Inside Pulse 12

Interview with Darkling Room’s Jonathan Boakes About Dark Fall: Lost Souls

I’m a big fan of Darkling Room’s Adventure Games. Last year, The Lost Crown won several awards from us. Back in 2006, I also listed the original Dark Fall as my 9th favorite horror game of all time. A few weeks ago, when the one man show Jonathan Boakes announced the third Dark Fall was in development and would be out in late 2009, I knew I had to know more. Mr. Boakes happily sat down with me to answer all my questions relating to the new game, and the entire Darkling Room Library.

DHGF: You announced in late March that Dark Fall 3 aka Dark Fall: Lost Souls would be released in late 2009. Can you tell us a little bit about the game and how it connects to the previous Dark Fall games?

JB: Dark Fall: Lost Souls is a brand new, stand-alone horror adventure set in an abandoned train station and hotel, deep in the woods of England. The tone, puzzle solving and supernatural themes of the first Dark Fall Games (http://www.darkfallgames.com) will all be present, but this third game is very dark in tone, and features a topical and controversial storyline. Those expecting a happy jaunt around the Dark Fall world should be prepared to face something terrifying and dark. The old hotel and train station have deteriorated far more than you could possibly imagine. Things really are “not what they seem”.

DHGF: In Lost Souls we know we’re going to have to traverse an old hotel and a train. What made you choose these locations to set the stage of what sounds like, the final encounter with the Dark Fall?

JB: There’s always been something terrible, hiding beneath the old crumbling buildings. The people of the nearby town avoid the place, and no-one dares stay there after dark. But, you, the gamer, will be forced to climb the hill, through the woods, and enter that long forgotten place one last time. There is a chance that you will be the final visitor to the hotel…so be very, very careful. There are worse things than just ghosts wandering those old disused hotel rooms.

I have a morbid fascination with old, abandoned places. I live in Cornwall, England, which is one of the most isolated counties in England. The landscape is littered with forgotten, crumbling places, invisible from the roads and train lines, but waiting to be found. These unloved buildings ache with melancholy and potential. The corridors and rooms ring with the silent sound of their own past, stories and destiny. Who once lived there, worked there, died there? What stories could they tell us, if we were brave enough to listen? The train station and hotel of Dark Fall is such a place. I am looking forward to offering gamers a chance to explore one of these dark, long lost places…to call out into the dark, and see if anyone answers back.

DHGF: Although the first two Dark Fall games were first person Adventures, The Lost Crown was a third person game. What was the impetus for the change in style and will Lost Souls be going back to the first person viewpoint?

JB: The Dark Fall titles are first person games, where the gamer explores the spooky environments in their own time, and is able to see the world through their own eyes. This should be a fascinating, and realistic task…but, it also means it will be a scary one. Gamers will have to decide if THEY saw something move, like the door swinging open or a shadow move across their path, or whether it was their imagination. With no ‘on-screen character’ to react for you, the action and decisions will be yours alone…for better or worse. There is something very isolating, and depressing, about exploring an abandoned place on your own. How long would you have to stay before you too became part of the history, and disappeared into the fabric of the building?

DHGF: At the end of March the Dark Fall: Pins and Needles collection was released. This collection is a re-release of the original Dark Fall and also features a Director’s Cut of Dark Fall 2 aka Dark Fall: Light’s Out along with some other knick knacks. What was the decision to re-release these games and for those that already own both Dark Falls, why should they consider this new collection?

JB: The games had never had a ‘re-release’, which is unusual for hit titles. My idea was to re-release the games, as a very limited boxed version, to work better on newer systems, and improve some gameplay issues. ‘Lights Out’, the second Dark Fall game, was a super title during its original release (achieving a great rating), but I was always aware of what had been trimmed, chopped and lost due to publishing issues. It’s been great to go back to the lonely, old lighthouse, and climb that spiral stair, once more, making note of what could be improved, repaired and made new.

DHGF: Regarding the Pins and Needles collection – what made you decide to tweak Light’s Out but not the original Dark Fall?

