked like THAT!? Plus, it stars a bunch of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew! Perfect! The official site looks very cool, too. Sleek, professional, totally sci fi! Well, the other day I finally finished the game.

I feel bad for not liking this independent film/adventure game because it’s obvious writer-director-producer-animator-designer-costar J. Allen Williams put a LOT of work into it. The amount of detail, the sheer volume of computer animation... It’s mind-blowing and I can tell why it took ten years to create.

You play Captain John O’Neil who wakes up on the starship Westwick with severe memory loss. Now you must explore the ship to find out what happened, and why you’re here.

The most basic problem is I didn’t have fun exploring the Westwick. Transitions between nodes are sloooooooow, and there’s no way to skip them, so moving about the ship is painfully difficult. The puzzles are a joke. There are random buttons hidden in invisible areas that don’t apparently do anything, but if you forget to press them will haunt you later in the quest. Inventory items are the same way.

There are plenty of locations in the game that are nearly invisible. The ladder down to the EVA pod, for example. It’s hidden from view no matter where you stand, and there’s no obvious node that takes you to that spot. Sometimes turning a valve opens a door, but there’s no clear indication that you need to turn a valve to open the door, or why it had that effect. It’s random cause and effect for the most part. I still have no idea what that N.S.W.E. marble thing did.

The game is drop dead beautiful, but dark. Even areas that are well-lit look dark, and this is to hide the blue screen around the actors. It doesn’t always work, but it’s acceptable because suspension of disbelief is more tolerant in a game.

I didn’t enjoy discovering what happened to this vessel because the whole story is spoonfed to the player as you touch biolocks. The story of Darkstar is interesting in and of itself, but the way it’s presented here is not. It’s the synopsis of the story we should be experiencing!

We then learn the story of the Westwick all in one shot in the conference room, so very early in the game there’s nothing left to discover. At this point the gameplay should take over and hold our interest, but all we can do is very slooooooly wander around, unlock the ship and repair it. It’s not much of a game.

So much of the environment is pointless. Most of the objects you collect don’t have any relevance to the game. For example, entering each crewmember’s cabin reveals nothing about who they are. There could’ve been more information about Captain O’Neil and his crew, but there’s nothing in there. You only pick up one object in the crew cabins that’s used, so that’s some eight rooms which serve no purpose.

(By the way, if you don’t pick up the “correct” object from those cabins, it will haunt you later in the game, possibly dooming you to save it in an unwinnable state. Very poor design choice.)

I feel no guilt taking two tips from online forums, because there was one hidden switch I missed, and I tried the labyrinth and I did not look forward to it. It’s the worst section of the game. Just more painfully long transitions and no way to deduce where you’re supposed to go. Not fun at all. Fortunately there’s a way to figure out the clamp code without going through the maze. Makes me wonder why the Martian Scythe pilot (played by Joel Hodgson) couldn’t figure it out.

The most surprising thing about this interactive movie is the acting. It’s universally flat and lifeless. From the cast this guy assembled, I expected a lot better. I am a MST3K fan, so I know Mary Jo Pehl can act better than that. I hope Clive Robertson can give a better performance than this. Even Trace Beaulieu’s performance sounds like he’s reading from a teleprompt and they just used the first take.

It’s obvious the performers did all their work in front of a blue/green screen, and none of them were actually on the stage together. They recorded their performances individually, and it shows, because they act like they’re by themselves. They were given some lines to say but no sense of what they’re reacting to. The starship battles in the documentary are especially difficult to watch because they’re so poorly acted. #9 (Mercenaries) is so bad I skipped it.

MAGS, the robot, is supposed to be funny, but she’s not. I liked the other robot, SIMON, but he isn’t in the game enough to be memorable. Too bad, because I like the idea that SIMON has been watching bad movies for 300 years while everyone else was asleep. Sadly, SIMON is not funny either because Clive Robertson’s reaction to him is so stale. He didn’t know what he was reacting to 99% of the time.



On the plus side, the music is nice. The soundtrack might actually stand well apart from the game. Maybe better.

And after all that, the big twist delivered by Perryman about who O’Neil really is and what he did... means nothing. What was O’Neil planning? What kind of person was O’Neil before he lost his memory? Is there more information? On my playthrough, I didn’t hear anything besides what Perryman alludes to, so this revelation is very weak. The idea of O’Neil earning a second chance is cool, but the execution doesn’t convey any of it. If there is a sequence which tells more of the story, I missed it, and that ruined the whole game for me.

Looking at some of the videos on youtube, I must have missed a lot. I somehow missed SIMON’s introduction, and my game skipped the whole sequence with the Martian Scythe pilot towards the end because I didn’t find a certain object on the Westwick before going down to the planet (the bridge key). By the time I was at that point, it was too late to go back and get it. I should not be condemned to miss a whole sequence because I did not find one random object earlier in the game, especially if it’s important to the story! Like hell I’m starting over from the beginning just to try to view the missing parts because it will take sooooo long to do everything again. You know, even Myst had a lightening mode...

I think the creator wanted to make a movie. This would’ve made a much better movie than it did a game. Darkstar tries to be both, but it fails in both gameplay and story. There’s no story to discover, and what little we get is weak at best. Even if the story had been better presented, the passive acting would’ve killed it anyway. Exploring the Westwick and the planet below is not fun or interesting. Just a few random objects, buttons, switches, door codes and biolocks scattered in obscure areas, and it takes forever to move anywhere.

J. Allen Williams is obviously a filmmaker, not a storyteller or a game designer, so the production leaned more towards how to get this stuff on the screen than how to make a engaging game or tell a good story. The game is very pretty--a technical and visual triumph--but not enjoyable.

Darkstar leaves me with mixed feelings. This is an enormous labor of love and I feel like such an asshole for criticizing it! My hat’s off to Williams for going it alone on such an ambitious project. I wanted to like it. Ten years in the making and I’m sad to say I’m disappointed by the result.

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