Darkstar: The Interactive Movie
A Full Disclosure
We recently saw the release of two games that were previously known as the most infamous pieces of vaporware in the history of video games. With countless of setbacks and a seemingly eternal development cycle which spawned for over a decade, their respective releases seemed nothing else than wishful thinking. They became legendary titles (maybe for all the wrong reasons) and less than two years ago their future was still uncertain, with few hoping they would make it to the streets. In a sense, it’s still unreal to be finally able to play these games today: Duke Nukem Forever and Darkstar: The Interactive Movie. Over ten years of waiting each; although to be fair, Darkstar was first released as a digital download in late 2010, so Duke wins the all-time longest development cycle by a long margin. In any case, it’s been an insanely long wait for both of them, yet there’s a crucial aspect of each production that sets them apart (besides the gaming genre, that is): whereas Duke Nukem Forever was caught in development hell after a series of petty fights and poor management, Darkstar only took this long because of pure ambition and stubborn determination. One insane man can be credited as the mastermind behind this feast: Jeffery Allen Williams (J. Allen from now on). And make no mistake: he really is insane.
IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU ROCK
Darkstar is a huge game in every sense of the word. Its production values are over the roof; heck, it may be the most ambitious FMV adventure ever conceived. It has everything in abundance: a monolithic spaceship and a planet to explore, hundreds of thousands of dialogue lines, hours of video (allegedly over thirteen), about 40 live actors, a looong soundtrack, you name it. All the aspects that comprise a FMV adventure are multiplied by two (at least). On top of that, somehow this J. Allen dude managed to lure into the project some strong household names such as Clive Robertson, who performs the protagonist, Peter Graves, who provides an inspiring narration of the events in the story, and almost the entire cast of the cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, which over the course of one decade riffed the most awful movies ever and are also acknowledged as the ones who unearthed (for better or worse) THE most horrible piece of film ever conceived by humans: Manos: “The Hands Of Fate”. And still this was primarily the work of one man who dedicated about a tenth of his life to this game. Like I said, insane. I’m still not sure how he achieved this, how much money he invested, how many sacrifices he’s made to how many gods, but Darkstar is here and it’s real. There’s much to talk about though, so let’s go one step at a time, shall we?
Adventures live and die by their story. That is, no one will care to delve into your shiny production if you don’t make things interesting for them. Fortunately, Darkstar kicks off with a strong introduction that casts you in the role of Captain John O’Neil of the Westwick starship, on a mission to (quite literally) save humankind. It’s the year 2185 and planet Earth enjoys an utopic future in which nations are finally united at peace and no longer pursuing military actions. This has come at the expense of turning a colonized Mars into a sort of giant prison where criminals of every kind are sent to rot. Instead of reforming them, the nations simply decide to ignore the problem and over the years get rid of all the scum. Eventually things go awry and somehow Earth is threatened by this ferocious Armada that comes of nowhere with an intent to destroy the planet. There is little hope for a peaceful society who no longer has expertise in warfare to fight back, and the outlook is very somber: we are about to be exterminated.
Something can be done though, a wild, desperate move. Years ago the strangest anomaly in space occurred; no one understands what happened but a massive black hole torn the fabric of the universe and space-time. Not just a back hole, but something far more unusual and mysterious: we called it the “Darkstar”. For spoilery reasons which I can’t elaborate, it has become our only hope to survive and the ultimate goal of Captain O’Neil’s travel. But things get complicated down the road (obviously) and when the story begins O’Neil finds himself awaking after 300 years of hibernation, with no recollection of his mission or who he is, only to find the ship empty and, oh yeah, a rotting corpse missing his left hand in a nearby hibernation chamber.
Evidently, anything I say from now on can potentially ruin the story for you, and I may have already revealed too much. You discover aspects of the plot little by little, like pieces of a large puzzle slowly falling into place, always making sense. Bottom line is, the plot is great, cleverly designed and manages to provide a couple of genuinely surprising twists. Particularly, if you’re fan of Science Fiction (good Science Fiction, that is), I can guarantee you will be largely satisfied with what Darkstar has to offer. The setting and background of the story are quite “hard” (what is known as scientifically rigorous Sci-Fi), so if you’re particularly picky about the details you’re in for a treat. For example, the way the Westwick is laid out and the reasoning behind each section or many operations of the ship are perfectly logical. The classic cliché of the protagonist with amnesia works great because the reasons behind O’Neil’s condition are believable. The language used throughout the game and texts you read here and there are also suitably technical so, overall, I give many high props to Darkstar in this regard: J. Allen considers himself a huge fan of the genre and took a serious approach to Sci-Fi with excellent results. Task accomplished.
