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Sunday 12 October 2014

Lost Souls of Dorset

I belatedly finished Dark Fall: Lost Souls – another great game from Jonathan Boakes, creator of The Lost Crown. I originally bought it on DVD four years ago, a few months after it first came out. But after playing it for several days, and getting about half-way through, the game suddenly refused to load. Several attempts at uninstalling and reinstalling failed to cure the problem, so I guess I must have damaged the disc or corrupted the licence file or something (there’s also an alternative paranormal explanation, which I’ll get to later).

A couple of weeks ago I saw Dark Fall: Lost Souls on special offer on Steam for just £2.49 (a temporary reduction from the normal price of £9.99). Needless to say I snapped it up – and I’m glad I did. It’s only in the second half of the game, which I’d been prevented from playing, that the high strangeness really sets in (I still had all my savegames, so I could pick up where I left off). I’m not saying the first half is weak, but it’s essentially just scene-setting. Apart from the wonderfully atmospheric graphics and soundtrack, it’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill point-and-click adventure. But once you’ve found your way up to the hotel’s guest rooms (which is the point I’d got to four years ago) the game really comes into its own – Boakesian weirdness at its best.

As with The Lost Crown, part of the attraction of Dark Fall: Lost Souls is its decaying small-town setting, replete with nostalgic reminders of the simpler world of the mid-twentieth century. What makes it even more interesting for me is that it’s set in Dorset, right on my doorstep. The name of the town, Dowerton (which also featured in the original Dark Fall game, which I haven’t played) is fictitious, and doesn’t have an obvious correspondence with any real Dorset location. The town doesn’t seem to have a beach, yet it’s large enough to have an 18-room hotel. The 1947 rail route (see top-right screenshot above) indicates that it was on a branch line of the Great Western Railway from Dorchester, but I don’t believe there ever was such a thing. There was a GWR branch line from Maiden Newton to Bridport, however – and using that as an analog would put Dowerton ten to fifteen miles south of where I live. That’s what I’d like to think, anyhow!

Dowerton is a town that has seen better days. The train station is abandoned, as is the adjacent hotel. The youths of the town have turned to Satanism, and the hotel is reputed to be haunted. Associated with the occult since the 1950s, the place took a nosedive in 2005 with the disappearance of 11-year-old Amy Haven – a disruptive child who had become obsessed with the paranormal.

The action of the game takes place five years after Amy’s disappearance. It’s played from the first person perspective of a retired police officer known only as The Inspector. “Retired” is a euphemism, actually – the Inspector was fired for fabricating evidence against the chief suspect in the Amy Haven case. This was a sleazy middle-aged man named Mr Bones, who had befriended the child and initiated her into the ways of the occult. Bones denied having harmed her, claiming Amy had voluntarily chosen to pass over to the other side.

The Inspector is still driven to discover the truth about the case. Amy’s ghost has been seen lurking around the old station, so one night he decides to go there and investigate. As he does so, he receives a series of anonymous text messages on his phone, from someone or something that clearly knows a lot about the case.

As I’ve already said, the action starts fairly normally – although exploring a disused train station that has been used for Satanic rituals is always going to have its spooky moments, especially in the dead of night. It’s when the Inspector gets inside the hotel, though, that things really start to get weird. He encounters the restless ghosts of various former occupants who died by committing suicide, and he experiences timeslips that take him back to critical turning points in their lives. He is able to change history, thus freeing the ghosts from their torments. But do things like that happen in the real world? Some aspects of the action have a distinctly dreamlike (or nightmare-like) quality, and on a couple of occasions the Inspector briefly finds himself lying on a hospital operating table while medics fight to resuscitate him.

The Lost Crown was open to a whole range of interpretations, and Dark Fall: Lost Souls is no different. One extreme view would be that the resuscitation scenes are the only objective reality in the game, while the rest is a kind of near-death experience (and I do mean near death – the suggestion at the end, to my relief, was that the Inspector would pull through). In this interpretation, the Inspector is driven by his curiosity and feelings of guilt to re-examine the facts of the case in the form of a lucid dream – hence most of the game is nothing more than a hallucination.

In another extreme interpretation, the operating table scenes would be the only hallucinations, while everything else is objectively real. In this view, the Inspector would end up the villain of the piece – a callous murderer – while Amy and Mr Bones would be innocent victims. But that doesn’t accord with the personality of the Inspector as it comes across in the game – the compassionate way he deals with the ghosts, and his genuine desire to learn the truth. Amy, on the other hand, is not a nice child – although a lot of this may be down to Mr Bones corrupting her impressionable young mind. Anyhow, the ghosts all blame Amy’s presence in the hotel for prolonging their suffering.

My own view lies somewhere between these extremes. I think it’s true that the only physically objective reality is the Inspector lying on an operating table in hospital. But rather than a hallucination, I believe he undergoes an out-of-body experience. His astral body really does travel to the hotel, where he really does encounter the spirits that live there, and he really does free the “lost souls” from the torment Amy is holding them in.. At the same time, other aspects of his experience – the SMS messages in particular – are superimposed on events by his own self-doubts.

But that’s just my own view, because – to put it bluntly – I really liked the Inspector and I really disliked Amy and Mr Bones. I’m sure other people will have their own interpretations!

When I resumed playing the game after the lapse of four years, I started a little way back from the last savegame so I could ease myself back into it. And I noticed a really spooky coincidence that may (if you like paranormal explanations) be the real reason the game broke at the exact moment it did.

When the Inspector arrives at hotel reception, he finds his name written in the guest-book together with the date at which the action is supposed to take place – November 5th, 2010 (see the first screenshot below). As British readers won’t need telling, this is Guy Fawkes Night, and in the outdoor scenes you see fireworks exploding in the night sky over Dowerton station. The Inspector’s arrival time is given as 8 pm, and I played for perhaps an hour and a half after that point before the game suddenly refused to load.

And what is the time-stamp on my last savegame? As you can see from the second screenshot below (zoom in on the bottom left-hand corner), it was “5.11.2010, 21:26”. This uses the 24-hour clock, so 21:26 means just before half past nine in the evening. And it uses the British day-month-year convention, so 5.11.2010 was... November 5th, 2010!

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