Hm? What? Oh. Sorry about that – wasn’t listening to what you were saying.
My mind must’ve been wandering. For some reason, it’s very difficult for me to concentrate on any form of steady conversation after playing an adventure game of any type. Anyone who’s played one knows the art of patience that goes into the meandering quests of discovery, usually rooted in different screen locations (commonly less than fifteen in number at any given time), and the trenches of wear eroded by the main character’s boots as they walk from place to place and back again, talking to key NPCs (non-player characters), looking for those quintessential clues. Back and forth, back and forth...
Now, if an adventure game is done right, the sense of accomplishment will supersede the undermining weight of repetition, but the complexity in balancing all the game’s other attributes (ambiance, storyline and player progression, item interface and manipulation, etc.) is the trickiest bit of all. The player can either enjoy going back to those locations, or they can groan audibly, ruing the 110th visitation to the hint-riddled broom closet. Unknown Identity has taken its own shot at constructing a new adventure for the genre with Black Mirror, and it comes SO close to avoiding the imbalance in the genre’s potential afflictions.
Let us start with what I might consider an above-average story. Samuel Gordon, our pivotal, pompous protagonist, has returned back to his family’s estate after the death of his grandfather. What propels Samuel as a character is his need to discover the unnatural cause of his grandfather’s death, which involved a short, spiky garden fence and a 70 foot freefall from the mansion tower. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard that one before. How the story progresses from there is really the cornerstone of a good game of any type, and Black Mirror does a pretty good job of keeping it moving. At no point did I feel like I hadn’t learned anything new, or that I was simply carrying on, gallivanting through this giant, rustic castle and the decaying vegetation on its grounds. In this sense, the team at Unknown Identity succeeded in the telling of a tale spackled with intrigue, suspense, and an unidentified supernatural evil.
I must also applaud the environmental interactivity and the ease with which one may engage in one’s surroundings. The flexibility to push tables around or knock over refrigerators isn’t there, but in any given situation there are objects of varying relevance that can be inspected by our plodding hero. Keys are an obvious source of progression in an adventure game, and they’re easily recognized and retrieved when available. Conversely, pictures that tell more of the family history, but really don’t do anything for you in the long run are available for inspection as well. Black Mirror presents a good ratio of needed to not-needed items in any room, so as to not detract too much from the linear storyline. I had a bit of trouble with the fact that most items, after inspection, do not allow for re-inspection. This only causes frustration when your burgeoning information load stifles your ability to remember what the hell it said when you looked at it. However, as a device to limit the re-work you enact whenever you revisit a room, it’s certainly practical.
The various rooms, buildings, and landscapes are nicely rendered, though not the best I’ve ever seen. There’s rich detail to the static surroundings. In some cases, there are even signs of life; a falling leaf, a swaying chandelier, the flickering of a fireplace. A bit more of this “life” could have been put into these scenes to really make them more potent. As they are, the basic mood of the game is presented well with what’s presented. All the background noises blend well with the graphic representations, creating an environment that is easy to believe and is adequately engaging.
At the onset of the game, there are a few characters around the castle, doing their own thing, waiting to be talked to (or talked down to, depending on Samuel’s snooty mood). Their constitutions range from quietly mysterious to helpful and warm. My favorite is the riley pseudo-Scotsman, Morris, who tends to the horses and apparently spends most of his time chopping the same piece of wood over and over again. The characters are easily distinguishable by their moods and trades, and even have a modest social structure within the microcosm of Black Mirror castle that builds out as the story arch progresses. The act of initiating a conversation with them is very intuitive, with the dialogue bubble appearing over anyone you want to talk with. The act of enduring the conversation that ensues AFTER the greeting, though, requires fortitude of inhuman proportions, and brings me to the drop off in the game’s overall quality.
The voice-over talent was picked by Satan. And I’m not talking about a colorful antithetical icon from the Christian bible, or some Hollywood-inspired specter of doom. I’m talking here, about the loneliest, darkest manifestation of evil in the universe. I can barely stand to listen to what sounds like Black Mirror’s script handed to the Podunk City Senior High amateur theatrical group. And what a pity, considering that the meat of the information you must gather to figure out the horror of Black Mirror’s mysteries is in its insufferable supporting cast. Normally this sort of deficiency could be overlooked, and sometimes deplorable voice-acting can be a humorous boon. But not here. The shroud of lurking horrors and psychological switch-backs, all the brooding sounds and shadowed nuances of the Black Mirror enigma – diminished, killed, dissipated. Every time one the NPCs, or even the brat-ish Samuel, opens their terrible mouths, they deliver a sentence of such jilted cadence and stony inflection, that I have fingernail marks in my desktop from the pain.
Black Mirror is what it’s supposed to be: a decent adventure game for those that enjoy pecking the corners of the earth for clues, and being led down a linear plotline to a climactic end. But the voice talent... I can’t go into that topic again. If I could offer a metaphor here, picture Black Mirror’s substance (story, mood, entertainment) resting on the shoulders of its ample and significant voice-overs. This game fails in the same way that setting a septic tank on top of a reticulated chipmunk would fail; one just does NOT support the other. There is entertainment in Black Mirror, and it can be enjoyable, but it’s hard to be enveloped in a game that’s heavy on mood, when the mood keeps getting ripped away by shoddy, scripted line reading.