3/10/08

Darkstar: The Interactive Movie

(2010, SciFi/Videogame, color)

Rating ***

In a Nutshell:


An amnesiac astronaut must reactivate his starship and finish his mission to save Earth.

Summary:

Meet the crew.Captain John O’Neill (Clive Robertson) wakes up from cryo-hibernation on a starship with no memory of his identity or mission. Through various clues and crew logs, he discovers that the Earth has been destroyed during a war with the newly independent Martian prison colony. O’Neill’s mission is to seek out the Darkstar, a hole in space that transports everything to pass through it back to a fixed point in time. If the information on his ship reaches Earth of the past, they can quell the Martian rebellion before it begins.

In order to complete his mission, O’Neill sets about gradually reactivating and repairing his ship, sabotaged some years previously by a Martian spy. Was it the missing Perryman (Trace Beaulieu) or the murdered Burk (Frank Conniff)? When the ship is finally spaceworthy, O’Neill takes a shuttle down to the surface of an alien planet in search of water to use as coolant. He finds both water and the surviving saboteur, who tries to leave him stranded. After looking through the remains of a Martian ship and its murdered crew (captained by Joel Hodson as Kane Cooper), O’Neill pursues the traitor back to the ship. Using his now-encyclopedic knowledge of the ship’s various secret doors and tubes, he surprises the traitor in the ion chamber, sealing him inside. The ship’s final repair sequence burns the traitor to a crisp.

O’Neill’s pilot and former lover Palmer (Beez McKeever) wakes up from hibernation to join him on the bridge. She’s got amnesia too, but not enough to prevent her from evading Darkstar’s automated Martian defenses. She delivers them safely to Earth’s distant past.

Thoughts:

You'll be seeing a lot of those hands.Technically the subtitle “The Interactive Movie” applies—there’s a lot of live action video in it and it’s interactive—but it seems a bit misleading. When describing an interactive visual narrative meant to be experienced on a computer, aren’t you just talking about a videogame? I understand there are already a Darkstar: The Videogame out there (also published by Strategy First), but you couldn’t do better than “The Interactive Movie?” It’s not really any more of a movie than most videogames.

With this established, we can proceed using the proper terms. Darkstar: The Interactive Movie is a slow-paced adventure game mixed with live action cinematics in the style of Phantasmagoria, The 7th Guest and so on. Surprisingly (given its long and troubled development history) it’s pretty good, so if you like adventure games, you’re in for a treat.

Before you stop reading and buy it, however, let me get the bad news out of the way. Production values are low. I mean really, really low. The resolution is fixed at 1024x768, which artifacts unpleasantly when scaled up. The live action and CGI elements are spliced together in a manner which I shall charitably call “far from seamless.” When an active scene—talking to a crewmember, watching a puzzle twist, moving from one part of the ship to another, etc.—shifts to a static scene—i.e.: one you can interact with—the brightness changes significantly. A couple of times I wondered if there was a crewmember in another part of the ship playing with the lightswitches. The ancient, wheezing software that powers the whole affair crashes at least once an hour. The user interface is ugly, sluggish, unintuitive and in all other ways horrible. The icon for moving forward is the same as the one for interacting with objects, which makes the pixel-hunting required by the genre more difficult than it needs to be.

Our nonchalant hero.These are issues you can either live with or you can’t, and looking at the abysmal User Review scores this thing is accumulating, most people can’t. If you’re a twitch gamer, looking for the next new thrill, don’t waste your money. If you demand exquisitely rendered eye candy rendered in high definition with digitally mastered sound, don’t waste your money. If you want a customizable interface with scalable graphics and a context-sensitive hint system, don’t waste your money. If you’re a fan of classic adventure games and don’t mind playing something that looks fifteen years old, please proceed to the next section of the review, because bad news time is over. It’s good news time:

Art design is gorgeous, well-detailed and full of objects you can interact with. I sometimes found myself wondering why a starship would need marble columns, original works of art with display lighting, sumptuous chaise lounges, wooden chests with puzzle locks, twisting secret passages with an entirely superfluous rapid transit system and so forth, but hey, it makes for a fascinating exploration experience. In an adventure game that’s more important than realism.

Puzzles are always logical and usually have more than one solution. (Example: use of a scanner showed me which buttons on the crew quarters security keypad had opened it previously, but to get through it I had to trial-and-error my way through various combinations of them before I stumbled on the right code by accident. Some time later I went downstairs and did another random puzzle, receiving a list of crew quarter door codes as a reward.) The ship’s interfaces aren’t needlessly elaborate. Once you figure out which button does what, programming the systems to do what you want them to is fairly straightforward. I like the fact that once you’ve found a switch (not always an easy task) often all you have to do is flip it.

The story hook is trite (the main character has amnesia; we've never seen that before) but once you get into it, it’s absorbingly told. Clive Robertson performs player avatar O’Neill like someone who’s been asleep for years and can’t quite wake up all the way. He’s not an electrifying screen presence, but you don’t really want one of those for the player character anyway. All of the MST3K alumni are at least good, and in some cases great. Trace Beaulieu’s erratic performance as your missing first officer will keep you guessing about his intentions, for the first part of the game at least. Joel Hodson is very funny as the jovial Martian co-conspirator. Frank Conniff does okay as possible traitor Burk, but the role he really shines in is SIMON, an insane robot who tends to show up and help you with puzzles after you’ve already solved them. Peter Graves pipes up occasionally as a narrator, delivering exposition with his usual gravitas. Performance quality from the many, many smaller parts varies widely, leading me to wonder if Darkstar’s producers ran out of actors and had to fill out their cast of thousands with family and friends. The only one I know about for sure would be the producer’s young daughter Margaret Noel as MAGS (another insane robot), who sparkles with personality and comic timing, providing the game with my second favorite character.

Yes, my favorite characters are the insane robots. You did see that this is an MST3K fan site, didn’t you?

Bottom line: It’s a beautiful, well-designed, old-school adventure game buried under obsolete technology and a bad user interface, with great performances from the supporting cast.