Visually the game is a marvel, although the low resolution does hurt the experience and the lack of widescreen support is baffling. I’ve already praised its production but I could never describe in justice the great care that has been invested in every frame you see. All the environments feel futuristic, with neon lights, strange controls, twisty corridors, etc. (there is a downside to this though, which I’ll discuss later). The most breathtaking aspect of Darkstar, by far, is the way live actors have been integrated with these environments. Save one or two poor scenes that seem fake, the integration is pretty much flawless. There’s no ghosting or issues to be seen and in every animated sequence the camera is constantly in motion, and yet the perspective of the filmed portions is always perfectly in tune with the digital surroundings. I said the environments have lights everywhere; well, they also seamlessly illuminate the actors, even complex patterns of blinking lights. Shadows too, for instance the shape of a sliding door projected over O’Neil’s face. It’s sometimes hard to believe that it’s all CGI except the actors. This is a very impressive aspect of the game that never ceased to amaze during my play; in this regard, it’s hands down the best produced FMV adventure ever made.
So the director clearly intended to provide the ultimate interactive movie experience. What about the sound? Thankfully it’s well on par with the visuals. The special effects are loud and clear, there’s rarely a moment of silence in the game (which is fine given the setting) and all the lines delivered by the actors are easy to understand, although as a nonnative speaker I must complain about the lack of subtitles. The soundtrack, however, is a beast of its own: Darkstar was famously going to make use of songs from Canadian Rock legends Rush, but J. Allen stumbled into a legal roadblock (even though he got full permission from the band!) and had to let it go. Apparently some greedy corporation wanted unrealistic amounts of cash out of the deal, go figure. So obviously what J. Allen did is compose the entire soundtrack himself with help of his fellow bandmates because, hell, that’s what every sane person would do in such cases. Yes, apparently J. Allen is a rockstar too. I’m really glad things turned out this way because, as I much as I love Rush, I just don’t think their music was appropriate for this game. Perhaps very few select songs but not an entire hour or so. The soundtrack created by J. Allen & Co. though is expectedly suitable, giving to the game a music videoclip feel that works wonderfully well. You have sad and poignant passages, some heavy metal stuff, and many sonic landscapes that no fan of Neo-Progressive Rock should miss. The soundtrack is being sold separately in two discs and I highly recommend giving it a shot. This is actually one of those scores you can listen to separately (I often do); it’s that good.
A TIME PARADOX
Above all things, Darkstar is a game. You are required to interact, investigate, solve puzzles and find your way through this exciting story with such a lush production. And here is when we stumble into a few problems: the major one I struggled with is the sluggish gameplay. This is a S-L-O-W game which tests your patience at every step; for real, as every move you make triggers an animated transition which can’t be bypassed, and in many cases a very long one. J. Allen took very seriously the term “Interactive Movie” here, and thus the intention seems to have been to make players feel as if they were manipulating a film. That is, no sudden cuts, just a continuous stream of frames. I appreciate the intentions behind this but this is the paradox that constantly plagues Darkstar: it’s masterfully produced, there’s evident thought behind its presentation, and yet it doesn’t work. At least it didn’t work for me. You see, times have changed; we have dozens of games being released each week, the trend being to provide dynamic experiences, even in historically slow-paced games such as adventures, and here comes Darkstar which in many ways dares to raise its middle finger to the whole industry and claim: “look me, I’m classic”. Yes, excruciatingly classic. Had this game been released ten years ago, no doubt today it would be looked upon as one of the most important adventures ever. This is the paradox I can’t resolve: Darkstar achieves everything it aimed to become. It’s an epic, vast, rockin’ experience; a testament to good Sci-Fi and the possibilities the genre can offer. There’s no question in my mind that this is the game J. Allen wanted to produce all the time. But it was released now, not ten years ago, and its impact is severely diminished. Is it fair then to judge the game with todays standards?
It mostly depends on your expectations and if you’re willing to transport yourself back in time. It’s true that we usually replay old adventures that feel dated but somehow it’s different with Darkstar, which is likely a problem of perception. Still, no matter the year of release, there are key aspects that are problematic. The gameplay usually feels like a chore and I think the environment is a key reason for this, besides the transitions: the Westwick, where the story takes place the majority of the time, is a carefully reproduced spaceship with every technical detail in place. Heck, it would probably work for real. This isn’t bad at all, you might say to yourself. Well, it is. I guess real spaceships are dull. Whereas the cutscenes have beautiful animations and expert camera work, the environments are monotonous and often difficult to distinguish from each other. Worse, perhaps, is navigating them as you’re forced to pay a great deal of attention to what’s happening on the screen to understand your surroundings. Many long transitions make you lose your sense of direction. For instance, sometimes you click forward and you end facing a complete different direction in a whole new area. And there’s maze. Yes, a terrible maze which tested my patience to its limits. This is the point where I must confess I resorted to the official guide; without it, I don’t think I would have ever completed the game. There’s a logic behind this maze and ways you can find your direction, but overall this section of the game feels quite meaningless, as if it’s there only to annoy the player. There’s a shortcut thankfully, but it’s still a shame because the rest of the puzzles are correct most of the time, with a few that standout. Many years ago I would have been more than willing to deal with such quirks, but not today, not after we have learned so much and there’s so many things we take for granted in adventures. Darkstar is a very demanding game: slow and unforgiving gameplay, sudden deaths, dead ends; it’s all here.
