Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder Video Game Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Released by Iceberg Interactive
Developed by Zoetrope Interactive
2007, Rated T
Original PC release on November 6th, 2007 | Enhanced Steam edition released on November 13th, 2014
I'm a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft, albeit in a guilty, how-is-he-so-freaking-racist kind of way. I am also a big fan of video games. In the interest of full disclosure, I am generally not a big fan of point-and-click adventure games. I wasn't much of a PC gamer in the 1990s, so I missed out on Myst, the Monkey Island games, and other greats of the genre, and haven't been able to acquire a taste for them in my old age. I find them too slow, too much like work and not enough like games.
In light of this, Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder is at something of a disadvantage from my perspective. Originally released in 2007, it must already have felt dated back then. Even its recent re-release on Steam, which supposedly features "enhanced graphics," suffers from largely static pre-rendered environments, finicky triggers for environment interaction, and a generally antiquated feel.
The game puts players in the role of one Howard Loreid, a detective out to solve the homicide of a fellow named Clark Field. In the course of your investigations you explore several environments, including an office, another office, a dingy apartment room, a dingy house, another dingy house, and some suitably dark and foreboding underground locations (also dingy). Eventually you uncover some sinister occult goings-on. Everything has a suitably Lovecraftian feel, with ancient cults and forbidden rituals and a general sense of creeping dread. This is a major point in Darkness Within's favor: from the start, it realizes its goal of invoking Lovecraft's unique weird-fiction feel. It's atmospheric, gothic, and generally kind of creepy, and everything from the eponymous Loath Nolder (a gloriously nonsensical and Lovecraftian name) to the fictional town of Wellsmoth looks, sounds and feels like a Lovecraft short story. It's probably best, in fact, to imagine the game-and this is probably true of most adventure games – as less a game and more an interactive novel. Seen in that light, Darkness Within may be more successful.
But unfortunately, as a game it doesn't really work. The primary reason for this is that it simply isn't fun. Yes, it has interesting visuals, and yes, it's generally kind of spooky, and I appreciate these qualities as a horror fan. But every time I fired it up, it felt like work: clicking every visible inch of screen to locate hidden items, navigating the awkward clue system to discover hints as to how to proceed, locating arbitrary points in the environment to interact with. As an example, in one portion of the game you're supposed to find a rope, which you then use to descend into an old creepy well. As soon as I had the rope in my inventory I realized its intended use, and marched on back to the well to climb in; but you can't just open your inventory, select the rope, and then click on the well: you have to use the rope on the rafters up above the well. This may make sense from the perspective of realism – you need something to tie the rope to, and the rafters make sense – but it's not immediately clear from anything the game presents, and not exactly intuitive in the context of a game. This may be the kind of minutiae that adventure game fans expect, and if you are a fan of the genre you may appreciate it in a way that I didn't. But as a committed (non-adventure) gamer, I found it aggravating rather than enjoyable.
Another problem is the clue system, which requires you to read the scraps of text (journals, case files, etc.) you locate in the course of your explorations. Using the mouse, you actually have to underline passages you think may be especially important, and then click on a "think" button. If you're right, if the passage you highlighted is important, you'll uncover a clue which may help you determine your next step (the game will announce when you've uncovered a clue, and it will be logged in your files). If you're wrong, though, you'll have to try again. Once you've discovered clues, you then have to combine them in various ways, and then "think" about them again, to discover new hints as to how to proceed. All of this can result in a laborious close reading of fairly long text files, in which your only choice is to highlight every sentence in the hopes of discovering the individual words the game has dubbed significant (unless you use a walkthrough, which I ultimately did). It's also difficult to predict which clues the game thinks are related and should be "thought about" together without using an FAQ. As a graduate student I have a healthy respect for research, but I don't want to be forced to do it in a game.
I eventually gave up on Darkness Within when I reached a point at which you could actually die, a little under halfway through the game. I'm not certain if I did something out of order, or if I simply wasn't discovering the right solution. The scene in question involves running down an underground corridor and trying to hide from some unknown pursuers, but I wasn't interested enough to return to an earlier (a much earlier) save to try and work it out. It's entirely possible, again, that my frustration with the game stems from the fact that I'm simply not a fan of point-and-clicks; if you are one, I definitely encourage you to give Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder a try. But if, like me, your preference is for gameplay that involves more than clicking, and that doesn't force you to do actual research, then you might want to give it a pass.