JB: Dark Fall was tweaked, just in very subtle ways. Sound quality was improved, with a DVD release, and extra music tracks were added. I also improved some puzzles, which needed a little help; larger rollovers in places, to avoid the dreaded ‘pixel hunting’. Whereas ‘Lights Out’ has seen huge changes; You can now converse with the missing lighthouse ‘keepers’, and learn what happened to them that fateful night in 1912. There are frightening scenes, in the dark rooms of the lighthouse and new vocals for some characters…to heighten the tension. Many of the puzzles were improved, or totally revamped, and gamers have really responded to the story in a much more logical way than during the original release. I feel ‘Lights Out’ is a much better title, and runs incredibly well on newer machines, and new operating systems like Vista.

DHGF: Pins and Needles is being sold only through Shadow Tor (Developer of Barrow Hill)’s website. What made you decide to go with another development studio for the game’s release rather than a publisher?

JB: I like self-publishing. If I can get any goods, films, music or art directly from the actual producer I do. It’s more personal, dependable and satisfying. The global recession has seen some, misbehaving and idiotic, publishers go bust. But, publishers come and go. They do not ‘make’ games, they merely sell them, and take a slice (usually a huge slice, but sometimes the whole damn cake!) for themselves. The Internet is the way to purchase products, and will dominate in a few years time, so why deal with pen pushers and faceless companies, when you can approach the makers themselves; the actual artists. I’m not saying all publishers are awful, not at all, I just feel a small, independent re-release of my work was highly appropriate. It is, of course, how I started, back in 2001. That was a blast, a truly wonderful experience, and I received my best reviews.

DHGF: As both a folklore and horror historian, one of the things that really caught my eye about the Pins and Needles collection was the collection of Victorian era ghost stories that come with it. Out of all these stories including with the collection, which is your favorite?

JB: Easy; It’s A Warning to the Curious. It’s my absolute favourite, and a huge influence on my work. Adventure and horror fans will warm to the story almost instantly. I say ‘almost’, as like many older ghost stories it can take a while to ‘get going’. A female friend of mine, a psychologist, has often criticised the ‘classic ghost story’, for being pedantic, unnecessarily long-winded and devoid of good female characters. I always totally agree with her…but…I just can’t stop loving them! There really is nothing like slumping into a battered old chair, and reading some miserable tale of ‘gentlemen in peril’. ‘Warning’ is a typically moustache twirling caper, involving a lost legendary crown, its ghostly guardians and a spooky harbour town. If you played, and enjoyed, The Lost Crown you will certainly see the stories influence on the screenplay. The short made a wonderful starting block, and enabled me to create a recognizable scene which could grow to include many other folk tales, ghost stories and horrors!

DHGF: You’re obviously influenced by real life ghost hunting and Victorian ghost stories, but what was the catalyst to inspire you to make your own video games? Was there a particular game or incident that made you say, “I’m going to do this.”?

JB: I’d always wanted to make a game; I can even remember what it was going to be about, where the gamer explored and why they were there in the first place. I’ve had an interest in adventure games, (and any games which allow you to explore an environment at your leisure), from my time with a Spectrum ZX, back in the mid 80’s. My favourite game was a small-scale adventure called ‘Mystery of Arkham Manor’, a basic, limited colour, third person game with a Lovecraft style story. The idea of actually exploring a place, a realistic place, really intrigued me.

My first game, The Displacement, was an initial attempt at something similar, but it was Dark Fall that really got things going. I’d played a few adventure games, by that point, but my collection was limited. The UK is a very small country, in comparison to the USA, so most adventure titles failed to materialise on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, once Dark Fall was finished, and I was sending games to all corners of the globe, I realised, to my delight, how many titles there were…waiting to be played.

DHGF: Question about the original Dark Fall and The Lost Crown that has plagued me for some time. Dark Fall was made in 2001 and The Lost Crown was a 2008 release showing the origins of Lucy and Nigel. However, Dark Fall opens with the apparent death/disappearance of Nigel and another girl named Polly, along with the protagonist’s brother. Is the Lost Crown then a prequel to Dark Fall or something of an alternate timeline?

JB: Neither, Polly’s experiment at Dowerton was never successful, thanks to the actions of the gamer (you!). Nigel did not continue his interest in the paranormal, but Polly went on to investigate the events taking place in Fetch Rock Lighthouse (http://www.fetch-rock.co.uk). Nigel, on the other hand, became a rather bored and lonely worker at Hadden Industries. His boredom, or inquisitive nature if that sounds more exciting, led him to the company’s rather peculiar experiments. That event leads Nigel to Saxton, the strangest English village you can imagine, where he meets Lucy Reubans…a skeptical ‘local’ girl, who is persuaded to join Nigel on his mission….both she and Nigel are still there, right now, investigating the true nature of Saxton. As for Polly, she could pop up again, in a future game, but for now, I’m happy with my two-some, they have an interesting dynamic.

