D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die – Final Review

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die’s central narrative is wonderfully and fiercely unique, passionately embracing a more gay, playful, and lighthearted tone, itself at odds with an industry which values and champions narrative bleakness, narrative darkness; in all facets of its construction, the tonally disheartening is broken with. D4, with this playfulness and constant insertion of levity, is a relaxing experience – tension and distress are mostly absent, even as certain of the themes presented and developed are of a decidedly mature sort: the game is playful, though never juvenile. At the heart of the narrative, then, is a murder, a murder committed under mysterious circumstances, the protagonist and player character – the endearing and charismatic David Young – injured in the assault, an assault which resulted in his wife’s end – she is the murder victim, though David was intensely affected by the deed, showing some demoralization, while his memories underwent a sort of destruction; the past is hazy for David, and the recovery of his memories is a primary narrative concern, though of course displaced in importance by Little Peggy’s death, Little Peggy being the nickname David long ago conferred upon his wife. Everything – all the narrative strengths, the maturity and gaiety – are anchored around David Young, a masterful protagonist of fair depth, who displays a considerable degree of character development as the narrative progresses ever onward. Central to David’s identity is his Bostonian heritage, the entirety of the narrative transpiring in Boston – or the skies far above it. In vocalizing David Young, the voice actor here skirted a common offense – David’s accent is tinged by that Bostonian heritage, though it is never exaggerated, as is so often the case in fictional depictions of that city’s inhabitants, an exaggeration which tends to damage the likability and believability of those characters subject to the exaggeration; at worst, it can morph the character into an irritating and obnoxious individual, and likable David Young is neither of these things. Even his physical aspect is remarkable, his eyes engaged in a certain warfare, being partly colored, blues taking up arms against browns, while the default character model features a lazy overgrowth of facial hair, suggestive of aesthetical indifference, or even sorrow. In order to combat anxiety, he has a tendency to chew upon strawberry flavored gum, and in the narrative’s many cutscenes he can be seen blowing a prominent bubble then promptly popping it. When considering these things collectively, David Young is a spectacular protagonist.  

David is endowed with a unique power, too, a power attached to various objects called mementos, objects which permit traversal into the past, where David can act upon the past, alter it, perhaps better it. David, though, should not be regarded as some massively altruistic individual – the course of his actions may indeed benefit the past and those who inhabit it, though still he is guided by the sole motivation of understanding the circumstances of his wife’s brutal murder – that is what animates him. The nature of David’s relationship with the mementos is never elaborated upon or discussed for any considerable duration, though this ambiguity must be reckoned as an asset, prompting the player to consider the precise nature of this relationship. Similarly, the phrase “time travel,” or “time traversal,” suggests a sharply science-fiction leaning, a departure from reality, though ultimately the narrative maintains a sense of groundedness, humanness. Such groundedness is furthered as more and more of David’s backstory is communicated to the player – central to his identity was his profession as detective with the Boston Police Department, apparently a position he exceled in, winning the admiration of his peers, though naturally inviting burden and hardship upon himself – an occupation as police officer or detective is an inherently taxing, draining occupation. And still he persists, immersing himself in his work – until he breaks from that sustaining immersion, petrified by his wife’s death, a death which has morphed him into a recluse of sorts, never venturing away from his home, the only voyages away from that place being the voyages to the past. These twin pillars of identity are then united – David is a fierce Bostonian and an immensely capable former detective, his experiences with that profession bestowing upon him a natural investigative spirit, a spirit which sustains him in his journeys to the past, and which permits him to influence it. And while he is guided by a search for information, in his journeys backwards one object repeatedly resurfaces, an object which was the subject of rather protracted investigation by the BPD and David before his abrupt yet understandable resignation – Real Blood. The object is a therapeutic drug of immense efficacy, this efficacy bringing with it complications, frequently death. This drug seems vaguely linked to Little Peggy’s death, and the inclusion of this substance, shrouded in mystery, helps to further the general investigative inclinations of the narrative broadly.  

