DARK MEADOW and the Monologue Conundrun

DARK MEADOW is a videogame developed and published by Phosphor Games Studio, for the iPad, iPhone and iPod. The iPad version was played for the purposes of this review. It was directed by CHIP SINENI, JAROD PRANNO and DAN NIKOLAIDES.

We shouldn’t like monologues – particularly in games. Games are about agency. They are about the player acting out its desires. Monologues are contrary to that spirit of agency permeating games. They enforce passiveness and reflection. Above all, monologues are intrusive. Unlike cutscenes, one cannot skip a monologue happening in-game.

And yet here is a game that basically works as a one-man show, with a comedian stand-up hoping to entertain our protagonist with his musings via loudspeaker – and it’s captivating!

In Dark Meadow, you awake inside a crummy hospital with that obligatory amnesia so many game characters are prone to. An old man on a wheelchair warns of a beautiful witch keeping you both trapped in that place and asks for your help to escape before running off to somewhere. As you explore the place in search for gold and answers (always those two!), you will find that the place is ridden with bizarre monsters, many of them with shells instead of heads and a plumage akin to fur coats. Due to one of the witch’s curses – or so you are told – you are immortal: whenever you die, you’ll reawaken at the bed you started the game from.

That old man is our entertainer. He is our only link to the world. The developers called him “Finny” but I don’t remember that name ever being used in the game. There is a clear spatial separation between the narrative (finding newspaper/journals clues and listening to the old man) and the gameplay loop (fighting monsters): the first being limited to rooms and the second to corridors. This separation is very suiting considering that corridors, by definition, are always meant as paths rather than as destinations themselves – much like the gameplay loop.

And the monsters are just that: obstacles in your way to reach rooms. They have no purpose other than that role. You fight them with a sword and a crossbow, though no ludodiegestic frame is ever provided for the reason why you were given that specific choice of weaponry or how come the variety of crossbows and swords you can acquire is so vast. Same goes for the ethereal weapon shop where you can buy such weapons. But nothing is nearly as freaky as the gold you must find in order to purchase these weapons: they are everywhere! Search inside a drawer (any drawer!)? Gold. Search inside a locker (any locker!)? Gold. Inside a fire extinguisher cabinet? Gold. The only rule is: if there is anything close, there is bound to have gold.

And for what? As the monsters lack a purpose, it entails that all those weapons and, more importantly, all that gold also lack a raison d’être. Dark Meadow is good game, but it could be great or near great were it not ridden with things that are not important.

The combat itself works exactly like Infinity Blade: monsters attack and you dodge until they get tired so a counterattack can be made. Like Infinity Blade, the swipes on the touch screen correspond to slashes of your sword. In other words, even after almost 30 years, developers still drink from the Punch-Out!! fountain – pattern recognition followed by almost split-second response – without being able to surpass it. It never occurred to neither Infinity Blade nor Dark Meadow that the pleasure of Punch-Out!! derives from the uniqueness of each opponent. There was a sense of discovery whenever you faced the next over-the-top caricature. With generic opponents, the whole operation falls apart and becomes dull.

These are all distractions. They are the people who want to go to the bathroom passing in front of you. They are the extras that follow our Othello; our comedian; our entertainer. The tension in Dark Meadow comes not from the combat, but from the exploration of the dilapidated hospital and the old man’s monologues. In the personal gaming environment provided by the iPad, with its screen close to our faces and covering most of our field of vision, listening to his musings while surveying rooms is intoxicating. He rambles about the situation we are in, about the witch, about his boredom, about you being late. His speeches corrode our memories and cannot be ignored or discarded.

It turns out that it is him, and not the avatar or the hospital, who is the game’s biggest mystery. It is by listening to him that you eventually take a glimpse at his soul – and therein lies the tension!

The problem is that, with the way the game is structured – by repetition, with perpetual cycles of deaths and rebirths – and with the way the enemies’ attributes was determined, there is a very probably risk the game will end before it is over. Eventually, the monologue lines will be exhausted and the actor will step down before you have leveled yourself up enough to beat the final monster. You will be left forgotten inside the theatre – by then, a theatre with probably nothing more for you to explore – you and those people passing in front of you. There will be nothing left to do inside the rooms, only dust to be collected on the corridors.

But the monologue is great while it lasts. You will first care about the old man, then will you find him funny; eventually, suspicious. It’s a collaborative process between you and him. You are not only a passive listener, but almost a co-conspirator in how you interpret his thoughts. You listen, yes, but you also interpret and judge. You are part of the whole process and, at the final moment of Dark Meadow, you will be asked to act on that judgment. It’s a fluid collaboration.

It seems monologues are not contrary to the spirit of gaming after all