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IFCOMP 2007 - Gathered In Darkness

Game #5: Gathered In Darkness
By Michael Millsap (writing as ďDr. FrothĒ)
Played On: October 7th (4 hours 20 minutes)
Platform: Quest (Version 4)
Merkís Score: 5

     Gameís Blurb:
     An eccentric genetic engineer, a forgotten evil God, a strange and sinister religious order, a powerful bloodline, a beautiful woman, a tropical paradise, horror, terror, fear, death, and one hell of a case of mistaken identityÖ

     I had the misfortune of experiencing constant computer problems while playing Gathered In Darkness. I donít think itís the gameís fault (and itís certainly not if nobody else experienced the same), but about ten times my computer either froze, or froze and went to a black screen, or spontaneously rebooted during play. Something is off with my computer (maybe bad RAM), but Iím used to problems like this maybe a couple times a week -- not ten times in an afternoon. My guess is that Quest is doing some heavy-duty things in memory (I discuss slow save games a little later) that simply made my existing hardware problem worse. This is all wild guessing, though.

     The result is that I personally experienced some of the madness that is inherent to the Cthulhu mythos. The game doesnít bill itself as Cthulhu-inspired, but it becomes evident as the story progresses. I havenít read H. P. Lovecraft, but (for what itís worth) Iíve played a few hours of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG (with D20 rules). It was familiar enough that I probably could have placed it even without an in-game reference to Cthulhu (itís in the second or third chapter).

     Gathered In Darkness was cut by the author from nine chapters to three, for the IFComp. Even missing its other two-thirds, itís long enough that a two-hour play-through without hints is unlikely, even for the most skilled of IF gamers. It isnít just the puzzles. The game is full of lengthy bits of backstory (diary entries, museum pieces, book excerpts, and so forth) that just take time to read and digest. Itís all in support of a creepy survival horror escape story thatís easy to become immersed in.

     Or rather, it could be. Unedited writing may spoil the mood for many players. On the one hand, we are given dark and chilling descriptions of unthinkable horrors the likes of which might be found visually in the Silent Hill series. This is certainly for a mature audience, not your eight-year-old daughters. But at the same time these descriptions are riddled with misspellings, words missing from sentences, comma-splices, a lack of apostrophes where they belong in possessive nouns, and other grammatical mistakes. Accurate writing is a good thing in general, but itís especially important when you want the text to seem believable and immersive. To succeed, you really have to convince the reader that you are in full control. It shouldnít be obvious that itís just some guyís horrific but poorly-edited imagination.

     Aside from these problems in the writing, Gathered In Darkness isnít too buggy. There are problems, but I donít remember thinking (and my transcripts donít suggest) that the game was seriously broken in any way. The oddities below (among others) werenít nearly as distracting as the frequent and glaring problems in the writing itself.

     I found no alternative to the ďuseĒ verb in some cases. There were wrong exits listed in some rooms. Some descriptions didnít change to accommodate new information when they should have. The parser threw away important prepositions like ďinĒ from commands except where it was specifically expected. As a command, ďx selfĒ works but ďx meĒ does not. Some instances of guess-the-verb were an annoyance, but not a major one. (What I mean is that itís usually evident that ďsome specific actionĒ is appropriate, and I always seemed to hit on the right thing after two or three tries rather than give up thinking I was on the wrong track.) A skylight on the second floor of a three-story building was probably a mistake in the gameís consistency.

     Consistency problems might be because the author has been working on the game for so long (according to some in-game info). In one scene, the author forgets which NPC is which. There, a woman who died early in the game reappears accidentally later on, but itís caught and the right name is used as the scene continues. Then, in the roomís short description afterwards, she is listed with the wrong name again. This could be intentional if perhaps the author was going for an Eternal Darkness sort of insanity effect for the player, but I doubt it.

     This is the first Quest-based game Iíve played, ever. In some ways, Iím impressed with the system. It seems like a capable competitor for Adrift, and the author has demonstrated that itís suitable for longer adventures. Even aside from the lock-ups (which I donít actually blame on anything but my stupid, stubborn PC), there were oddities. Iím lost without running a full transcript, and it took a while to figure out that in Quest you can only enable that by launching the main runner (not a game file directly). Even then, it doesnít flush all output to the file immediately (as though itís working on a buffer). I liked that I could change the font size and colors (I opted to stick with the authorís intended color scheme of red on black, but I enlarged the font since I sit back a ways from my monitor), but that only applies to the main output window. I was stuck with a teeny-tiny input line, which I couldnít read for accuracy at that distance. The stuff on the sidebar remained in a default font (small) as well.

     And then, there was something odd going on with saving and loading games. The longer I played and the more saves I made, the longer it took to save and load. There were times in the third chapter when it took (I kid you not) over sixty seconds to actually save and return control to the game. Late in the game, one save even took two minutes. Loading went a little quicker, but even it became painfully slow. These are small files in the 16- to 60-K range. Oddly enough, the file size did grow the longer I played and re-saved. Is a save a complete re-play of commands from the gameís start or something? Surely not.

     But what of the gameís story? I found it intriguing enough that I remained interested the whole way through. Itís sufficiently shocking in spots, as tales of evil, demonic cults are wont to be. A mystery surrounds the converted resort complex, its staff, and the recent gathering of guests.

     (Be warned -- possible plot spoilers in the next two paragraphs.)

     Suspension of disbelief is vital, of course, but some parts of the plot do seem to fall on the wrong side of coherency. For example, while others are brutally murdered and left scattered (or sometimes hidden) around the hotel, the PC suffers an attack that is best described as a malicious inject-and-run with a slow-acting poison. After that, he is left to roam around (and casually escape confinement) in search of an antidote.

     Security is complicated by code-only doors, special keys, and secret locks that require very specialized skills to open, yet the PC gets through easily with the right skills and the general incompetence of those who are probably supposed to keep these things out of his hands. In retrospect, thatís not all bad. It reminds me of Silent Hill, and itís not out of place in a story like this. Still, I think itís possible to improve upon these tropes of IF, or even replace them with something better.

     With only three chapters of a nine-chapter tale, itís possible (even probable) that the author has a really good reason for these things. Answers may come with the rest of the story. The author plans to release the complete game after the IFComp has ended.

     Locked doors and secret passages are only a part of the puzzles that weave the story together. I found a lot to like in the gameís puzzles. The macabre nature of the story lends itself to a few that really stand out as well-placed and original. Itís not often that a game can find an important use for a mixture of shredded skin and genetic solvent. I never found the puzzles too difficult to manage, except sometimes when it came to finding or noticing certain concealed things. (In Gathered In Darkness, it pays to look around in all boxes, under beds, and on shelves.) Also, because each chapter isnít entirely self-contained, some things that were intended for later chapters were just red herrings in the gameís truncated version.

     I did like Gathered In Darkness, but itís hard to recommend in its present state. The writing needs serious editing throughout, and the various quirks could be ironed out if the game was beta-tested to a larger extent (assuming it went through any testing at all). If chapters four through nine are the same, it would make for a recommendable game if polished up and released in full. At two hours, I scored it a ď5Ē. Thatís ďbelow averageĒ on my scoring criteria, but still a game I enjoyed. That vote stands as my review score as well, after completing the competition version.

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