GOGathon: What a Lovely Thing I've Seen In the Black Mirror!

by Arthur B

On my strange enjoyment of an eerie point-and-click adventure.
The curiously-named Black Mirror Castle - nothing to do with the Charlie Brooker TV series, don’t get confused - is the ancestral home of the Gordon family. It’s so named because legend has it that the castle was built over a portal to Hell by Mordred Gordon, tyrant and diabolist, before Mordred was defeated in a confrontation with his brother Marcus back in the 13th Century.

Closer to the present day - internal evidence suggests that the action of the game takes place in the mid-1980s - and the castle’s present owner, the elderly William Gordon, is up late writing to Samuel Gordon, who left the castle and the family circle a long while ago in order to deal with his grief after his wife died in a fire at the castle. You see, William has discovered some important things about the Gordon family line, matters which Samuel must be made aware of - but before William can send his letter, a mysterious intruder flings him out of the lonely tower in which his study is located. Thus, Samuel does return to Black Mirror - albeit not at William’s summons, but to attend his funeral. Taking control of Samuel, your task is to guide him through his investigation - first of William’s death, then of the matters William had uncovered - in order to finally face the truth about your family.

Point and click adventures had a bit of a slump after their 1990s heyday, but The Black Mirror was one of a few games from the early 2000s from the genre which made a splash. Developed and released in 2003 by Czech game studio Future Games, it would go on to become that outfit’s greatest hit; the German version published by DTP Publishing was a major hit, snagging the #1 spot in Amazon’s German storefront’s charts.

The English language version on GOG.com was released to the North American market by The Adventure Company, DreamCatcher Interactive’s adventure games division. There was a while when more or less anything that The Adventure Company put out got lapped up eagerly by adventure game fans who just uncritically wanted something reminiscent of the games they loved in yesteryear and were not at all about discerning. Other Adventure Company releases I’ve played include Dark Fall, Post Mortem and Still Life, all of which I found rather underwhelming in contrast to the warm reception they got on adventure game fansites.

I’m pleased to report, though, that I rather enjoyed The Black Mirror. Let me add some caveats there: it’s a game with some significant flaws, which is very traditional in its adventure game approach, and which doesn’t do anything extraordinarily original with the medium. Moreover, my enjoyment of it is a particularly niche enjoyment - one which is probably akin to the enjoyment that supporters of Dark Fall or Still Life or Barrow Hill derive from those games. The difference, to me, is that The Black Mirror largely pulls off what it’s going for, whilst to my tastes at least all those other games fuck up horribly and fail to stick the landing.

Let me run down the game’s faults first. The most notable one is the voice acting, which is horrendously stiff; I found it unbearable, to tell the truth, and as soon as I could I turned it off and turned subtitles on, which largely salvaged the game for me (particularly because I have fond memories of playing this sort of game back when all the dialogue was delivered via text, not voice acting). However, let’s not be too quick to blame the voice actors: the material they had to deal with was, in and of itself, quite dry and stiff, and turning the voice acting off and subtitles on makes this especially apparent.

The original script, of course, would most likely have been done in Czech, so my suspicion is that this is a translation issue - specifically, Future Games’ Anglosphere partners (most likely The Adventure Company, who did North America distribution, or GMX Games who did the UK release) cheaped out on the translation process, resulting in a translation which by and large gets across the general sense of what is said but which sometimes fails to get the finer nuances across. (Recall, if you will, the issues I had with the first book in the Witcher series.)

At points this linguistic fuzziness extends to the point of making it difficult to follow some parts of the game. Some, for instance, have claimed that at least one murder happens when the culprit is demonstrably quite far away, but I can see how this could plausibly be the result of a translation error, or a throwaway line which people have interpreted as relating to the time of the murder actually relating to something else - but it’s definitely unacceptably unclear. A second pass on the script could have done a lot of good there. (I also think it’s unclear at the end whether what you’ve done represents the culmination of Mordred’s plans or the final defeat of them, but I’m more willing to see that as a deliberate artistic decision.)

Another issue is technological: some of the character animations tend to be somewhat slow. I am 99.99% convinced that this is not a hardware issue - I played this on a modern gaming PC and based on the system requirements the game only used a fraction of the resources it could have, plus there’s other scenes where the animation is at a more normal pace, or even ends up weirdly fast. (Weirdly, sometimes the same animation will be slow in some areas but fast in others - this is most easily spotted with Samuel, who goes at a crawl in some locales and walks briskly in others.) I can only assume that the issue is at a programing level.

This issue is worst whenever you need to talk to a character - characters must finish their current animation loop before starting a conversation, because Future Games only programmed one point in that loop where they could break out of it and shift into a “having a conversation pose”. Sometimes there’s a lag of some five or so seconds between Samuel telling someone he wants to talk to them and them acknowledging his existence, which just makes you want him to click his fingers in front of their eyes and go “Hellooooo, earth to asshole, I’m talkin’ to ya here!”

