The company Sierra On-Line was once a titan of the adventure game genre. Though their style of extra-difficult, character-driven, third-person adventure stories eventually fell out of favor to the first-person, contemplative solitude of Myst, they took one shot at that new genre mode with Lighthouse: The Dark Being.
On its surface, Lighthouse reads like notes from a committee meeting that tried to nail down what made Myst successful. You visit a bizarre uncharted world where you solve complicated puzzles in a open-ended locales with complex mythology and lots of journals to read. Almost in spite of that copycat-ery, Lighthouse leaves its own touches on how that sort of game can fill its setting with risk and conflict. Its twisted world delights more than its components suggest.
UPDATE: Lead designer Jon Bock shares some insight into the unusual art direction and story for this self-described “science-fiction folk tale.”
Lighthouse tells a Stephen King-y story of otherworldly secrets. You live alone in the Pacific Northwest, attempting to stave off writer’s block. One particularly stormy evening, your neighbor, the scientist Dr. Jeremiah Krick, frantically calls you to his lighthouse home to assist in a life-or-death matter. As you discover, Dr. Krick has transformed the lighthouse into the receiver for a trans-dimensional portal. The creature living on the other end, the eponymous “Dark Being,” has taken Krick and his daughter Amanda away to his volcano lair for unknown nefarious purposes. Out of a sense of obligation or maybe with little left to lose, you dive into this new world with no way home.
The structure and aesthetics in Lighthouse borrow roughly from Myst (and, coincidentally, its sequel Riven, which was not yet released at the time). The player roams around a big open-ended world, free to solve interwoven puzzles at their own pace while working towards the game’s larger goals. There are a few major tasks to accomplish, including constructing a vacuum weapon and defeating the pestering Birdman (more on him later). The lighthouse includes its own task, a multi-layered puzzle cube that can be solved in stages over the course of the game. It’s highly logical and probably the game’s best challenge.
That’s not to say the others are bad, just overwhelming complex. Lighthouse lives on its elaborate mechanical contraptions. You need to intuit the instructions for a submarine, then operate a metal foundry or reassemble a circuit board, usually with little guidance. Learning to work a machine does make you feel like a fish out of water in a new world, but these gizmos form the game’s backbone. Some are often arbitrarily intricate and have rows of switches that add little beyond perceived difficulty. If this doesn’t excite you, it can be maddening, especially during the uninteresting underground maze puzzle. (Sierra went as far as releasing a patch to address the game’s inconsistent difficulty.)
Of course, almost habitually for a game by Sierra, the game throws in a few frustrating inventory puzzles too. The silly formula of jamming a toy soldier and stuffed bird together to make a cuckoo clock had presumably fallen out of favor by this stage of the adventure genre’s history, yet that combination pops up within the first hour of the game. The game also uses very sensitive hotspots for interacting with scenes, which can become annoying in wide-open areas or when trying to find a single specific wire on a table among dozens. And naturally, you can forget a critical inventory item that only matters toward the game’s end. These are unfortunate design choices and shouldn’t be excused given the studio responsible.
So thank goodness the company’s knack for style also comes through. Make no mistake, Lighthouse is genuinely unnerving and captivating. Darkness lingers over hallways, and creepy ambient piano plays over dimly lit machinery. Beaches and island temples rest right on the line between familiar and alien, just as Dr. Krick might have found them. The intensely detailed environments still hold up, in part from the dramatic lighting and eye-popping color choices. At worst, they look simplistic but are stylistically sound, impressive given the limited technology and rapid aging such games are susceptible too. The game even works around its small viewing window, using the dead space for picture-in-picture screens and inventory. There’s naturally room to nitpick its aesthetics, especially over the rubbery humanoid models, clunky animation, and some Lifetime movie-quality soundtrack choices, but it tends to be a charmer.
Where Lighthouse stands out is how it takes you through its setting – and the drama you witness long the way.
Unlike many exploratory adventure games that allow you to retrace your steps if you get lost, Lighthouse has little safety net. Though the game can be completed from start to finish in a linear, well-planned path, your chances of plotting such a straight course without the aid of a walkthrough are slim. Dozens of possible hazards can sidetrack you, from minor foibles like leaving an area too early without a key item to major disasters, such as accidentally stranding yourself. The many different travel methods hidden in each area allow you to experiment and aimlessly drift from section to section. If you can’t start the submarine, you can get in a flying machine instead. Discovering this interconnectedness is one of Lighthouse’s strongest hooks. Should you step into the wrong portal and bypass the entire opening sequence or have an important puzzle piece destroyed by the dastardly Birdman (he’s coming up soon, I swear), the world wants you to find your own way to catch up.