David Young’s compelling presence is wonderfully complemented by an exhaustive cast of secondary characters, the first introduced – and the figure of greatest narrative importance – being his former partner in the BPD, Forrest Kaysen, a large, hulking individual with a swelling, insatiable appetite – and a sharp reverence and respect for David. The camaraderie which exists between them is palpable, is easily observable in their discourse, as they occasionally speak of such mundane matters as the quality of clam chowder from region to region, pointless talk mostly, though reflective of affability. Presumably witness to terrible occurrences – both were detectives – it follows that their union is a natural one; they came together to combat the more depressing aspects of the job. In this regard, their relationship is steeped in believability, and the general quality of the writing as they speak is rather profound, while the delivery of those lines is perfectly executed, the voice acting contributing to Forrest’s own great likability. He is mostly in a state of lightheartedness throughout the narrative, and his obsessive eating is included for comedic purposes, but periodically he does display a certain graveness, again pointing towards his occupational history. Still, he injects life into the narrative, and is emblematic of the overall tonal ambition – levity, playfulness, a playfulness punctuated at times by distress, demoralization. Reflecting narrative ambition, though, a vast assortment of other secondary characters see inclusion. Amongst the earliest introduced is Amanda, a mostly silent female figure donning a catsuit, whose only vocal utterances are cat purrs and growls. Her presence is an odd one, and the humorousness the developers likely sought to establish with her inclusion is never realized; she is simply bizarre, showing scarce character development, periodically described as being a “free loader,” though that is the full extent of her characterization – her exclusion would not alter the narrative in any substantial fashion, so insignificant is her presence. A similarly frustrating secondary character is an oversized doctor, a giant of a man, who strangely wields a fork and knife as implements, while he wears the characteristic doctor’s scrubs, and medical mask. The design is visually interesting, certainly, suggesting a sense of fantastical bizarreness, but his voice acting is delivered in a painfully slow fashion, which fast grows irritating; as character, then, he is frustrating, not too dissimilar to Amanda. With these two characters, then, relative failures are present – the entirety of the cast cannot match David’s greatness, his great likability, while both characters are deprived of Forrest’s great profundity. But a green-haired, exaggeratedly effeminate fashion designer is by far the weakest character.

All characters are defined by a certain eccentricity; the fashion designer is of course a logical illustration, as is cat-like Amanda, but another useful illustration is Deborah Anderson, mostly conventional and grounded in design – she has an ample bosom, a normal yet feeling face, and unremarkable blonde hair – though, as is characteristic of D4, features some bizarre distortions, in that she wears a life jacket about her torso, despite being a passenger on an airplane. She takes copious notes on even the trivialist of matters, while she speaks in a nervous, hurried fashion – here, with this hurriedness, the developers again sought humor, and she maintains a certain likability. Similarly likable is a flight attendant – Olivia Jones – who bears a striking resemblance to Little Peggy, and who accordingly seizes David’s heart upon first viewing. Conventional in design, behavior, and voice acting, she is largely unremarkable, though the strength and resiliency she displays place her at odds of conventional female stereotypes present in many media, stereotypes revolving around exaggerated female delicateness and waifishness. Adopting a more authoritarian role, then, she is characterized by subversions, and her relationship with David grows increasingly profound, largely because in essentially the entirety of the narrative’s concluding episode, the pair are entirely alone, meaning their discourse is intimate, is unobserved, and their relationship blossoms, and at a swift rate, David drawn to her perhaps because of her resemblance to Little Peggy, but also owing to her likability, her strengths and confidence. A few other minor characters, meanwhile, round out the cast, and these final few figures are amongst the narrative’s least interesting. One such dull individual is a bald-headed man with a rather illustrious career in law enforcement, and who is accordingly a stolid, seemingly unfeeling individual, whose speech is measured whenever David – the player – approaches him; he is emblematic of cliched masculine virility, he even serving the function of prison transporter, a hardened criminal with a glass eye by his side, a criminal who eventually launches an offensive against David, before promptly being pacified. Again, both characters are embodiments of cliché; when the characters depart from their commanding eccentricities, their interesting attributes flag, sometimes disappear outright; the game excels most strongly when these wildly, fiercely odd individuals are presented and emphasized. But they are not always emphasized – consider again the law enforcer, seemingly with connections to the FBI. The final character of note, though, is fortunately defined by strangeness, this individual being a flight attendant, not unlike Olivia Jones. Alternately fierce and passive, he is a peculiar figure, one who abuses a drug – presumably Real Blood – even while on the flight, in clear view of all the passengers and of David. In a surprising turn, this character is revealed as being larger antagonist at the narrative’s conclusion. This is fine in theory, but the delayed introduction of a larger antagonist means that the narrative is largely deprived of focus or direction; it is aimless.       

