Two truths about art and artists occurred to me while I was playing Dark Fall: Lights Out. The first is that an artist's sophomore work is always incredibly difficult, having to straddle the line somewhere between striking out in a new direction and simply doing more of the same. The second was that the fan of a once-obscure artist can find themselves in the confounding position of both enjoying that artist's newfound popularity while worrying that it will dilute the nature of their work.
The first Dark Fall was originally written, programmed and self-published by Jonathan Boakes. I discovered the game through the 'net, and contacted Mr. Boakes directly to get a copy. It arrived in an unassuming DVD case inside of which were a blank, unlabeled disc and a small piece of paper containing the game's installation instructions.
The original Dark Fall ended up being one of the best adventure games in recent memory. The railway station in which the game's story was set felt like a real place, its history fleshed out with literally generations of poor souls trapped in the evils of the place. I filled an entire notebook with notes and diagrams trying to get a complete understanding of what had gone on before I tackled the endgame. Dark Fall was one of the few games that I can say actually frightened me, and I'll admit it was with mixed feelings that I tackled the sequel.
Lights Out comes packaged as a professional product, published by The Adventure Company, who also eventually published the first game under the name Dark Fall: The Journal. It comes complete with a jewel-case for the game containing a well-written manual. Some part of me missed the home-grown feel of the original as I opened and installed the game, and it was then that the two truths of second works and the mainstreaming of artists came to mind.
Would Boakes follow the tried-and-true method of his first game? Would Lights Out simply be more of the same? Was that necessarily a bad thing? Would the combination of professional publishing and the sophomore curse make this a cookie-cutter sequel?
I'm both pleased and sad to say that Lights Out is not more of the same. Boakes has taken some of the basic ideas of Dark Fall and expanded them in new and interesting ways. Not all of them work, and ultimately the game does not play out as well as the original with regards to both the story and the gameplay, but in the end, it's an admirable attempt.
The professionalism of Lights Out is apparent from the very opening screens as the program's titles and credits are picked out by the sweeping circular beams of a lighthouse's lamp. The graphics have been greatly improved from Dark Fall's somewhat grainy 640x480 display to a much crisper 800x600.
The story begins with a nightmare. Benjamin Parker awakens after a strange dream full of images and whispered voices he cannot understand. You, as Parker, awaken in a tiny bedroom to a short, sharp knock at the door. It's still night, though, and the fog is rolling in off the bay of Trewarthan. Who would possibly try to wake you at such an hour? You soon learn that Parker is a cartographer, called by a mysterious benefactor to map the treacherous, shifting coastline of Cornwall in the spring of 1912. In his first attempts to sketch out the landscape, he sees in the distance what he believes to be a lighthouse, but no such building exists on any map he can find. And mentioning the lighthouse to his benefactor has the strangest of results...
Since Lights Out is a mystery, it's difficult to speak of the game's story without giving away spoilers. But early on, it's apparent that things aren't what they seem.
Lights Out uses a wide-screen view, with an inventory area at the bottom and a meta-command menu (save/load/quit) at the top. Each location is displayed as a rendered image, with hotspots linking to close ups and linking screens. Unfortunately, this is a portion of the game that has not been improved from its predecessor as linking hotspots aren't always logically placed and it's very possible to miss what the designer most likely considered an obvious exit.Continued on the next page...