[Herr M.] Interactive movies… you might say that if you have played one of them, you have played them all. From the humble beginnings with pixelated miniature slide shows up to the fullscreen full motion video titles, all of them have one thing in common: A shallow plot combined with bad acting, interspersed by obscure and out of nowhere puzzles. The game we are going to discuss today, Black Dahlia, tried its best to leave this reputation behind by turning things up to eleven, with really high production values and an even somewhat creative story.
[Wandrell] You have to see this from perspective. Nowadays they try to sell games as if they were films, but back then (in the CD age), they wanted to make films with games, something which, on the long run, was shown to be based on some half-baked notions, giving most of the time awkward results. If you want to look at the bright side of thing, you could say it was sort of a narrativist approach to games, offering a story as the backbone, while forfeiting most of the interaction, or just swapping it with some sort of multimedia gallery as if it were a more ‘story-intensive’ kind of interaction.
[Mr Creosote] When Black Dahlia was released, though, the short hype was pretty much already coming to its deserved end again. While initially, the brand new CD storage medium had seemed like a revolution insofar that it provided virtually unlimited capacity, this game already took up a whole eight discs. So technology had progressed so fast that we were basically back in the last days of the floppy disk era as far as disk juggling was concerned.
[Herr M.] The funny thing about those games was that considering how much disc space they needed, you might have thought that you would see a big game world, which offered a lot to explore. But because they were built in such a film like way, they tended to narrow your options down to selecting the next of a couple of clips until you find the one that advances the story. Somehow we were still stuck with a game design in the vein of Dragon's Lair.
[Wandrell] Well, it is cheaper to film a single scene than creating several alternatives, even just changing a line means spending a lot of work with the actors. The film like approach instead of the old drawn graphics may have been a nice bit of eye candy, it also meant that you had to reduce what the game did actually offer, or you would end getting over budget soon. I think that’s the main reason these FMV games got that deserved fame of being static and linear, most of the money went to the filming.
[Mr Creosote] Well, we have to acknowledge that it was hard. Whereas with a completely computer generated environment (within the Adventure genre), you could animate anything you pleased in lots and lots of different variants, this could not really be done with actors and sets. You can’t possibly record every single path through every room a player might want to take her avatar to. The earliest games of this kind didn’t even try; they took the player out of the visible action. Think of Night Trap or the Sherlock Holmes games from ICOM. A couple of games had a photographed/filmed protagonist walking around freely, but those always ended up looking not real at all – like Dark Seed, for instance.
[Herr M.] While the clips themselves are very restricting (for the obvious reasons stated above) the deciding factor – whether the player notices this or not – is what you built around it, what else there is to the game. Most of the games cited above almost solely relied on showing the clips (and there are a dozens of other examples). Some games tried to be a bit more, most of the time by giving the clips a background (e.g. by strewing some writing or pictures in it) and connecting the clips by puzzles, which opened up even more clips. And there were some games which did this quite well. The later Zork series comes to my mind. Black Dahlia tried this approach too.
[Wandrell] So the basic design of these games was setting you in a point where you can take some decisions. Go through the door and you get a clip, talk to the guy and you get another clip, and then, as a way to control the advance, and justify this as a game, you got a puzzle. Solve this and you advance to the next point where, again, you have a group of clips, and a new puzzle.
This means the puzzles were the button you had to press to keep the story going, just an interface. But this was along the ‘multimedia experience’ fad of the CD age, these games where like an interactive museum, where you could get a few interesting sights, then move along to the next part of the exposition.
[Mr Creosote] One technical development which had occurred since the genres inception had been the movement away from regular film clips again, though. The first games (e.g. the ones I already mentioned above) had still used real sets. Starting with The 7th Guest, real actors were just filmed in front of a blue screen instead and then copied into a computer rendered environment. In 7th Guest, this worked relatively well, because basically all characters appearing in the game are semi-transparent ghosts. It was never supposed to look real. This game, however, uses this technique without any such excuse and I have to say it does not look too great.