A considerable span of time has been lavished upon discussing characters and narrative tone, though this is deliberate, owing to the barebones, lackluster nature of the gameplay proper, devoid of depth – though, crucially, not devoid of enjoyability; some pleasure is to be had here, though it is a strange sort of pleasure – the gameplay, for all its failings, is just as unique as the narrative. At its heart, the game belongs to the conventional adventure genre, environmental navigation and environmental interaction central to the overall gameplay experience; ample time will be spent scouring the environments in search of some object or clue which will advance the overall narrative. Overall movement is fiercely limited; the player can explore, but only in a predetermined fashion; full movement, and accordingly the excitements which accompany full movement and exploration, are noticeably absent here; the game is fiercely linear, for better or for worse. The lack of player choice and player freedom is, then, immense – the player can occasionally choose a response in dialogue, but that is the extent of open-endedness. A masterful achievement is made here, though: the environments presented here are brimming with detail, clearly lovingly crafted, this attention to detail meaning exploration, while relatively constrained, is a consistently joyous, rewarding affair; clever environmental design compensates for gameplay basicness, absolutely. Each environment has a distinct identity, meanwhile, though the clear standout is David’s apartment, where a fair portion of the narrative is spent, serving as the backdrop for much of the narrative’s opening and the interlude between the two primary episodes of the narrative. As location, it seems suitably lived in, with expected aspects of personalization, David’s personality manifest in the objects on his self, in the food – or lack thereof – in his kitchen cabinets and refrigerator. Simple magazines occupy much of that shelf space, while a record player has a prominent position in the living room area, right alongside a television set and other mundane objects, reflective of life as it is lived. The apartment, while small, features a quaint patio area, and with this smaller environment the developers again display their valuing of player interactivity, in that overgrown leafage, clinging to the brick wall of the patio, can promptly be sheared, David asserting his dominance over the leafage, beautifying the environment, while he can also engage in simple reflection therein, the player provided a small yet useful view of the city – Boston being central to the overall narrative, it follows that this brief glimpse, a glimpse focused around nearby apartments, is valuable, grounding the narrative, establishing a sense of place. Similar environmental interactivity is present within David’s bedroom, the recipient of most personalization, an environment the player can dust and clean for a gameplay bonus, this bonus being rather rare – many acts of environmental interactivity have no larger purpose. But they endear player to environment, and these depictions, this interactivity, is a major achievement. Even if the gameplay – to be discussed briefly – is basic and lackluster, in presentation the game excels.

Outside of David’s apartment, though, the environments are prone to repetition; environmental diversity is slight, both episodes transpiring upon an airplane, traveling between Boston and Washington DC, a flight David was able to board – midflight – through interaction with a gathered memento. Some differences are present, but they are slight. The opening episode unfolds in the seating area of the plane, the player able to navigate this environment, drinking in the minute environmental details, observing nameless NPCs scattered about the plane, observing and interacting with the more narratively consequential characters. It is an interesting, unusual environment, certainly, though the environment which succeeds it is rather devoid of such intriguing complexity, this environment being the storage area of the plane. Cramped and claustrophobic, certain atmospheric flourishes are present, flourishes wonderfully enhanced by the darkness of the location, a darkness which necessitates a flashlight’s usage, David using the device to cast a faint glow over the objects scattered about the location. Still, atmospheric attributes ultimately cannot counter foundational dullness, and from a sheer imaginative standpoint, this environment is lacking, and is thus a poor conclusion to the overall narrative. Still, despite this misstep, aesthetically the game is masterful, with the adoption of a more cel-shaded, highly stylized aesthetic, instantly and consistently striking, resulting in a certain sense of vibrancy, character modelling being especially vibrant, lending an overall stylistic uniqueness to the characters and to all rendered objects generally. With this cel-shading, aesthetically the game resembles a conventional comic book, with paneling employed, most notably in dialogue, where the screen is bisected by a prominent black bar in its center, David being present on the leftmost portion of the screen, his discourser simultaneously presented on the right. This is a very clever implementation, and places equal focus on all parties involved. Seeing David’s face light up upon hearing reassuring information communicates the impactfulness of the words being spoken, while something similar could be said when his face illustrates sorrow, dejection, as is the case if the speaker is melancholic or frustrated and impatient. Animation quality in these dialogue sequences and beyond is mostly excellent, though the nature of emoting can at times be fairly slight – there is happiness and sorrow but not abundant gradation between these emotional states. Still, character modelling and character design are both triumphs, the uniqueness of character modelling helping to distinguish any given character from another, meaning each character has their own distinct identity. The excessively flamboyant nature of the green-haired fashion designer may be irritating, but it is at least memorable, and the game broadly is brimming with memorability; D4 is brimming with charm, the heavily stylization and creative flourishes masterful. Greater environmental diversity would elevate the presentation further, and while in a handful of whimsicalscenarios such diversity is present – consider scenarios which transpire on a frigid, frozen lake, snowflakes blowing about in the air – the existence of these creative scenarios again makes the player yearn for greater environmental experimentation.