DHGF: The Lost Crown was easily the best Adventure game I played in 2008, and that’s no small feat considering Theresia, The Sinking Island, Rhiannon, Nikopol and others hit shelves that year, Here in 2009, there are very few point and click titles being released, much less huge ones. Right now Secret Files 2, Grey Matter, Momento Mori and Three Cards to Midnight are the only real Adventure titles on my radar this year besides Lost Souls. What do you think the future of the genre holds?

JBL Thank you for saying that! The Lost Crown has been played by so many people, (well, I think it has, based upon me having NO actual figures), and it seems to split the audience into two neat groups. There are those that appreciated playing something long, detailed and unusual, and there are those that are left scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss is about. I like to think the game leaves plenty of room for individual tastes and interpretations, while presenting a unique and unusual ‘world’. I won an Aggie, from Adventure Gamers, for the setting, which I was mightily proud of. I’ve been working for several years now, but The Lost Crown was my first award winner (including this very website!). I think it says something about the scale of The Lost Crown, and what I achieved. It’s not a perfect game, (Only 8 save slots! What was I thinking!), but it is good quality and amazing value for money. If the average adventure lasts about 5-8 hours, gamers are getting a real treat, with Crown’s 30+ hours of gameplay.

I guess if I carry on like that, making personal games with huge ambitions, I will do ok. But, the rest of the adventure industry is in a right mess. It has little to do with the developers, (who are ambitious, human and devoted), and more to do with the dreaded publishers, and their predictable mission to make as much money as possible. If developers can avoid the publisher trap, and get good returns for their hard work, I truly expect the adventure (and action adventure) genres to flourish. New platforms like the Wii and DS are great avenues for those titles…and online shopping IS the future.

DHGF: Recently one of The Lost Crown’s publishers, Lighthouse Interactive announced bankruptcy. How hard is it to get a publisher for a PC Adventure game these days on either side of the pond, and what do you have to deal with considering most Adventure publishers tend to be tiny themselves?

JB: They may seem tiny, but the connections to larger publishers and corporations run deep. Don’t believe the ‘we are a small, devoted business’ dialogues. The current recession reveals that should one cog falter, the whole machine can come crashing down.

DHGF: You mentioned in an email to me that you’re starting to draw up plans for The Lost Crown 2. Any hints as to what we might be seeing, from recurring themes to old friends and faces?

JB: Yes to both. It’s a long way off, but a sequel to The Lost Crown is in pre-production. If fans want to glance over the map, which shipped with the game, you will notice several places featured, hiding away in the back lanes, which did not appear in the first game. A lot of those locations will be popping up next time round, as well as characters some will be delighted to see return! But, apart from that, I really can’t say much more about it…it would spoil the surprise.

DHGF: Finally, with more adventure games coming to the DS, including remakes of classics like Syberia, Broken Sword and even all new titles like Theresia (Which I think you’d love), is there ever a chance we’ll be seeing a portable version of your games, say for the DS, PSP or even the Ipod Touch?

JB: I would love to port the Dark Fall games to those platforms…hell yes! But, as a one-man-band, I have to use my time as best as possible. But, if there’s an individual, or small team, out there who want to talk to me, please email straight away. I feel the spooky, contained locations seen in the Dark Fall Games would really benefit from those platforms. I can imagine people poking around the old train station, on the DS, while whizzing along on a train, or waiting for the bus. I know I would love to do that. So, fingers crossed, perhaps we will be seeing something materialise in the near future….but, for now, take away the knowledge that I am still producing games (quite a few in the next 2 years!), and if you’ve liked what you’ve seen you are going to really enjoy the new offerings. I’ve learnt a lot over the last few years, and have taken part in many paranormal events and experiments, which means I am bringing new knowledge, experience and fear to my next titles. Be afraid. It is always waiting…

To learn more about Darkling Room, the Dark Fall games and Jonathan Boakes, visit their respective websites. Look for a review of DF:LS when it hits shelves later this year.

Darkling Room
Dark Fall Games