Again, it’s a matter of perception. We have loved games like this in the past. The original King’s Quest had such quirks. The worst mazes ever where featured in Zorks. But Darkstar was released today. Being so classic is both its virtue and its damnation. As you can see, my relationship with this title was a strange one as I was floored by its concept and presentation but annoyed by its mechanics. I can’t condemn the game for this but it’s not quite what I was hoping for. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe someday I will dedicate three times the amount of hours I invested and, who knows, it could even become a favorite of mine (after all I’m a confessed masochistic gamer). But the important question is: was it worth it? Most definitely, yes. A resounding yes. This is a one of a kind experience, a very personal game that feels unlike any other. In spite of all the problems I mentioned, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to fans of Sci-Fi adventures (with a long list of disclaimers, that is). There’s a great plot that ties the game together, devised with great care and sensibility, there’s even important questions posed about humanity and those “what if’s” that we love so much in the Sci-Fi genre. It’s a tad over-the-top at times, yes, and J. Allen’s obsessions become fairly evident over the course of the game. You must accept its music videoclip style and be willing to endure long cutscenes with little purpose other than display craftsmanship (especially when it comes to the music). But I had no problems whatsoever with this and, in fact, it’s the aspect of Darkstar that I most celebrate: it feels personal, different, and that’s something truly special to admire these days. Above all things, it’s good Sci-Fi. Remember that?
HE ALSO DID THE MOVIE
I have exhaustively explained my feelings about the game but there’s more: Parallax Studio has recently released a movie of the game to a reduced number of people (as if it was a screening process). The film is a whooping three hours long though. Remember the cutscenes in the game roughly amount to thirteen hours, four of them with live actors, so it’s not like J. Allen has squeezed every minute of available video. On the contrary, there’s so much to show, so much to tell, that the major problem has been condensing. The good news, however, is that this movie is amazing, it literally changed my perception of the Darkstar experience. The beginning is expectedly slow and there are many awkward moments; after all it’s the adaptation of an adventure game, but it still works surprisingly well thanks to a marvelous editing process and a good eye for pacing, especially when the story begins to pick up about a quarter into the movie. The final moments in particular are riveting. I mean, I was watching the movie of a game I had just played lasting three hours and it didn’t feel that long. That was the revealing moment: there’s probably no FMV adventure out there that can work as a movie except this one and that’s likely due to the sheer amount of footage and animated transitions. If you’re terrified of the game with its demanding design, then give the movie a chance. It’s in this form where we can truly appreciate the deal of work that has been invested on this project and why it’s so important in the history of the adventure genre. It’s hard to believe that it was made in the first place.
The movie is still an early rough cut though and there’s much to be done. At least half an hour should be removed. However, there’s so much content that I believe J. Allen could look into producing two separate movies. There’s way too much going on as it is right now and many sequences feel like lame exposition (which is not quite wrong in a game but definitely bad in a movie). For example, the game is neatly divided into past and present events. All the past sequences are cutscenes that can be viewed at certain points in the story, so this particular aspect of the game was really intended as a movie by itself and would require very little editing to make it work. Thus, my ideal conception of Darkstar is one main, say, two hour movie, which should be extremely well paced, and then a sort of an hour long extra documentary which depicts the events predating the movie. This would even confer an air of mystery to the main feature as in your first viewing you aren’t aware of all the stuff that transpired in the past (as far as I can tell the story still holds up very well in this form). If Parallax Studio manages to produce such cuts in high-definition, I can guarantee you that Darkstar would make huge waves in the net because, as I believe I mentioned one or twice during this article, the production is seriously impressive. Now, put the movie on Blu-ray with surround sound and that would be the ultimate Darkstar experience. I know it’s a long shot but one can only dream about such things.
So, this is a unique creation that deserves to be experienced in either form. With its nods to great Sci-Fi movies and pulp magazines, it’s a love letter to the Sci-Fi genre that any fan should appreciate. If you arm yourself with patience and only play adventures, I’m sure you would enjoy the game, and if not you always have the exhaustive official guide which is a great companion. Make no mistake: it’s a worthwhile experience that leaves a lasting impression on you. Even if you don’t care about any of this, do check out the soundtrack which is downright awesome. That such a production saw daylight should be an inspirational tale for any fledging developer out there. Just don’t try this at home unless you’re as crazy as J. Allen Williams.
Make sure you check out the past interview which is a great companion piece to this article: Interview With The Darkstar Team