The gameplay which unfolds in these environments is typically of a boring, unengaging sort; depth is almost completely absent here, though the gameplay ultimately transcends this shallowness, evoking a strange sort of satisfaction; the gameplay’s tranquil attributes are uniquely compelling. The adventure game leanings have been mentioned, and very rare are the innovations made here; the developers firmly adhered to generic tropes. In bold efforts to inject some life and originality to the gameplay, though, a bit of basic experimentation is conducted, this experimentation revolving around depletable meters, one meter connected to stamina, another health, and a third, vision. Besides mere movement, each action undertaken in the natural course of gameplay reduces the value of these various meters; interacting with the environment or discoursing with an NPC reduces stamina, for instance, while health is lessened by poor performance in the game’s many QTE-heavy action sequences. And just as David is capable of interacting with mementos, he can enter into a state of enhanced vision, entrance into that state highlighting interactable objects in the environment, while the more crucial clues see similar highlighting, the inclusion of this ability helping the game’s overall pacing; confusion is mostly absent here, meaning the pacing is typically of a rapid sort; crypticness is totally absent here, as is any sort of involved puzzle solving. But just as is the case with stamina and health, David suffers a certain exhaustion whenever employing this enhanced vision. When considering this reducibility, theoretically tension should arise, and logic says it ought to. If stamina is reduced to nothing, David’s collapse occurs in consequence, no doubt a distressing affair. In practice, though, this fail state will rarely be achieved – in my entire playthrough, not once did I see a game over screen, and the implementation of these systems is half-hearted and lazy at best; they are needless inclusions, though their inclusion has some merit – here, the developers were seeking critical innovation, and were the game less forgiving on this front – were health and stamina restoring objects not so easily acquired – then the value of these systems would escalate tremendously, would evoke the tensions the developers likely sought. Instead, the player has access to an abundance of resources, while the inclusion of merchants – an amicable cat while aboard the airplane and the similarly feline Amanda while in David’s apartment – further trivializes this system, in that resources can be purchased for currency, which is distributed liberally, almost every completed action rewarding this object, while additional stock can be obtained by scouring the environments, taking hold of small medals. The intentions here were, again, admirable, though the execution was lacking, the mechanics poorly developed.  

