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“Atmosphere” is one of those intangible qualities that every game strives to achieve, yet few manage to convey successfully. Sometimes, the problem is just that the game attempts too much.
This is where many of the Xbox Live Indie Games derive their strength – simplicity. Do one thing, and do it well.
Today, we look at Dark, a pure puzzle platformer with atmosphere in spades.
First of all, Dark is short. According to the game’s description, it will take you a mere twenty to forty minutes to complete. But it also only costs a dollar, and, if you saw last week’s Gravity Bone post, you will recall that a game’s length is not indicative of its quality or impact.
Dark starts off simply enough: you are instructed to move with the analog stick and jump with the A button. That’s as complicated as it gets.
You aren’t really a character, so much as a parallelogram with eyes. You can’t die, and there are no enemies. You just go through the level, exploring this strange, dark, two-dimensional world, until you get to the next one.
This is where the game shines. The levels are a wonder to explore. While there are only five, each offers a new experience, sight, or puzzle to solve. The few light sources bounce off the walls, and your avatar casts a shadow, as does the rest of the landscape.
There are some floating lights to collect, reminiscent of the glowing bugs in Super Metroid. Pick them up, and the level gets even darker. You can always see the eyes, though. And the light will do strange things to your perceptions of the world…
However, the lights aren’t counted, and they don’t affect anything. You still feel the urge to snatch them all up and horde them, though, maybe because the collecting aspect of games throughout history has been so ingrained into you that ignoring them feels like a blasphemy? Perhaps.
There are a few other classic game conventions, as well: mine cart rides, elevators, giant cogs that open new paths when they grind together in harmony, and (my favorite) a dragon. Yes, a dragon that you unlock with the power of light and dark. It’s great.
Really, the only problem with the game is that there isn’t more of it. After about thirty minutes, you’ve seen everything, solved every puzzle, collected every spark of floating light. Then you’ll traipse through the credits, and the screen will simply read “fin.” Very subdued. Very unassuming.
Just like the game. Yet, it feels so right, like you could never have this experience in any other manner.
Oh, I almost forgot the music. It’s very subtle, generally, with a single piano providing all of the game’s instrumentation. It crescendos after a game-changing discovery or the solving of a puzzle, however, and it makes the experience that much more soothing and riveting at the same time. Wonderful.
There’s no story, but you can’t help but connect with this eyeball’d parallelogram. He seems so innocent and curious; you feel the need for him to succeed. You want him to, and you know he can. You are his guide, his leader, his mentor and his friend.
To what end, though? To what end?