Reflections on Black Mirror: Or What Makes Bad GAGs Bad

Matt Barton's picture

Unknown Identity's Black Mirror, published in the US by the Adventure Company in 2003, is one of those rare games that's just good enough to make you hate the fact that it's so unplayable. It's like one of those movies that's hopelessly boring and banal, but nevertheless, there's something about it that makes you realize it could've been a great movie (think Dungeons & Dragons). Black Mirror is the second game I've played by Unknown Identity, a Czech developer also responsible for the travesty Nibiru (it's no wonder why they want to keep their real identity a secret). These graphical adventure games have much in common: The stories are fascinating, the graphics are absolutely gorgeous, and the ambience is outstanding. However, they all suffer from wretched puzzles, unbelievably horrid voice acting, poorly translated dialogue, and an abundance of pixel hunting. What I intend to do here is review and analyze Black Mirror. I'm hoping some benevolent soul will translate it into Czech (along with Ron Gilbert's essay on bad games). Otherwise, we might very well see another Unknown Identity product on the shelf, and the GAG genre is hurting enough as it is.

Copy Protection
All right, let's get this over with. Do you remember the last time you ever asked a game developer to please, please provide Starforce Copy Protection with the game you just bought? For those not in the know, Starforce is almost legendary for its cumbersome, invasive schemes to punish people who actually buy these games. Thanks to Star Force, the game takes about 30-45 minutes to install, and another 5-7 minutes to load each time you want to play the game. Perhaps what's even more amusing, the copy protection requires the entry of a 17-character code to install. The Adventure Company includes five different sets of the codes in case they don't work. As you could expect, the game didn't work for me until I'd tried all the others and was left to the last one. And I *really* didn't like those grinding noises coming from my CD-ROM. The game also has a tendency to crash every so often, no doubt due to issues with the copy protection.

I tried to be patient with this, but finally gave up and downloaded a crack to bypass the Starforce. Unfortunately, that crack was flawed and would crash the game at a certain point, but thankfully I was able to patch it. It's really amazing when the crack writers offer better technical support than the game developer...

Story
The Morgue: Extra Gore and Gristle, Please.The Morgue: Extra Gore and Gristle, Please.Black Mirror seems to influenced by the old ABC gothic soap opera Dark Shadows--or any number of pulpy "gothic" horror novels set in some shadowy old castle somewhere in Old Europe. The rather convoluted story involves a wealthy old family named Gordon, who've lived in the castle Black Mirror for centuries. Your avatar, a rather prim young man named Simon Gordon, has decided to return to the castle after a twelve year hiatus (apparently, it was a self-imposed exile brought about by his guilt over the death of his wife in a fire). His grandfather has recently passed away under suspicious circumstances (murder or suicide?), and the discovery of an odd rune near the scene of the tragedy convinces Simon that foul play is involved. Gradually, as Simon launches his own personal investigation, he learns more about his family's sinister history and his own implication in a vaguely satanic ritual. To make a long story short, the family's cursed, and it's up to Simon to try to rectify the evils brought upon it by some long-dead ancestor.

As Simon begins to piece together how to do that, more murders take place. A gardener is found dead in a the castle fountain. Then a young boy is found slashed to death on a druidic-looking altar. Meanwhile, Simon skips from Gordon family graveyard to graveyard looting them for one of five sacred keys (sigh) he needs...for something.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole game is the end, in which the avatar decides to chuck himself off the same tower where his grandfather apparently ended his life. It's a shocking ending that makes little sense given the story (Simon has already managed to defeat the curse), but so it goes. All in all, the story isn't bad. Indeed, it's about the only thing that kept me hanging on to actually finish this clunker.

Gameplay
How can a GAG made in 2003 still be as thoroughly wretched as Black Mirror? I just don't understand it. There's really no excuse to deliver such a shabby product now that there are so many excellent precedents and examples available for GAG developers to follow.

Let's see...Where to start? Perhaps the most obvious place is the sheer lethargy of the game's pacing. This game is like an ancient tortoise crawling the wrong way up a moving walkway. At times you get so bored you forget to breathe, and find yourself gasping for air.

There are many reasons for this pacing problem. Most of the game is focused on dialogue with the half a dozen or so characters, all of whom are suffering from severe autism (or at least dangerously low levels of glucose). When you click on them to activate a dialogue, they slowly (and I mean SLOWLY) stop what they are doing and rotate towards Simon. You are also forced to occasionally watch one jerkily amble across the screen in a style that would've looked primitive on an Amiga 1000. It's torture. Finally, when you do get the dialogue going, you realize that you're not the only one's who is bored here. The voice actors are right there with you, sharing in your agony. It's as though someone was coaching them--"All right now, get it right--you're half asleep and thoroughly depressed. Channel Marvin the Paranoid Android!" Maybe after ten-thousand takes they finally are so exhausted they do it naturally. Thankfully, you can turn on the subtitles and click through it with less pain, but you lose a lot of the cinematic experience by doing so.

That said, the translation job here is much better than in Nibiru, if perhaps a bit on the bland side. Simon always speaks prim, proper English like some kind of uptight git. My guess is the actor must be moonlighting; his real job must be working on those god-awful tapes designed to help you learn a foreign language. "Yes, waiter, I would like another glass of sherry, thank you very much." Most of your interlocutors are similarly banal. "Madam" is always on the brink of tears; you slowly tease out such traumatazing information from her as the location of the key to the attic; then she's done. "I really don't want to speak about it anymore..." Yawn. Bates the butler is the wheezy old geezer born of a million cliches. "Yes, Master Gordon." In short, none of the characters in The Black Mirror are the least bit likeable. At least some of them die.

