The Black Mirror

Review by Old Rooster
December 2003

"A Journey into Darkness"

About three years ago, the Eastern European development house, Future Games, began work on their largest project to date—an "adventure/horror" effort entitled The Black Mirror. Rarely has an adventure title met with such mixed reactions and reviews, with commentators billing the game as everything from a "classic" to a "boring disaster." One impatient reviewer, quite unfairly, even gave up after an hour, and then, unprofessionally, gave the game a low score.

I've spent over 40 hours with The Black Mirror over the last couple of weeks (game length is about 30 hours), even replaying a good part of the experience to more fully examine the dialogue and story and understand how such a range of conclusions can occur. The Black Mirror weaves a tale that is subtle, complex, nuanced, intricate and long. It would be easy to give up after a couple of hours, for several reasons; but to do so would lead you to miss out on one of the finer adventure games of this last year.

Let's see if we can explore some of the production's features and do it in such a way as to not reveal the mysteries of the game.

"Memories Light the Corners of My Mind ..." —from "The Way We Were"

Our hero, the fellow you guide, is one Samuel Gordon, an enigmatic man, who finds himself returned to the Black Mirror castle. He's been away for 12 years, with memories of that last visit not being particularly pleasant. Now Samuel is brought back by the ambiguous death (murder, accident or suicide?) of his revered grandfather, William. He is not content with simple explanations and the apparently easy acceptance of William's demise by residents of Black Mirror and other locals. Samuel's journey of discovery leads him on paths that are mysterious, treacherous, unsettling, even evil.

One of my favorite mystery authors is P.D. James. Her novels are long on dialogue, character development, plot twists and intricacy. You have to have a certain frame of mind for her books. Typically upwards of 400 pages, you need to not be rushed (i.e., reading in the airport lounge), but have a couple of hours at a time in the quiet of your favorite chair. Immersion and reflection are keys to best enjoyment of her series. The Black Mirror is a game of that type, one that needs to be savored and thought about, not rushed through.

"Things Aren't Quite as They Seem" —Samuel

After a terrifying opening cutscene, our central characters are introduced in typical English drawing-room style—almost as in a play. The Black Mirror mansion is large, dark, mysterious and foreboding. A good number of the 150 locations in the game are within these halls, and you'll spend the first portion of your experience getting acquainted and exploring.

Created as a 2D point-and-click adventure, The Black Mirror offers excellent, detailed and varied graphics. Together with outstanding ambient sound (rain, thunder, birds, closing doors), an atmosphere evolves that serves the story nicely. Travels will take you to cathedrals, sanatoriums, a graveyard and catacombs. Typically English rainy, cold and stormy weather prevails most of the time. You'll feel chills, a sense of dread and emptiness, self-doubt, a rising fear in the pit of your stomach.

How to Hide a Key

The Black Mirror is an adventure title that places story first, character interaction second, and puzzles third. A good many of these exercises involve finding a "key" (figurative and literal) to unlock a door, pull levers or otherwise open an inaccessible area. At times the running around seems a bit silly, redundant, or even boring, but these exercises seem integral to all adventure titles. There are many other types of puzzles, most of them creative and interesting, with none being particularly hard.

The most significant "puzzle," however, is related to understanding the mysteries surrounding the Black Mirror estate and the Gordon family. Here, we find conversational hints, references and layers of hidden meanings in the over 200 pages of spoken dialogue. And it is with this area that the impatient gamer will have the most frustration.

"Your Words Are Cold, Samuel" —Victoria

Samuel's words are also strangely stilted, wooden, mostly expressionless, and suggestive of a "flat affect." Since his is the voice we mostly hear (subtitles are available but not recommended), it's important to have a positive feeling about this youngest Gordon. Yet, in spite of above-average voice acting from the supporting cast, the lead seems almost amateurish. Why? Why does Samuel ask this kind of question in a monotone, pausing between each word: "Do. You. Know. Anything. About. It?" When, early on, Samuel says to Robert: "I've not come to stay," you're initially thinking: "Hooray, please go and bring on the rest of the cast!" Why?

Well, as you're suspecting, when the game box itself asks, "What evil hides in the reflection of your soul?" there is likely more to Samuel than meets the eye. If nothing else, he admits to taking psychotropic medication, which, in itself, may cause some robotic affectations. Also, early on, Samuel reveals some bad memories about his last visit to the estate, and he seems to be having more than his share of nightmares throughout the game. Now, to be clear, I don't think parts will develop for the actor playing Samuel on Broadway or London theater stages, but there is much more to his rendering of the character than has been considered by some.

Finally, poor Samuel is chosen by the designers to act as tutor to the player. His is the script that will say such inane things as: "I can't leave yet," when all that could be discovered in a room has not been; "the door is locked," when a key needs to be found; "I think I will go now," when a conversational tree is finished. In this sense, the game caters to a beginning player.

"You Have an Eye for Detail" —Dr. Hermann to Samuel

The interface and mechanics of The Black Mirror are as fine as I've seen in a third-person adventure title. The mouse controls virtually all actions. A small bar at the bottom of the screen opens to reveal inventory and conversational topics, while another bar at the top gives labels to items, characters, places. Hotspots are, typically, readily found, with the cursor changing color. Samuel's sometimes laborious guidance explanations will tell you whether you need an object and what it's for. Use of inventory items is clear.

The richly detailed scenes are usually static, with exits brought to your attention by pressing the Tab key to show doors. A map soon becomes available allowing you to move about the area, and elsewhere, instantaneously; while double-clicking the left mouse key takes you immediately through an exit to the next scene. You can save anywhere, and will need to—Samuel can die! Given the length of the game, the 24 save slots are barely sufficient and may need to be overwritten.

Generally, The Black Mirror is linear, leading you from scene to scene throughout the six large chapters. Guidance is given as to who might hold the "key" for the puzzle at hand. Again, the designers place an emphasis on the story, not the complexity of puzzles.

Double-clicking will take you quickly through conversations, and it can be very tempting, as in "Let's get on with it!" This temptation, especially from the middle onward, needs to be avoided. The crafting of the script and dialogue was carefully done, revealing hints, suggestions, oddities about most all of the characters. Rushing through would be like moving to the last chapter of that P.D. James novel and missing a good deal of the plot development in the middle.

"Tomorrow I'll Find out More than Today" —Samuel

My English wife has a theory that not only are European-developed games more thoughtful and less action-oriented, but also that Americans generally are an impatient lot (including this Rooster), who won't take the time to savor and enjoy a lengthy and detailed title—game or book. The Black Mirror is such a game, one that is done a disservice by resorting to a walkthrough and skipping conversations.

With an intricate and involving plot, brought to life by excellent graphics, sound and interface, The Black Mirror receives a solid Thumb Up from this reviewer. Do you enjoy dark stories with strong psychological overtones? Are you willing to be patient and take the time to savor and think about conversations? Did you enjoy Sanitarium and Agatha Christie's first mystery? If you can answer "yes" to these questions, then I highly recommend The Black Mirror as a "journey into darkness" well worth your time and effort.

What I Liked Most About The Black Mirror

  • Lengthy, involved, interesting story;
  • Excellent graphics and atmosphere;
  • Fine ambient sounds;
  • Smooth and efficient interface.

What I Liked Least About The Black Mirror

  • Almost too much linearity and hand-holding;
  • Too few save slots;
  • Too many "FedEx" tasks;
  • The narrative complexity can be confusing. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Future Games
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: October 16, 2003

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 95/98/ME/XP
Pentium II 400 (PII 600 recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
12X CD-ROM drive
4 MB video card (8 MB recommended)
2 GB free hard disk space

Where to Find It

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.