Very Strange Fate: A Review of D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die

Note: The following contains mild spoilers for D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die.

It’s a little surprising to me that D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die wasn’t more popular around these parts. Like community favourite Deadly Premonition, it was developed by gaming auteur Hidetaka “Swery65” Suehiro and the team at Access Games, and shares a lot of similarities with the aforementioned. You might not peg it for a Swery game straight away, especially on the back of Deadly Premonition: Where Deadly Premonition has a lot of slower moments and Lynchian weirdness, D4 is about an energetic and somehow more bizarre brand of crime-solving, and where Deadly Premonition is about old-school adventure game mechanics with fairly typical third-person action gameplay, D4 is a mix of QTEs, arcade game conventions, and adventure game tidbits retro and contemporary. None the less, both Deadly Premonition and D4 are off-the-wall detective stories, clearly Japanese in origin, but American in settings, characters, and inspiration.

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Most times I’ve played D4 I’ve had difficulty even getting the .exe to boot, but boy did I discover something the first time I did. After the game’s brief prologue, I watched the player character (David Young) wake in a dry bathtub in a filth-encrusted bathroom, with an appetiser of interaction prompts in front of me. I decided to click on the toilet, at which point a Nintendo DS-style cue to swipe downwards across the screen appeared. When I complied, I was informed that closing the toilet had spent a point of stamina from my stamina meter. As it turns out using almost every object in the game, from doors to notepads, has you performing on-screen gestures. They’re even the content of the game’s quick-time events. Basically the only failstate in the game is running out of the stamina which these actions consume, although that’s nearly impossible to do as you’re bombarded with opportunities to pick up food to recover that stamina. Of course, you might well ask why the game has this food-stamina dynamic at all if that’s the case. IGN’s Cam Shea has referred to it as an example of Access’s proclivity for creating “a system for the sake of a system”, but I think there’s something more logical at play.

D4 is as much a slice-of-life game as it is a detective game, and these mechanics are engineered with that in mind. Swiping doors open and dragging and dropping your first to break fortune cookies gives you some tactile sense of David’s interactions with the world, and having to eat food to regain stamina or drink water to restore your detective vision pushes you into acting out versions of everyday behaviour. It’s also why the game is full of alternate outfits and why environments are impressively dense with interaction opportunities. Another reason is that the game wants to supply a constant drip feed of rewards as you go. Just as almost every action takes up stamina, almost every action also supplies in-game currency or contributes to some sort of running score. In a more serious adventure game these mechanics would seem distracting and superfluous, but in the light-hearted, unpredictable world of D4 it’s just fun to watch all these silly systemisations unfold.

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The magic of D4 is in using so many appliances and picking so many conversation options that you become fatigued, then buying a can of beans from a cat and eating them on the spot to have your energy replenished like you’ve just had a night’s sleep. Those beans are then added to a huge list of all the food types you’ve eaten in the game and will contribute to the end-of-level count of how many calories you’ve consumed. That screen will also track how much liquid you’ve drunk in ounces and how much alcohol you’ve drunk specifically. The game is full of stuff like this: The achievement list makes a taTu reference, environments are for some reason full of magazines about topics completely unrelated to the game’s subject matter like hockey and the Cannes Film Festival. It’s an infectious kind of runaway madness. Unsurprisingly however, there is a more serious basis for the events of the game.

Our protagonist, Detective Young, has the supernatural power to view the past, and the case he is investigating is the death of his wife “Little Peggy”. How fridged is she? There’s literally a scene where David and multiple copies of her are standing on a frozen lake as they say “I’m dead” over and over. Where D4 nails the silly, it feels confounded by the task of trying to deal with the serious. It’s hard to empathise with David’s loss when Peggy feels like a woefully incomplete character. She’s creepily infantilised, frequently doesn’t get to speak, and the majority of her lines are these gossamer, cloying expressions of her love for other people. You get to hear Peggy talk about her husband and her baby and her cat, but almost never do you get to hear her talk about herself in any way that’s not tangentially related to someone else. She did however provide David with his prime lead, telling him in her dying words to “Look for D”, and so Young spends the runtime of the two episodes here desperately “searching for D” and “wondering where he can find D”. The game uses this phrasing casually enough and has just enough other odd turns of phrase in it that I’m not sure it knows what it’s saying.