[Herr M.] Not too great, yet you don’t see obvious blue-screen effects and the pre-renders aren’t that horrible either. I think there are far more serious graphic problems with the 360° turning and the panorama pictures, that come with it. Just take a look at Byzantine – The Betrayal were they used actual photos for the same effect. They still look weird, because the perspective is often just that slightly off, that you can tell there is something wrong. So it’s probably not just a question of computer generated backgrounds or not, the technique itself might be flawed. But the clips themselves look alright to me, at times it isn’t even that obvious that the backgrounds aren’t ‘real’.
[Wandrell] I had no problem with the 3D/blue screen mix itself. It looks like plastic, but helps to create mood, allowing them to use a bigger variety of sets, and the more surreal scenes couldn’t be made without computer help. The real problem is how static it all feels, the videos and the games feel detached, yet other games show it is possible to combine them, like Realms of the Haunting does just by making all the game real 3D in a decent way, which adds more immersion to the game. This game instead goes for the Myst-like view which spoils it all.
[Mr Creosote] So, maybe to sum up: This was a strange time; on the one hand, the technology and the genre were still in its infancy, but on the other hand, some of the issues did not seem to be solvable at all – which was probably why this sort of game did not exist for much longer. In a way, Black Dahlia could be a candidate for the culmination of the genre.
[Herr M.] Or at least it was at the pinnacle of the interactive movie in this form, because some modern games tend to show some signs to become just like those FMV games, just with real time rendered cutscenes.
[Herr M.] But let’s focus on Black Dahlia, especially the story, which is one of its most distinguishing features. It actually is quite long. Well, make that really long. This game has to be one of the longest FMV-games I ever played. No wonder it came on 8 CDs.
[Wandrell] Even nowadays with DVD games, it is hard to find one with so many minutes of cutscenes. And this, one would think, means there is a lot of meat in that plot. For firsts let’s say that the name of the game was not chosen by chance, even if the meaning, and the game’s theme, bounces around a bit. And you, Jim Pearson, a detective of the newly founded counter-espionage agency, get trapped in a quest to find that meaning as soon as you get your hands on the case of a recently retired agent, a case were things don’t add up, at least for a sane person.
[Mr Creosote] It is 1941, before the United States entered the war. While everything you said is true, the term counter-espionage probably rings a couple of wrong bells with our readers. We are not talking about a James Bond plot here, but it is basically your typical hard-boiled crime fiction: Jim’s investigations into potential Nazi spies quickly become entangled with the (historical) Torso Killer case, a serial murderer who mutilated his victims in particularly gruesome fashion.
[Wandrell] Just that the historic case took place half a decade earlier. But that is creative freedom for you. They wanted to add Nazis to the mix, I don’t blame them. The Black Dahlia is the nickname of another famous murder case as well.
Mr Creosote That's right, just that it was the name they gave to the victim, Elizabeth Short, while they twisted it around to mean something else in the game. It was strange that Ms. Short only turned up very late in the game; I kept waiting for her to appear all the time up to that point. And of course, assuming basic familiarity with the real case, as soon as you hear what her role is in this, it might even be considered a bit anticlimactic, because you just know you’re not going to be able to save her. It is probably not the best decision to have the game/protagonist try to tell the player that this, of all things, is the pressing goal.
[Herr M.] Add some Norse mythology and you get a nicely convoluted mess… yet it has a certain style, a distinct atmosphere lying somewhere between Crime Movie, Pulp and Mystery Thriller. In a way it also seemed like the video game David Lynch never made to me.
[Wandrell] The pulp tones, are mostly visible on the first part of the game, where the gruesome crimes get mixed with supernatural horror. Even the main characters comments at one point he feels like he were on a tale out of The Shadow. But this also carries to the parts related to the war, as the Nazis are the usual pop-Nazis, the cool scary bad guys who you know will have fun killing you, yet at the same time a bit comical, with their out-of-touch-with-reality vision of the world. Just that those weird ideas end being real.
[Mr Creosote] Pulp and mystery, sure. It makes sense, considering that this was the age of Chandleresque detective fiction and blending that with the Nazi’s obsession with the supernatural to bend the basic detective story in this direction. Lynch, I don’t really get. Could you elaborate?
[Herr M.] Lynch because the story is almost only essence and no logic at all, with vivid dream imagery, a break and somewhat unnatural twist in the middle, closely followed by a reinterpretation of characters.
