Game Diary: Darkest of Days

So Jack Monahan was right.

Basically, he said that Darkest of Days, by the end of its production run, was not the game that he’d hoped it would be, that it didn’t live up to the initial conceptions of the designers.

From his point-of-view re: Darkest of Days, that of level designer, the game went from presenting an open-ended concept of level design to a more and more constricted view, one that limits the choices of the player in order to “maximize” story.

But after reading about Darkest of Days on his website , I was interested enough in the concept, and interested in all the problems he detailed, that I wanted to try out the game for myself.  Think of it as going to watch a bad movie that everyone says is horrible but your fascination (my fascination) with how such a thing was released into the wider marketplace draws you irrevocably to your doom.

And so I played the demo (which I still recommend to any and everyone) which hooked me from the iconic beginning and the set-up.   I was looking for images of this beginning, but couldn’t find any on-line so you’ll just have to take my words for it.

You are Alexander Morris, a soldier who is part of Custer’s forces at the battle of Little Big Horn, in the minutes before the conclusion of that last stand.  All of Darkest of Days scenarios are like this – doomed conflicts where most everyone died – which explains the title: here are the darkest days relived.  And, yes, that’s some of the appeal for me, like watching Stalingrad or the opening of Saving Private Ryan or all of The Thin Red Line, the humanity of people vs. the inhumanity of war, being in the thick of it and assaulted by the contradictory emotions involved.

Darkest of Days begins by capturing that feeling wonderfully.  The design of the opening – even though you have no control at first and only limited control later – is perfect.  The picture comes in grey with a red text telling you where and when you are.  What you’re watching is the beginning of a movie, one in which you are destined to take part.  American cavalry rush by on their horses and a man on foot gets pinned by an arrow before your eyes.  The camera pivots to show a horde of Native Americans on your trail, arrows flying through the sky to land at your feet.  And all of this is wonderfully scored with period music that embodies the desperation and sadness of the moment.

It’s only after watching this intro again that you begin to notice certain things.  The action is slowed down to resemble a memory, but also because it makes the graphics clearer.  The arrows that fall around you aren’t shot by anyone.  The landscape, while beautiful, is also a bit empty.  Or maybe it’s just the rail you’re riding on that makes it seem that way.

But ignore all that for the moment.  Play the demo and lose yourself in this beginning, almost as perfectly choreographed as the intro to Half-Life.

Darkest of Days civil war battle

And much of the beginning captures that feeling of being lost in a world outside of your control.  The rest of the demo includes one of the first missions that take place during the civil war.  Here, you run through a cornfield at the battle of Antietam with your fellow Union soldiers falling around you.  Re-loading a weapon never felt so tense as you try to pack gunpowder and shot down your barrel quickly enough to beat the Confederate soldier opposite you who has picked you out as his next target.

There are many moments like this, where the “reality” of the game closely enough resembles the reality of what the Civil War was (or, at least, what I imagine it to be) that I become fully engaged in the story.

Sadly, the story I become fully engaged in isn’t the one involving Alexander Morris and KronoteK (the video game equivalent of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol) and their missing direction, Dr. Kroell.  This story, while it might’ve been compelling in its own right if written better or if it wasn’t so laden down with the trappings of traditional first-person shooters (along with, essentially, some of the dead weight FPSs shed long ago, like re-spawning enemies), simply doesn’t hold up against the re-enactments of actual wars and atrocities displayed in the game.

Partly, this lack of involvement is because the game takes you out of the action by using a weapons upgrade system.  Even an experience system would work better, keeping you in the game itself, showing how Morris grows as a person and adventurer.  The weapons upgrade system is also so bland that it seems imbedded in the game “Simply to provide what players expect,” or so says the marketing team.

Partly, this lack of involvement is because of the intrusion of “modern” weapons into the historical missions which, one, takes a lot of the risk and difficulty out of the game to provide, instead, the gee-whiz sensation of being a super soldier and, two, goes against KronoteK’s stated goal of leaving history unchanged.  Development team, please read Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”.

Partly, this lack of involvement comes from your every movement in the missions being dictated by the game.  You have a map that tells you directly where to go.  You have a mentor KronoteK agent who drops in to guide you along when the map isn’t enough.  You have invisible walls that prevent you from wandering too far afield.  This might as well have been a rail-shooter for all the real freedom it gives you.

Partly, this lack of involvement comes from you being nigh invincible.  A few shots from period weapons will put a red film around the screen, signifying your closeness to death, but just hide for a few moments and you’re magically regenerated back to full health.  I came out of some of these missions more metal than man, the amount of bullets I took.

And still, already disenchanted with the game, the honeymoon over and the divorce in the wings, I came across this mission:

Darkest of Days concentration camp

As with the beginning of the game, Morris is part of an opening cinematic: You have been captured by the Germans in World War II and are being treated as a Russian POW.  The mission starts with you exiting a train as just another POW and going through the slow, deadening process of entering the concentration camp.  Although this camp was not specifically a death camp as were those reserved for the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other groups the Nazis hated, the Russians were treated nearly the same, and most of them died in the camps.

In the camp you meet up with the POW you are supposed to save and he takes you into confidence about his escape plan.  But then, just as things are getting interesting, just as the game is promising a period-piece escape drama where you, as an agent from the future, have to ensure this man Petrovich’s success, the Germans take him and prepare to execute him for planning to escape.  Your KronoteK mentor appears, hands you a gun, and then, guns a blazin’, you create an escape the old-fashioned (re: boring) way.

Now, there are many games where this wouldn’t be boring.  Where I would expect nothing more than a shoot ‘em up with a subtly different wallpaper.  But what disappoints me about Darkest of Days is that it showed so much promise in terms of creating a living, historical world, and of putting the player in a convincing, and emotionally-wrenching, copy of that world.

Instead, it provides a story far less interesting than those going on in the battles where the missions of Darkest of Days take place.  Not only that, this over-arching story simply doesn’t make sense, and it trails off as though just a story told by a drunk who’s slowly falling asleep.  As with that drunk, you’re left awake and sober, wondering what he was so excited to tell you, and trying to decide whether it’s worth waking him to find out.

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