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With a couple of exceptions, the characters you meet along your investigation are a ball and you also get to learn a surprising amount about commercial aviation, but the game makes some structural choices that don’t benefit it particularly well. A good majority of episode one takes place on an airplane where a number of the passengers are candidates for the identity of “D”. Other media spaces out its character introductions and immediate exploration of them so that you don’t get overwhelmed and the plot keeps moving forwards, but D4 just dumps it all on you at once and it suffers for it. You might think that this clot of character establishment is to do with the game’s short runtime and that’s surely a factor, but it also comes across as a distribution problem. A lot of the second episode of the game is set in an isolating location, far less populated with characters. This back section of the experience places a greater emphasis on gameplay and it seems unclear why Access didn’t make something more conducive to a character-driven game.

Even the airplane is a limiting environment in its own way. There’s only so many times you can move up and down that one aisle and stare at the same rows of seats before you feel like you “get it”. Character interactions here are also padded out with too many lazy minigames. I don’t mind the quizzes or the object hunts, but one has you running up and down the plane just mousing over prompts, while another has you catching falling items with your mouse cursor. There are multiple levels to both of these novelties and the game’s short length encourages you to dig deep into its optional activities. Again, this package only contains two episodes and a brief prologue, with the rest of the story meant to be filled in by future DLC. It meant I completed the game in five hours, even with a lot of side-tracking.

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For the £11 it costs, I don’t think D4 is lacking in content or length, but I also don’t believe that simply matching potential play time and general quality of content against a price tag is a complete way of telling you whether a game provides you what it should. D4 offers a lot of moment-to-moment fun, but a narrative also needs forward momentum and a constantly evolving plot. By the end of “season one” we’ve had the characters introduced to us, dived a little deeper into a couple of them, and learned the identity of D, but not much more than that. A particular problem is the way you get to the identity of D doesn’t feel grounded in Young’s investigation work, it’s just a left-field reveal in the final moments of the season, followed by a tacked-on cliffhanger. If you work out who the murderer is or isn’t beforehand it’s probably because you understand the conventions of the genre as much as the clues in the game. You get basically no hard evidence to exonerate or implicate anyone.

Compare what I’ve just described to the first instalment of an episodic game like The Walking Dead. In TWD’s first episode alone, not only do we get character and plot setup, we see a whole zombie outbreak unfold, we become attached to Clementine, we see complicated inter-group relationships, we see a person taken out in an emotionally affecting way, we see the group almost overrun and forced to relocate, we have significant exploration of tensions between people in a crisis, and we get to make five big story choices. I understand that TWD is a very high bar to compare anything to, but D4 doesn’t just fall short, it’s miles below. There’s a sense that the game doesn’t entirely have control over its direction and that it gets carried away with itself. This helps it stumble into all sorts of delightful mechanical and story-based eccentricities, but it also makes it feel like the game doesn’t have a well mapped-out narrative. Playing it feels less like watching a television programme, which is what it’s clearly aiming for, and more like experiencing a vignette of interesting characters and systems. However, the real stinger in D4 is that there’s no sign its arbitrary cliffhanger will ever be resolved.

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D4’s first two episodes were originally released in September 2014, eighteen months before the time of this writing, and yet there’s been no word of the existence of an episode three, let alone a release date. Part of this gap is attributable to time spent developing this PC port, but that can at most have lasted for four months, with the idea being conceived of in March 2015 and the port being released in June 2015. That leaves twelve months of god knows what. It’s looking more and more like D4 wasn’t able to make enough money to sustain itself as an episodic series. It was originally made possible with support from Microsoft who were no doubt excited about what were then Kinect controls in the game. This is where all that swiping and grabbing comes from. But according to Polygon, even when Microsoft were giving the game away for free as part of their Games With Gold program it failed to achieve popularity. On Steam the game holds a community rating of “Very Positive”, but the small number of reviews for it suggest a relatively tiny player base, and achievement data shows that almost half the people who’ve bought the game haven’t even played a few minutes in. This is not entirely surprising as Swery’s work has always been cult, but perhaps the involved parties were banking on D4 being a breakout hit, something it sadly hasn’t managed to become.

Another one of those ways that we tend to incorrectly assess the value of games is we forget that a certain amount of a game’s worth is often locked up in how it relates to content outside of itself, and that’s especially true of a game that’s intended to be episodic. When you buy the opening part of an adventure like this, you do it trusting that it’s going to be a lead-in for something greater than itself, and when it’s not there’s a sense of that trust being violated. I sympathise with the position that Access Games are in, but it’s still hard to feel like all the right moves have been made here. When you’re known for creating games with cult appeal releasing episodically would seem to be a risky strategy, and it feels misrepresentative to refer to a four hour game, padded with optional minigames and collectible hunts, as “a season”. At the very least, if Access were going to take these kind of risks “season one” should be a more self-contained narrative, and even if D4: Episode Three is nothing but vapourware at this point, it would be reassuring to see some transparency from Access about its current state. Thanks for reading.