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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Black Mirror Review

This is the addendum to my Black Mirror Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing The Black Mirror yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Black Mirror

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the title of some recent hits, read this page, and be inspired to write a graphic adventure game in which the player actually gets to make meaningful choices for the main character (the way CRPG's have been doing for ten years now). Would that ever kick the genre into high gear. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about The Black Mirror that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

The main plot had some gaps and oversights in it (see below), but fundamentally worked for me. In my opinion a good murder mystery has to do three things: scare you, surprise you, and give you enough clues that you have a chance to figure out the solution on your own. The Black Mirror did all three. The game had me suspecting Robert of the murders, and I was surprised by, even skeptical of, his death near the end. And when I saw that James had written "Samuel" on the wall, I immediately started wondering if an evil doppelganger of Samuel's could have been committing the murders (what with all the occult business about the Black Mirror and all that). I even tried to get a hair sample off Samuel to compare with the microscope, but the game wouldn't let me do that. The cutscene montage in the confessional was effective and chilling. There were also a few very frightening moments earlier in the game, most notably the discovery of blood in the grinder. That was such an unexpected thing to have happen during a routine examination of a mundane object that my heart skipped a beat. The ending, on the other hand, was a total let-down. The final chapter was short and anti-climactic, the ritual for banishing the evil spirit of Mordred was contrived, and Samuel's suicide was lame and made me feel like I'd wasted the last couple of chapters. Look, if Samuel was the vessel for the Gordon family's hereditary evil, and Samuel's the last of the Gordon family, then his death would end the curse anyway. If we're not going to have the option to redeem and save Samuel, and break the family curse for the sake of his future children, then what advantage does finishing the game have over getting Samuel eaten by the wolf in Chapter 2?

Plot Holes

Some of these may have been due to translation issues--this game was originally written in Czech, and details may have gotten lost in the conversion to English. If this is the case, I'd be grateful of any Czech-speaking gamers cluing me in as to what us Anglophones are missing regarding these open questions. (-:

1) Why did Samuel choose the victims he did? William was obvious (he was about to tell daytime-Samuel how to avert the curse), but were the others completely random? Vick, in particular, seemed to have no connection to anything.
2) How did Samuel drain Henry's body entirely of blood? I mean... what the fuck? None of the other bodies were drained of blood. It damages the story that all the murders but one were within Samuel's physical power to commit, but that one wasn't.
3) How did Samuel have time to get from Wales to England and back to kill Vick the third night, particularly since we know he was busy until after midnight that night raiding Dergham's tomb? (This was what kept me from suspecting his direct role for much of Chapter 5, in fact. I thought he must have an evil mirror twin lurking in the catacombs or something, because he himself wasn't available for that murder.)
4) How did Samuel have time to kill Robert and Dr. Hermann on the same night, and why wasn't Robert's death in his dreams? For that matter, why doesn't anyone in the game (including the detective) seem to know how Robert died? That part really gave me the impression that the game designers just ran out of time near the end.
5) Where was Robert all that time he was missing? He obviously hadn't been killed yet, since the red sign appeared on the lighthouse between Chapters 4 and 5 and James apparently witnessed the murder.
6) Speaking of those signs, all five are Hebrew letters (T, Y, V, N, and L). Was this supposed to mean something, or do the game designers just have that generic post-40's Eastern European idea that Judaica is eerie and mystical somehow? Update: Another gamer, Amitai Elster, emailed me to note that in a different order, the Hebrew letters spell "Leviathan," the name of an Old Testament sea monster. Apparently these letters are used to decorate pentagrams by Satanists (see this pentagram illustration), and the game designers, failing to recognize that these were letters intended to spell a word rather than meaningless pictures, used them in a random order. A nitpicky quibble to be sure, but if they expected me to know the symbols of the Zodiac, I think it's only fair for me to expect them to recognize a set of symbols as letters from a well-known language.
7) If the trapdoor under James' bed was so obviously still functional, why did he hang himself? There was nothing to stop him from fleeing again.
8) What was the serum Robert was working on so assiduously and unethically, anyway?
9) Why did William disown Robert? Had he found out about the illegal experimentation? If so, what prevented him from doing anything about it?