[Mr Creosote] I never saw any references to David Lynch. The protagonist has got some visions in broad daylight. Some characters turn out to be something else than they claimed to be. All of this is standard genre fare, though. This is not Harvester 2. Harvester being really about bending reality, not just some people lying about their motives.
[Herr M.] No, I don’t think there are direct quotes or references to his movies, but yet the setup looks familiar to me. Especially the story coming apart in the middle and the absurd dreams, that make little to no sense at all. Yes you do get all of this in other games too, but since it plays so much like a movie, it becomes a bit more apparent. At least to me.
[Wandrell] At first I thought those dreams would have any significance or impact, but it turns out it is the killer fucking with your mind. And for the Lynch theme, the last part of the game surely has a disturbing and surreal tone. I would say each part has it’s own theme: the 40s and cheap literature stories, the war and pop-Nazis, and then the post-war, with the character’s decadence.
[Mr Creosote] Lynch, for me, is reality falling apart. There is something lurking under the hood of the prim and proper society. Identities shift around seemingly at random. None of that can be found in this game. What is lurking here is just standard supernatural horror stuff. Identities and roles are constant, just that some people are lying about theirs (standard detective/spy fiction stuff) and there is a weird shift of the protagonist role (which I guess we’ll come to in a bit), though that is not due to surrealism, but I'm sure it's just a plotting weakness.
[Herr M.] Call it plotting weakness or surrealism: You might do off some of the plot points as supernatural, but many things just don’t add up, or simply vanish and didn’t play a role after all, were just bait, to make for some atmosphere. And as far as I am concerned, the protagonists reality is actually falling apart, up to the point where he seems downright insane in the ‘good’ ending, and possesed in the ‘bad’ one. And is the killer lying to you after all, or is he changed by the Dahlia? To me his character twist was really unnatural.
[Wandrell] There are some points I can’t recall clearly. Not that the game doesn't give information, a few times it actually tries to give too much, its just that like in detective stories, such as The Big Sleep, the plot only lives for the moment you are playing. But there is a goal always present, the mysterious gem. Many people have died for it during the centuries, and now it seems to be again causing bloodshed, and the Nazis seem to want to get their hand on the valuable gem, and at the same time the bizarre murders in some way are related to the stone.
There is a lot to discuss about the ending, but I think the moment you enter a place that only existed in your dreams, and see the ritual being finished, with the heads suddenly coming back to life to sing a vibrant tone, sums very well the themes of weirdness and horror the game has.
[Mr Creosote] Well, the thing here is, it’s probably not completely obvious what is intended surrealism and what is simply bad plotting. For me, it’s the latter. It starts out quite well, but then, when you manage to catch the Torso Killer, things start to fall apart (and not in an intended way). The plot jumps forward a couple of years; the Black Dahlia (the gem) is found, but it’s taken away from the protagonist again with a flimsy excuse. Then, another jump forward and instead of the gumshoe, the protagonist is now suddenly an Indiana Jones style adventurer. Then, another jump, and he’s the detective again. This is really incoherent storytelling.
[Wandrell] I think the Indiana Jones entry is just a joke, the game has some silly humour from time to time.
[Herr M.] It almost looks like they did the first part, thought that the game was too short and then they tacked on a second part, together with an intermission that doesn’t fit at all and seems only to be in there to deliver some extra puzzles and the most stupid maze. And the ending is in a similar vein: While there were some attempts at horror earlier in the game, that extra gore and said singing heads just seem totally out of place… somehow it looks like they put in everything they could come up with.
[Wandrell] Well, they did give several hints about the German castle, so I suppose they wanted the visit during war times. I was expecting that, at least, and it also gives a use to the rune bag the main character has been carrying for years, which I don’t even know how or why the previous detective got it. Actually, I think they originally planned the fake gemstone to play a bigger role in the ending, maybe summoning the spirit of that saint to help, but the way you end using it feels very awkward.
[Mr Creosote] It’s not just those jumps of time and place and the shifty protagonist, though. The set of supporting characters is basically completely exchanged from episode to episode as well. The most striking example, in my opinion, is the inclusion of a completely fresh love interest in the final chapter while the one from the beginning is completely dropped and never mentioned again. Why is that? They could have just used the same girl! For me, this is a very clear indication that those stories were written independently by different people and then awkwardly glued together.