As if the soporific dialogue wasn't bad enough in and of itself, the problem is compounded by the straight-jacket linearity of the plot. You won't even be to recognize certain hotspots until after you've spoken (usually purely arbitrarily) to the right character, and you'll be frequently backtracking as you go from one object to the other, recognizing what you need and going back for it. This holds true even if you find something you know you'll need later--such as the key to the cellar. Since when have you ever NOT needed a key you've found in an adventure game? Get with the program, Simon. The only solution is to make note of objects you find in drawers and the like and come back to them later. Simon will only add them to his inventory if you've performed some other arbitrary action first.

There is also an extraordinary degree of pixel hunting here, which is made much worse by the linearity problems described above. Oh, suddenly, now you CAN pick up a tiny pebbles on the path. Oh, NOW the little screw on the weathervane is active. The game requires that you patiently and frequently sweep each screen with your mouse to detect hotspots. Or you could you just use a hint site, which I'd recommend if you want to keep your sanity.

Finally, and perhaps the worst, is the need to repeatedly left and right click on hotspots. The general pattern is that you'll need to at least click twice on an object. Usually, the first time he'll just make some comment, but maybe on the second click he'll actually pick it up or do something with it. Sometimes the left button won't do anything, but the right will do the trick. It's a confusing mess of an interface, and it's difficult to conceive how this could've made it past the beta testers.

At least there are a few concessions to playability here. One nice one is the ability to hit the TAB key to see all available exits (why doesn't it also show hotspots?) For the record, I think it's a grave mistake for any GAG developer not to allow players to instantly see hotspots if they so desire. Unfortunately, there have been precious few games that allowed this. You can also skip to the next location by double clicking on the exit--thus being spared watching Simon slowly amble across the screen.

In short, Black Mirror's gameplay is some of the worst I've seen since...Hm. I guess since some of the graphical adaptations of Scott Adams' early games. This games makes games like Pirate Adventure look like masterpieces of design.

Puzzles
There are several puzzles in the Black Mirror. Some of them fail what I've called the "crack pipe test," i.e., one has to wonder what the developers were smoking while implementing them. Two puzzles call for outside knowledge not available in the game: The order of the planets of the solar system, and the proper ordering of the signs of the zodiac. Chances are, most players will either know some of this information or know where to find it, but I find it a bit odd that the developers couldn't have conveniently left a star chart lying about somewhere. There are also some puzzles involving setting levers and the like that seem based on trial and error (unless I'm missing something).

Other puzzles are of the sliding or jigsaw variety, and there's one small puzzle based on chess that's actually pretty difficult. These puzzles are a bit tricky and distracting, perhaps, but I enjoyed them for the most part. At the very least, they seem less arbitrary than the countless item-based puzzles scattered throughout the rest of the game. As I mentioned earlier, you won't even be able to look at most items before you need them, and even then there's often some arbitrary action you need to perform first. The real "puzzle" is trying to get in the heads of these developers and discover what to do and in what order. When I say "linear," I'm not kidding. If this game were any more rigid, you could break off a chunk and scrape off roof tiles with it.

Finally, some of the puzzles are of the "trial and error by death" variety. What I mean is that the only way you can learn what you're supposed to do is to die a bunch of times doing what you're not and reload. Though some folks might complain about this, they're done in such a way here as to actually be entertaining. After hours and hours of monotony, it's pleasant to be jolted out of your seat as a sharp metal spike flies out of a hole and through Simon's thick skull. Simon can die some pretty horrific deaths in this game reminiscent of Dirk's in Dragon's Lair--fun stuff. Just remember to save often.

Graphics
Ahead: Well, that's one way to lose weight.Ahead: Well, that's one way to lose weight.As with Nibiru, The Black Mirror can boast of some pretty amazing graphics. The backgrounds are lavishly detailed and beautiful. Adding to their appeal is just the right amount of subtle animation. Leaves and papers flutter, birds fly in the background. The ambient noises are just right. There are also scenes featuring rain and thunder. Some of these settings are so well masterfully depicted that you're willing to forgive the game (at least temporarily) for its faults and just savor these moments. The castle is appropriately vast and gloomy, and I really felt for awhile as if I were exploring an actual place. Likewise, the creepy old morgue is spooky enough to give you the jitters.

My overall reaction to the graphics is rather similar to what I experienced playing Cyan's Uru games like Path of the Shell. These games are so expasperatingly beautiful that you literally start to hate the mistakes responsible for ruining them so totally. With better direction and common sense, these could have been masterpieces.

Concluding Thoughts
Ask most people what they think about graphical adventure games and you'll get a litany of reasons that all apply directly to The Black Mirror: non-intuitive puzzles, turgid dialogue, rigid linearity. Ask a diehard fan about them and you'll hear something like, "Well, I buy *EVERY* new gag that comes out no matter how badly it sucks because I want to support the genre." Okay, now put these two attitudes together and you should have a pretty good idea of why this genre has been faltering. On the one hand are critics who are so jaded against the genre to refuse to give new games a chance, and on the other are fanboys who feel a sense of obligation to praise and recommend everything that comes out in a misguided quest to prolong the viability of the genre.

Both are wrong. There are great adventure games still coming out, but there are also polished turds like The Black Mirror, Nibiru, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. We really need to stand united in our contempt for these sad games and reserve our praise for games that truly stand out. Games like The Black Mirror only reinforce the stereotypes that cause most gamers to eschew the genre.