The last flaw I want to point out is the occasional bit of needless pixel-hunting (the worst example of which is a hammer hidden on top of a corrugated iron roof which is basically not visible - or at least not visibly a hammer - and whose interactable zone is tiny. Consistently, whenever I needed to look something up using the very handy Universal Hint System site (which is quite good at providing you with only the hints you specifically want without revealing unwanted spoilers), it turned out that I’d missed something. Since the game is already civilised enough to show you the exits from an area whenever you hit tab, it’d really only be a bit more effort to make that highlight all the interactable bits on the screen as well when you did it. Sure, it means you can’t design puzzles based around hiding clues and forcing pixel-hunting, but that’s utterly obnoxious anyway. A puzzle which hides crucial information from you isn’t a legitimate puzzle - a crossword which doesn’t print half of the clues isn’t a clever or interesting crossword, it’s just breaking the accepted rules of the format.

The above issues, and the fact that some of the puzzles involve a slightly obnoxious amount of backtracking, are my problems with the game: what made me enjoy it anyway? Well, part of it comes from the fact that the developers clearly understand the point and click medium well enough to recognise some of the irritations that sometimes hamper the genre. For instance, one nice feature of the game is that once you’ve gotten all the interactions out of an item in the environment that are presently available to you, it tends to stop being interactable (and when it doesn’t, that’s usually a sign that there’s more you can do with it in the near future).

This is more clever game design feature than it first appears. They could have stripped it back further by not having any items interactable at all unless they are directly and immediately involved in a puzzle, but they don’t do that - there’s plenty of stuff there which you can look at, Samuel will say something about it, and then the item’s no longer interactable. This allows them to seed each scene with little bits of flavour without cluttering them up with red herrings, as well as allowing them to have Samuel comment on stuff in the scene which seems comment-worthy but in a “Ok, this is here, but you don’t need to worry about it for game” purposes sort of way.

Later in the game some locations on the map aren’t visitable if Samuel doesn’t have any real reason to go there, and sometimes he’ll refuse to leave a location until he’s got what he came for. Whereas this is sometimes a little frustrating, allowing the player to roam about uselessly rather than channelling them into the areas of the game where additional progress is possible would be more frustrating, and there’s a certain reassurance to it - generally, if you are restricted to a particular location, you know that all you need in order to progress is located within that location or is already in your inventory, so it’s just a matter of searching for it.

This also ties into the game’s insistence on generally having sound internal logic. Samuel’s not one of those point-and-click protagonists who grabs onto any random shit that comes his way in case it becomes useful; there’s numerous instances where he’ll only interact with an object once something has happened which prompts him to find it useful. Similarly, puzzles tend to be solved with sensible solutions you would expect to work, by and large, rather than absurd solutions which usurp more plausible routes.

This is a game design feature which reads onto the storytelling; if you present a protagonist who’ll grab a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle just for shits and giggles and then later stumble across a situation where that would actually be useful, then your story is inevitably going to seem a little silly, but if you have a protagonist who only starts getting a little larcenous when it comes to grabbing bits for his inventory when it becomes clearly necessary and where he generally advances his agenda through sensible means, that’s good for telling a believable story with a believable protagonist.

This helps the game maintain the gloomy, dread-filled atmosphere it’s really good at establishing. It’s not big on jump scares or gruesome sights - though there’s examples of both - instead emphasising a sense of decay and despair overshadowing the Gordon family and the lands surrounding their home. (In this light the side plot concerning Robert Gordon, William’s brother, and his work as the director of a local mental hospital actually functions quite well - it adds a little twist to proceedings as well as highlighting how the Gordon family has repeatedly found itself drawn into strange, obsessive pursuits (of which Samuel’s chasing after the truth can be seen as one.) Overt comedy or flashy supernaturalism would undermine that, and the game avoids both - in fact, you don’t get any truly unambiguous supernatural incidents until the very end, which I appreciated because it meant there was space for this final escalation to be impressive and seem important.

All these good points support what I really enjoyed the most about The Black Mirror - and this is the thing which might be so personal to me that I can’t really expect a great many people to enjoy it to the same extent. That’s the way it’s a gentle, slow, spooky classically-styled point-and-click adventure. Its sedate pace allows you to drink in the glum atmosphere and the carefully constructed aesthetics (which basically gives to rural England the sort of treatment English-language media have often given to rural areas of central Europe). At the same time, the logical puzzle structure and careful pruning of extraneous options means that you will typically progress through the game at a suitable rate, albeit one which still gives you a sense of accomplishment as bit by bit you unlock the game’s mysteries. It’s not a game which hurriedly propels you through it - though you’ll find it hard to tear yourself away if you get into it as much as I did - so much as it’s one which is happy to let you sit back and smell the roses, and makes sure the roses are worth smelling. That’s a rare alchemy, and I treasure it when I find it.

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