And you can, somehow. Key elements like the Batplane, which never crop up in some playthroughs, become absolutely vital means of transportation and solution-finding in others. The game’s navigational quirkiness is agnostic to however you find a sense of direction.
Lighthouse‘s narrative through line shows similar indifference to the player, though it has a strong, propulsive arc – far more than its genre or meandering layout would suggest. Sierra resisted the temptation to follow Myst‘s template of a sparse story revealed in secondhand glimmers. Things certainly start that way, with scattered journals and implied environmental storytelling at Dr. Krick’s lighthouse, but the world you stumble into has a clearer ongoing struggle that you’re seeing only a slice of.
In Lighthouse‘s second dimension, a cabal of priests have labored away to restore the planet from its self-inflicted environmental apocalypse. Their order died with their work still in progress, and in thee process of defeating the Dark Being, you have a chance to advance their cause. In contrast to the Dark Being’s rusted, smoky machinery, they constructed a sinuous, beige world from more conscientious technology. Among the most memorable characters there are Liryl, the obsessive, ailing temple guardian whose apparent spiral into desperate loneliness reflects her collapsing world); and the Birdman (there he is!), a mechanical bipedal bird corrupted by the Dark Being who terrorizes the innocent and overthrew his inventor.
Though you only see a piece of this continuing conflict, it dominates the game. There’s a strong, explicit narrative guided by visual language, elements that defy the stereotype of other fix-this-crazy-machine games.
The environmental ingenuity, narrative tension, and contraptions mix sometimes, like in an excellent early segment at the tower of Martin’s Roost where Birdman (once again) stirs up trouble and sends you traveling either by air or by sea in a vehicle you have to repair yourself. Too frequently, though, those bits stand separately, despite their similar themes of discovering how to function in another world. The complex puzzles where you pull levers usually don’t interact with the character-driven scenes. When the best bits come together – bizarre devices, emotional engagement, and Birdman – it really works. But that’s not often enough.
There’s an admirably risky ambition behind the game world and Sierra’s willingness to encourage players to fall on their own sword. But regardless how well-directed Lighthouse may be creatively, it’s still part of the puzzle-adventure hybrid tradition that players either love or despise. No story can dissuade the uninterested, but those who want to pull a couple levers will find a more powerful setting than expected.
UPDATE: Designer Jon Bock was kind enough to share some of his insight into the game’s development, as well as inspiration for the art design. Ends up the “Sierra does Myst with living characters” thing wasn’t far off! And the Birdman has some interesting origins… Here’s his comments, verbatim:
In many ways Lighthouse was the height of my career with Sierra. My long term goal at Sierra was to become a game designer. With Lighthouse I had the opportunity to both design and creative direct the project. After the success of Myst, the company wanted to do a fully 3D rendered adventure game. At the time I was working as 3D art director, responsible for the selection of modeling and animation tools, and for managing 3D resources. As art director on Island of Doctor Brain and Outpost, I already had a few years of design experience, and was pushing for a full time design position. Ken Williams called me into his office one day, pulled out a copy of Myst and said; “Can you do this?” I said yes, and the game went into development.
When I began writing the story, I wanted to combine aspects of science fiction, fantasy, and folk stories. I referred to the game as a “Science Fiction Folk Tale”. Some of the settings were inspired by role playing designs I had created years before. The tower the player first encounters when entering the parallel universe was originally a pencil and paper design for a D&D adventure called “The Roost”. The tower was built by a tinkering magician who created mechanical birds and then a birdman, which ultimately killed his creator. Kind of a mini Frankenstein tale.
The world the player arrives in is inspired by the machine age, from the drawings of Leonardo De Vinci, the stories of HG Wells, and the integration of machines and natural forms, resulting in a steam punk-like universe. The “Dark Being” is a trickster character, a combination of traditional trickster characters like coyote with the Grinch who stole Christmas. His use of technology is destructive, the antithesis of the overall philosophy of integrated technology and nature that is the foundation of the parallel world.
It was important to me to have 3D animated characters in the game to bring the world to life. Our models were built and animated on SGI machines using Alias, and our motions were created at Biovision. The landscapes and architectural settings were created using both Autodesk 3D Studio and Alias. To my knowledge it is one of the first adventure games with fully rendered and motion captured characters.
Thanks a bunch to Mr. Bock for sending this along!