Black Mirror Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) I loved the invisible interface. It never interfered with the view or the mood, yet was easily accessible whenever I wanted it merely by moving the mouse. Because the invisible interface was located in the margins of the screen, menus and other clutter never appeared on the viewscreen itself. This helped the immersiveness of the game tremendously.

2) It was a welcome relief to be able to double-click on an exit and be taken to the next screen immediately, without having to wait for the character to physically cross the screen. I can't believe more graphical adventures don't offer this possibility, but they don't.

3) Even better was the map of the manor, which allowed you to shortcut directly to a location. Unfortunately, its use was very limited in The Black Mirror--you could only skip to two locations on the castle proper, which was the place you needed it most. I would like to see this map concept improved and expanded on. It's unconscionable how much slower and more tedious adventure game navigation has gotten since the Zork days.

4) I was really impressed by the ambient motion in the background screens. Such little things as leaves rustling and a bird taking wing made the entire gameworld seem more immediate.

5) I appreciated being able to save the game in the middle of a puzzle. That Zodiac slider puzzle took me a long time to do, and I had to stop playing before it was done. It was nice not to have to start the puzzle all over again.

6) Graphic adventures in general struggle with an appropriate level of feedback to the player--too many games will either tell you exactly what to do next whenever you click on a hotspot, like "I need to find something to pry that off with," or else give you a flatly uninformative comment like "I can't do that now," when what's wanted is really just a simple "It's a loose board." You can't always tell what a dark spot on a back wall is even if you squint at it, and clicking on it randomly with everything in your inventory until something works is dull. The Black Mirror does an unusually good job of giving you enough information about your surroundings to let you choose the right inventory object for the job yourself, while rarely resorting to Samuel giving you directions himself.

7) I liked that inventory items had more than one function (the music box could be played at two useful times, the acid used on more than one lock, the mourning-card used for two purposes, etcetera). In far too many games every object has one and only one function, and it starts feeling like everything in the gameworld is really just a differently-shaped key.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave The Black Mirror a 8 out of 10 (rating: very good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, there were a handful of minor things. Telling the player who Samuel's relatives were right off the bat would have helped--there was no reason for Samuel not to know this (he wasn't amnesiac, at least not about his family). Clearing up a couple of the plot holes mentioned above would also have added to the game (in particular, I was very frustrated that the story never returned to the mysterious Cathrin, the fire in the old wing, and why Samuel felt it was his fault). Eliminating that annoying long pause before any character began to speak would have improved gameplay a lot, and that unpleasant bit in the game interface where you had to click an object two or three times and sometimes right-click it as well before being able to use it should have been scrapped in beta. Though I liked the fact that Samuel could die unexpectedly in The Black Mirror, the game should have allowed you to automatically restore just prior to his death; a CRPG is one thing, but there's no upside to forcing gamers to replay sections of a graphic adventure with no tactical combat. The Hebrew letters should have been in the proper order (L-V-Y-T-N), or might possibly have achieved a still creepier effect by being the five letters spelling "Samuel" (S-M-V-A-L). It was a little annoying that letters from a real language were being used and yet had absolutely no linguistic significance--judging by the three decoy letters in the catacombs puzzle, which are not Hebrew characters but rather made-up squiggles, it's clear the game designers didn't even realize those symbols belonged to a language at all. And I still really wish graphic-adventure designers would think to change the clothes the hero wears from day to day. Even just different color shirts, which would have been trivial to program (they managed to get the hood on his jacket up when it rained, after all).

