While there is no question these days that video games are a legitimate and valid art form, the medium still suffers from a certain inclination towards disposability. As new platforms replace old, and technology and graphics march ever forward, there seems to be little effort or interest in preserving or appreciating the past. Imagine if there were no films more than ten years old available on blu-ray, no music from the 1970s still on sale or no books in print from the 20th century – it seems ludicrous. And imagine if such material was all now unusable because the technology used to play it no longer exists. Yet the gaming scene is one where the past, by and large, seems to haver been forgotten, or dismissed for the old-fashioned graphics or clunky game play. While there’s certainly a market online for retro gaming, this seems to be recreations rather than reissues, and classic titles are more likely to be remade or upgraded rather than simply re-released for new platforms – there does not seem to be a video game equivalent of Arrow Video issuing classic old titles. Perhaps there is – feel free to let us know.
Should anyone want to start issuing classic titles of the past in formats that can be played on modern systems, a good place to start might be with The Dark Eye, a ground-breaking 1995 game that was one of the first games that genuinely felt like a work of art. Produced by Inscape, and created by Russell Lees, the game eschewed traditional ideas, gameplay and graphics, and instead carved out its own particular niche, using the then-expansive capabilities of the CD-ROM to push the very idea of what a game might be in weird new directions.
Based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the game was basically a point-and-click puzzle, one that allowed the player to slowly explore the world it created without having to score points to move on. There player arrives at an old house, and wanders around looking for clues and secrets that also access to other areas and mini-stories, inspired by The Cask of Amontillado, Berenice and The Tell Tale Heart. As you explore, you also discover other Poe stories – some of them read by William Burroughs, who also provides the voice of Uncle Edwin, the character that the player goes to visit at the start of the game. The music was composed by Thomas Dolby.
The graphics used a ‘claymation’ stop-motion style that gave the game a unique and timeless visual style, and featured eyeless characters with grotesquely exaggerated features that help give the game an creepy edge. The slow, methodical exploration required of the player – too slow for many a gamer, it seemed, judging by some of the contemporary reviews – somehow adds to the literary feel of the game. the player can explore the sections based on the Poe stories as either character – victim or perpetrator – and the main narrative has a similarly uncertain sense of reality running through it, as the player is never quite sure of what is happening – only that there is no victory to be had. You can’t ‘win’ this game.
The Dark Eye was available for playing on both the Mac and PC. If you were to find a copy now, you’d also need to dig out a machine (and operating system) from that time period in order to play it. It wasn’t a hit at the time, and is now almost forgotten, but this game should be recognised as one of the greatest art projects ever to emerge from gaming culture, and in any decent world, would be available for new generations to explore and lose themselves in. You’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else, and in a world where games seem ever more interchangeable, what could be a better recommendation?