[Wandrell] I, too, thought that the museum girl would end being the love interest, and I did distrust the second girl. When in a series they change a cute girl for another one so sure of herself is because something bad is going to happen.
Mr Creosote Exactly, this kind of confusion or even misinterpretation comes from this sort of messy construction of the plot.
[Herr M.] While it is a mess, you could still try to interpret the story. How about this interpretation: The first part is about a threat from outside, the Germans (the Nazis to be more precisely) try to subvert America by using this magic artefact, the Black Dahlia gem. They fail at harnessing the power of the stone, yet one of the Americans is actually influenced by it, so that the second part of the game is about a threat now from within, a traitor.
[Wandrell] The traitor is a Waffen SS officer. No, don’t ask me how, I didn’t get it. Of course we have the old ‘fifth column’ myth which came from the fascist propaganda and fear, supporters of the enemy ready to open the gates to their armies, but this is different, with the position he had somebody should have done a background check. The way they try to hand-wave it is saying at one point that he was a cultural attache, which he wasn’t. And even if he were, it would make even less sense.
[Mr Creosote] Again, it becomes clearer how being unclear can work in a plot’s favour: There are possible interpretations which could make it look better than it probably is. As for me, I would argue that the traitor had been a traitor from the start, for example, but it’s never really cleared up whether he was or whether he only became one after learning about the gem’s power in the course of the investigation. Similarly, it is never clear when that one other character who suddenly turns out to be evil in the very last scene got turned. Was that character on the bad guy’s side all the time, i.e. sent by the bad guy to keep the protagonist in check? Or was it a magical last minute brainwashing?
[Herr M.] I think that last part would be horribly convoluted if this character wasn’t brainwashed, there would be a lot of coincidences… though this might be bad story telling again. But no matter how convoluted the ending might be, I think it is actually quite entertaining, probably because they left some blank spaces to fill up with your own imagination, yet delivered enough of a background that not everything is left dangling. If the overall story was a bit shorter and the break in the middle wasn’t that glaring I would even call it good (that is for an interactive movie).
[Wandrell] I did like the plot, too, but in the part of the war you are just jumping around. First a bunker, which is a short visit, then a castle and after that an airforce station, which is a micro-visit just to connect to the next part, the return to the United States.
[Mr Creosote] Completely agreed about those short scenes in the castle and in the military base. Those just throw the pacing off. Just having the Dahlia turn up again at the end of the war and the bad guy stepping in to grab it out of the hero’s hands would have been quite sufficient. Instead, we get this horrible Indiana Jones episode which just won’t end and does not advance the plot at all! Just having the first episode and then jump forward to the last episode would have made it into a much tighter and even much more logical story.
[Herr M.] There should definitely have been some editing, there was material enough to make some cuts. As it is now, it takes a really long time to reach the ending, which is kind of a shame, because by then you might be a bit tired of the game and miss some points that could be important to the story.
[Wandrell] This last part, the return, goes as fast as the engine allows. Not just because it begins on a train, but because things happen just to keep the game going, yet there is a point that still has me wondering. There is a point where a detective says he has been researching about the traitor, and that he doesn’t exist. Is this actually a foreboding on the ending? In a part of the game where there is little connection to the rest of the game, none the less. Because if it is, there is nothing else on the story pointing to that.
[Mr Creosote] As usual, I think it is one of those things which could be interpreted either way due to sloppy storytelling. I took this as simply implying that the bad guy had effectively covered his traces, which was why he could not be looked up in all those registers anymore.
[Herr M.] It is a shame that small things like this are buried under so much other stuff. That point, regardless of which direction you read into it, could make for a totally different interpretation of the ending.
[Wandrell] There are actually two endings. The bad one and the good one, which you could say are black and gray. But first I’ll describe a bit the situation, you are getting close to the bad guy, he misleads you to make you waste time, and at the same time brand you (isn’t this the third time he gets a mystic brand? Just this time it is a rune burned on his hand), then you get back to the place he took you away from, to find yourself in the middle of a slasher movie.