The game experiments with customization, too, with manifold different wearable garments obtainable as the campaign progresses, some garments being quest rewards, other garments purchaseable by the mentioned merchants. Customization will always be exciting, serving as a role of self-expression by the player, uniting player and player character. Certain of the garments are goofy or flamboyant in construction, and their existence is perhaps divisive; some may find the outlandishness intriguing, others may be repelled by it. Still, the overall armoire is exhaustive, and while many of the basic garments serve no practical function, being mere cosmetic changes (which are fortunately reflected in the game’s many cutscenes), certain garments have passive benefits, like expanding David’s stamina, health, or vision. It is a clever system, though when considering the overall easy nature of the gameplay, these extensions are never a necessity; a ten or fifteen point increase in overall stamina capacity is trivial, meaning the average player will be animated in dressing David based upon their own aesthetical preferences, rather than choosing garments for their gameplay alterations. The player can alter David’s upper body and lower body, can also select shoes and ties, while even his facial hair can be altered; at the opening, David’s face shows a lazy stubble, and the player can replace that stubble with a more refined, carefully arranged moustache or goatee. Forrest Kaysen’s garments, meanwhile, are similarly alterable, as is Amanda’s set of clothing. The exhaustive, robust nature of this customization does not alter or improve the central gameplay in a fundamental fashion; the choice of garment is largely an insignificant one, though again it encourages player / player character linkage. Currency is traditionally abundant, too, and this abundance makes one pine for an expansion of the economy systems; were these better developed and more fully implemented, a fair degree of added depth would emerge. Instead, they are defined by basicness, while frustratingly (though understandably), garments can only be changed in David’s apartment closet. Again, this is a logical decision – he could not possibly change his apparel whilst on an airplane, whilst situated in an airplane’s cargo hold. The end result, though, means the player is mostly deprived of these opportunities of self-expression; all of the garments won or obtained in the concluding episode can never be donned, for even the briefest of moments, meaning these rewards are completely pointless. Still, this freedom of customization is rather unexpected, and conveys the sense that the player can act upon the game world, dire when considering so much of the game is molded around fierce linearity, where the actions of any given group of players will essentially be identical, the narrative progressing at the same pace, reaching the same conclusion.   

As an experience, D4: Dar Dreams Don’t Die is defined by repeated, profound successes, many of these successes revolving around the game’s uniqueness, its strangeness. And the game is strange – consider the vast assortment of secondary characters, each possessive of their own eccentricities, whether those eccentricities are observable in their character modelling or in the nature of their line delivery, the precise content of those lines. The writing, bizarre and unorthodox, is mostly excellent, everything anchored by David Young, a conflicted, immensely likable individual, showing believability and humanity, alternately gay and optimistic and glum, dejected, and sorrowful, as the situation dictates, sorrow frequently arising when he reflects upon sweet Little Peggy, once so central to his existence, that centrality motivating him throughout his long quest – discover her murderer, obtain knowledge, and then, presumably, avenge her – that is the narrative, though it transcends simple revenge fiction, again owing to the eclectic cast of supporting characters, like the affable and endearing Forrest Kaysen, another key standout, delighting in David’s company, each having mutual respect for the other. Further injecting life and playfulness is the music, which is often very prominent rather than subdued, especially within the more protracted action sequences. Reflective of the Boston setting, meanwhile, much of this music has Irish inclinations, and it is frequently of an intense sort, also serving to evoke place, atmosphere – it contributes to the game’s swelling charm. The gameplay is of a typically boring sort, rarely engaging the player cerebrally, owing to the basicness of it all; it is not excessively bad or frustrating, while its unintrusiveness minimizes its potential negatives, but still one can’t help but yearn for more gameplay depth and complexity. Owing to this shallowness, the game is forced to rely upon the narrative for player engagement, and on this front the game consistently excels. Some gameplay failures, though, may stem from D4’s Kinect-heavy design features, the title originally designed around motion gameplay, simple voice commands. Playing with a controller is mostly a flawless experience, though in being designed with motion controls in mind, the game was likely far more innovative than as is the case at first blush. The game is affecting and remarkable, then, though one monumental failing must inevitably be mentioned – the conclusion. Very rare are the instances where I desire for a narrative’s prolongation. Short games can be good games; short, linear games are often more rewarding experiences than excessively lengthy ones, whose length morphs them into intimidating constructions. But here, with D4, a narrative extension would elevate the entire experience dramatically. What is here is incomplete – the game concludes with a cliffhanger, and as the credits rolled, frustration and sorrow simultaneously began to mount within me. Given the vast temporal removal from the game’s initial release, David Young’s tale will likely never see expansion, conclusion, a tragic admission, in that his unresolved narrative is brimming with potential. Experimental and strange, then, D4 is exactly the type of game that the creatively stagnant video game industry needs, and yet this strangeness results only in undue obscurity. Its gameplay basicness may alienate the common player, though narrative profoundness counters this basicness; the persistent player is a rewarded player.

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