Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a bland and boring FMV and 8-bit sprite,
While I slobbered, scarcely sober, realized it was late October,
Happy games were all “Game Over,” now for something filled with fright.
‘Here’s a title called ‘The Dark Eye.’ That sounds amply filled with fright.
Based on Poe. Could be all right.’
Okay, I was going to try to do the whole review that way, but that rhyme scheme is a real bitch. Edgar Allan Poe is a hard man to replicate, but that didn’t stop Inscape from giving it a shot with The Dark Eye, a first-person point-and-click pseudo-adventure-game based on the author’s work.
The Dark Eye puts you in the shoes of a nameless narrator (voiced by Tom “Professor Utonium” Kane, a personal favorite of mine) in the 1800s, arriving at your Uncle Edwin’s house where your brother Henry and cousin Elise are visiting. It soon becomes apparent that your brother has taken something of an unusual liking to your cousin, much to Uncle Edwin’s chagrin. Each family member wants your help in the matter, but there’s no time to worry about that because before you know it, you’ve blacked out and entered a creepy nega-version of the house. Here, your family is nowhere to be found, and formerly innocuous objects now act as portals to one of three nightmares. These nightmares make up the bulk of your playtime and borrow their stories from three Poe tales: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, and “Berenice”.
I’m a fan of Poe’s stuff, but I’m not an expert; so I have to admit that while I was familiar with the first two stories, I hadn’t heard of “Berenice”. I’d wager your average gamer might be in the same boat. So, why choose it over one of his more well-known works? My guess is that they needed three stories with a clearly developed murderer and victim. You see, the hook of the nightmares is that you must play through each one twice. Each dream has two entry point objects in the nightmare world. One will suck you into the shoes of the killer, the other will cast you as his hapless prey. After running through the plot of a dream (as either character) to its completion, you wake up back in the daylight version of the house and must return to the troubles of your family until you pass out once again. A phrenology-inspired mind map allows you to revisit past nightmares.
The dreams can be played in any order, but I use the term “played” quite lightly. You are free to explore your environment, but you are always beholden to the version of events set down by Poe. Nothing you do can alter the story, meaning there are no decisions to be made and no actions to be taken other than the ones necessary to “unlock” the next scripted section. Give up any idea of reforming the bloodthirsty characters or guiding the innocent ones to safety. Poe wrote the walkthrough for this title 150 years ago.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any fun to be had. Quite the contrary. If you enjoy these stories, you won’t want to miss the chance to wander through them yourself. The Tim Burton style claymation characters provide the perfect supporting cast, giving you that slightly uneasy feeling as they jerk about disjointedly, facial expressions fixed. The music, provided by Thomas Dolby, augments the eeriness nicely. Voice acting is top notch as well. They somehow got author William S. Burroughs to perform Edwin, and his gravely, curmudgeony tones suit the role flawlessly. True, The Dark Eye fails to feel like a game, but at being a sort of interactive Edgar Allan Poe amusement park ride, it succeeds admirably.
An interesting feature the developers added to make you feel like you’re doing more than you really are is “soul jumping”. Each nightmare has at least two moments in it during which you look into the eyes of your opponent. At this point, you will see your reflection and have the opportunity to jump from the body of the murderer to that of the victim or vice versa. If you accidentally started as the wrong one and want to switch over to the other, this is a convenient cheat. Otherwise, it’s unnecessary and actually hurts the flow of the story since it’s best to see one entire side of the tale before experiencing the other. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re supposed to soul jump just because you get the opportunity. You’re never required to do so and I recommend against it.
Lots of little nods to Poe have been lovingly baked in. Aside from the three main stories that can be played in their entirety, there are hidden spots where you can hear Burroughs read “Annabelle Lee” and “The Masque of the Red Death” as disquieting images float by. These recitations are enjoyable, but Burroughs’ cadence is a little off in my opinion. He rushes through the lines a bit, and ends up sounding more like Foster Brooks than Vincent Price. Christopher Lee would have been the ideal narrator for these sections, but now I’m just nitpicking. Other references include a newspaper article based on “The Premature Burial” and a poetry book that includes “To Helen” alongside a pressed rose. There’s also a heck of a lot of cousin love, a theme present in Poe’s work as well as his real life. Most impressively, the original framing story involving Uncle Edwin and the cousins is admirably Poe-like, and ends the game with a very nice little twist.
As cool as all the Poe love is, the creators seem to take it for granted that the player has an intimate knowledge of the writer. As I mentioned above, I had already read “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”. So when I found myself leading a fat guy down into a wine cellar or pondering sinisterly over a nice old man with a weird eye, I knew exactly where this was going and how I should proceed. However, since I had not read “Berenice”, I got lost. I didn’t already know what should happen, and since that’s the only thing the game will allow to happen, nothing happened.
In a way, this system is kind of appealing. At first I thought that my character was in love with Berenice but it wasn’t until I tried looking at her that I got the internal monologue explaining that he wasn’t. And yet, he then proceeds to propose to her anyway. Having no inkling of your motivation does sort of replicate the feel of reading a book, stumbling onto surprises as you go. Of course, it’s also frustrating. Especially when you’re next required action isn’t even an action. How am I expected to know that the next bit of plot will only arrive after I go stare out the window or pick up a book I’ve already examined? Even after finishing “Berenice”, I wasn’t sure I understood it, and actually had to look up Poe’s original to confirm what had happened. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a Poe primer. If you slept through high school English, go buy his collected works for a song (or get them all online for free) and start there. But if you approach The Dark Eye with a decent knowledge of Poe, or at least a genuine interest in him, you’ll probably have no problem enjoying it.
On the technical side of things, I did encounter a few bugs, though I suspect these were a result of playing on a newer system. Mostly these entailed me moving too quickly through a scene and screwing up the triggering of a scripted event. I was always able to correct the problem by going back to the mind map and reloading the dream with very little progress lost. I did have to install the ancient Quicktime 2.03 and make some simple changes to the game’s settings file to allow it more access to system memory than it was initially willing to take. Control is Myst-style with a little hand that you point in the direction you want to move or the object you want to examine. An annoyance present here, and in any game that uses this setup, is that you will find yourself having to back up, turn around, and move in otherwise illogical direction to attack an object from its intended angle. Also, snag the manual online before playing, as it will detail some of the less obvious controls.
If you’re expecting a LucasArts or Sierra style adventure game with clever puzzles based around Poe stories, you’ll be mostly disappointed by this title. But if you go in prepared for a chilling new way to experience the Master of Macabre’s world, with an interesting original tale thrown in to boot, then The Dark Eye is a more than worthy companion on a night in the lonesome October.
A Poe game clearly made by a team that both loves and understands his distinct style.
Barely qualifies as a game since you don’t exactly play it. If you’re unfamiliar with the three main stories, you’re likely to get lost.
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” — Edgar Allan Poe