But the best part is the sudden display of magical power the bad guy makes, I did like the scene, even if it feels out of place the guy suddenly being so adept with occult powers, and it feels sort of wrong when he opens a pathway to the room you saw in your dreams, which only remarks the weirdness of the situation. On the other side there is a throne room with a magical fountain. Following the Nordic themes, it may be Mimir’s fountain, or Odin's throne. But who cares, you have just got yourself into deep shit.
Mr Creosote I took the ending scene in a literal sense, i.e. that the protagonist has prevented this evil power from taking over the world, but of course, nobody will believe him. He is content nevertheless, knowing well what he has achieved. I will not deny that you could make a case about this being intended differently, though, i.e. with the protagonist really being a completely paranoid murderer. This would imply that the player has become sort of an accomplice in his actions which would have been quite a nice meta commentary along the lines of Bliss – though I honestly doubt that this was ever on the writers’ minds. The existence of the other ending, where the bad guy’s plan actually comes to fruition, I would argue, confirms my literal reading – unless that is meant as to be a fantasy scene only taking place in the protagonist’s mind (which would be very lame).
[Herr M.] No, it would be a fantasy scene in Dennis Hopper’s head (by the way: nice cameo). Since there is a lot of dreams, and the Dahlia seems to control them somehow, it’s not that far off to think of everything as being imaginary. But any way you look at it: It does an excellent job. Said magic realm, only one person knowing the whole ‘truth’ (whether it is paranoid delusions or the real thing), totally over the top bad ending. What else could you ask for?
[Wandrell] I think we are overthinking this all. But I preferred the bad ending, it is dark but clear. And in any case, we are all sure that the plot has enough loose points to allow for interpretation, and actually that is its strong point. It is the flawed-enough point, similar to what happens to some cult classics.
[Mr Creosote] Us overthinking it is sort of my main point. But still, I did like the bitter irony of the ending (the one where the protagonist is arrested). It worked very well for me, even if it didn’t fully make up for all the effort the game put me through before. It is just one of those games where at the end, instead of leaning back satisfied at what you have achieved, you think that it would just have been better had it been shorter.
[Herr M.] Personally I also liked the semi-good ending better, because it was so bitter-sweet. Though the evil ending was kind of cool too. Was it worth the trouble? Well, I have to admit, that I had been using a walkthrough by that time quite heavily. Were I tried my best to solve the game on my own in the beginning, I started to look up the solution more often in the middle section, up to the point were I followed one step of the walkthrough after another. I was just more interested in the story itself than the puzzles that held it together.
[Mr Creosote] I would argue that the story is holding the puzzles together, not the other way around. I think we covered it pretty well before: The plot, in spite of its problems, is the main draw here. This section in the middle, the Indiana Jones one, does not advance the plot at all. It was just incredibly laborious and annoying. Whoever decided the game was not long enough without it should be fired! Even by just removing it and changing nothing else, the game would be much more coherent, the plot would make more sense and the players would walk away with a much more positive impression. Longer is not always better.
[Mr Creosote] What’s so bad about the useless middle section? As I said, it does not advance the plot – where before, the puzzles were still at least sort of embedded into the plot, this part of the game only consists of a series of stupid abstract puzzles without any excuse for it.
[Wandrell] The puzzles are painful. Actually some could be better with a bit of improvement, but in general they are absurd and out of place. Just look at the Nazi bunker, I can imagine the engineers: ‘Mein Fuhrer! We have made an impenetrable bunker! I used this toy my kid likes so much as passcode, nobody will be able to break it!’
[Herr M.] Actually I liked some of the puzzles and wished I could have taken more time to solve them properly. Most of them are difficult enough to make you think real hard, while still being solvable. Well with the exception of the ‘spot the pixel’ kind, which is absurdly impossible with the 360°-turning interface, and maybe the origami puzzle, but that’s just because the interface is bad, the puzzle itself was a nice idea.
[Wandrell] Finding things around is impossible most of the time. I remember a point where you have to check a creaking floorboard. I didn’t even think the creaking sound when moving around had any importance in an old and dilapidated room, and had to check a walkthrough for that. The same goes for most of the puzzles, even if they sound nice, in the end they were more worried about the ‘multimedia experience’ than about making a puzzle where you actually can know what you are doing.