More substantially, there was only one solution to any of the puzzles or tasks (with the one semi-exception being a rag that could be wetted either at a faucet or in the sanitorium fountain). It nearly always improves a game to bring lateral thinking into it by offering up multiple solutions or endings to a quest (for example, Samuel could have either figured out a way to get Richard the oxidant he needed or tricked him with fake oxidant, getting either a successful experiment ending or the explosion ending. Both would have left him at exactly the same point in the main quest, with no further repercussions, but it would have let players exercise their minds and their creativity a little more, as well as determining whether they saw Samuel as more of a straightforward or more of a sneaky fellow.) Which brings me to the biggest thing that could have been improved about this game, the total lack of identification with Samuel. The player has no input into his personality or actions even during his waking hours, so it's not the shock it should be that he's been doing things out of our control at night. He's nobody we've helped to create, either by leading him through any character growth or by making any meaningful decisions for him, so the impact of his tragedy is dulled. He has no emotional connection to his family nor they to each other, so their deaths are robbed of impact. (Why, for example, doesn't he realize that William being James' father makes James his own uncle, and tell him as much when they speak at the lighthouse?) Even the family curse is less compelling than it could be, because there are no other Gordons left to save--Samuel is identified as the youngest of the family and, after the deaths of Robert and James, presumably the last. If the otherwise unimportant Eleanor had grandchildren who were off at university or something like that, there would have been the idea that Samuel's sacrifice was benefiting someone. As it stands, it's not clear why the 'good' ending of this game is any better than Samuel just killing himself as soon as he learns he's possessed by Mordred. Worst of all, Samuel's final decisions of the game are out of the player's hands and make little sense--Samuel had just learned he was possessed by an evil being at the time of the murders (so wasn't truly guilty of them), exorcised the evil being (so no fear of a recurrence), ended his family curse forever (so no fear of passing it on to a descendant), and has shown himself to be a deep believer in Christian confession, forgiveness, and redemption. So what's up with the suicide? It really felt like the game designers were just trying to squeeze in one more death, and/or thumbing their noses at the gamer's natural desire to control his or her character's development even the tiniest bit.

It would have been nice if the player could have chosen from a few meaningful conversational options, the way games like Grim Fandango or The Longest Journey let you. This would have given us a chance to feel ownership of Samuel, and hence more true horror at the game's tragic twists. It would have been nice if we had the opportunity to make actual choices for Samuel at some point in the game, either personal choices like deciding whether or not to tell Victoria he would stay at Black Mirror or gameplay choices like my oxidant example above. And it would have been best of all if there were two endings to this game, giving the player a chance to choose Samuel's final fate (based on how the player visualized him as a character). Doing that much wouldn't even have required any interface redesign--the denouement scene could have been Samuel back in the church, with Father Frederick offering him that chance to confess that he didn't have time for earlier; choosing the 'negative' option could have led to the suicide ending, and choosing the 'positive' option could have led to an ending where Samuel visits William's grave and pledges to make amends for his family's evil history. Games that provide more than one development arc for the main character are SO much more captivating (and can even inspire people to play them through more than once). If only some graphical adventure, somewhere, would ever be bold enough to move away from the completely rigid linearity of the 25-year-old Infocom storyline.

Ah well, maybe next time. This game was good enough that I'll be buying whatever the Pekareks come up with next. I just hope they call me for help with their Hebrew first. :-D

Best Quest: There were a number of very organic problem-solving quests in this game; one that stands out in my mind was distracting Detective Collier. I knew I needed to get him to move, checked my inventory and found that leftover mammal blood from the Wales plot, and the plan formed itself. Samuel had every reason to expect that fake bloodstains might interest a detective, after all.
Lamest Quest: Wandering around those idiotic catacombs at the end of the game. Completely anticlimactic and there was nothing to do but randomly click on things till you either died or won. There was no reason for Samuel to throw the armor into the pit, except that it was the only clickable combination left; no reason that this should have caused the pit to close. And the eye-spikes-and-amulet thing was nothing but mindless trial and error.
Best Puzzle: I really liked putting together the ripped up picture of James. It was an interesting spatial challenge, and it set an appropriately creepy tone early on.
Lamest Puzzle: The Zodiac slider. It had no relevance to anything, and it made me have to get up and fetch the 'horoscope' page out of the newspaper in the middle of a horror game. Not good form.
Best Plot Twist: The big one. I was suspecting Samuel off and on during the last chapter, actually, but that didn't diminish its impact.
Lamest Plot Twist: The ending, about which I've groused at length already.
High Point: The electrifying memory flashes after Bates' confession. I can still see those in my mind's eye.
Low Point: That long, ponderous pause before anyone started talking, and how little they usually had to say once they did. It's a good thing the murder mystery drew me in so quickly or I would have quit playing from all the soporific conversations.

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