I would have a hard time finding a puzzle I did really like. The puzzle box was nice, but in the end it was solved checking things at random, and the one where you have to rebuild stained glasses was enjoyable, but did take too long. What I remember the most are things like not finding the revolver, because suddenly I had to know you could drag things around (something you can do very rarely).
[Mr Creosote] Most of the puzzles, we should add, are not really puzzles in the classic Adventure genre sense. They are like the ones found in 7th Guest or Myst: mechanical manipulation of unknown machinery. The very fact that they included cheat codes to automatically solve them, to me, is like admitting: ‘Yes, alright, we know this isn’t any fun.’ I used the cheat codes for most of them.
[Herr M.] What might have worked for said games above, is incredibly bad in this one, for one reason: Black Dahlia’s actual plot is a lot more engaging. On the one hand you have this exciting story, that you want to keep progressing, that you wish to enjoy and on the other hand you have those puzzles that take their time to work. So you can’t follow the action because it has to take breaks for the puzzles, and you can’t concentrate on the puzzles because you are thinking about the story… you just can’t have both of them at the same time, because they suffer a lot more than if you just focus on one of them and ignore the other one.
[Wandrell] The puzzles are just an excuse to explain why they call this a game, instead of making a TV series out of it. But there are two other clear problems I see here, and I’ll talk about two puzzles which are actually related to the plot, one suffers of giving too much info and the other from the awful interface.
Just look at the rune puzzle, seriously, am I supposed to build the gem from all the runes noted around the game? It doesn’t even sound fun. And the one where you have to open the panels with the crests in order, if you could do that fast, and there was a way to quickly gather the needed info, it would be much better. Instead, you have to slowly move around the table in search of the correct panel.
[Mr Creosote] Indeed, a large problem is simply the technical execution of the puzzles. The controls make things harder than they really should be; something which relatively straightforward in real life, like folding this piece of paper, turns into quite a chore due to the fiddly controls.
What bothered me much more is the (genre-typical) detachment of the puzzles from the story, though. I mean, how many excuses can you have within one game for yet another mechanical combination lock which the player has to figure out? How many cut up pictures can you reassemble without it becoming ridiculously forced? There are far too many of these puzzles compared to only very few ‘organical’ ones. In the latter category, I would put those about finding hidden objects (like the photo on the window) – even if those were not really all that imaginative, they at least sort of made sense given the premise.
[Herr M.] Yes there are really few ‘organic’ puzzles, like the one at the beginning were you have to decode telephone numbers, which actually fits the story quite well. This got my hopes high, that the others would be in a similar vein… well too bad that everything else seems to be either a jigsaw puzzle or your typical logical conundrum. One has to wonder whoever came up with the ‘great’ idea of combining movies with absurd puzzles and selling it as ‘interactive’ in the first place, and why so many followed this stupid formula?
[Mr Creosote] In retrospect, this genre staple really looks just ridiculous, but at least two of the best selling games ever (we mentioned them a couple of times) had used the same formula. So it was obvious that everybody would try to imitate it. In fact, it really makes things easy for the game designers, doesn’t it? It is admittedly hard to come up with solvable, logical puzzles which organically originate from the plot. It’s much easier to get out some dusty logic puzzle book from the shelf and copy a couple of standard ones.
[Herr M.] And copying too much of the old and tried might be Black Dahlia’s main problem as well. As hard as it tries to be a great game, by putting a lot of money into the production values, in the end it can’t deny that it stays true to the very formula of the interactive movie: Get a somewhat decent story, put in some puzzles (whether they fit or not) and fill as many CDs as you can.
[Wandrell] This would have been a nice TV series, but as a game it is painful. Remove the puzzles and it improves, but still the only reason to play this is to see the cutscenes. It is sad, because if they had actually paid attention to the game itself we would have gotten a gem.
[Mr Creosote] Don’t forget the cliché of the washed out name-star who (of course) only has a single scene, but nevertheless receives top billing to boost sales
Although I did play the critic in this discussion, I sort of liked the game on the whole. It is indeed visible that it is a well-intentioned effort. If it hadn’t had the annoying mega maze, it would have even been worth a recommendation. I have to agree with Wandrell: If removal of gameplay elements makes your game better, you better rethink your design. It’s really that simple sometimes.
[Herr M.] Especially if the removed parts, the puzzles, could have been so much better as their own game.