Sierra was once the undisputed king of the adventure game, a throne they never quite reclaimed in a post-LucasArts and post-Myst market. But they certainly tried at least one time with Lighthouse: The Dark Being.
Lighthouse plays like a calculation from a committee meeting that tried to nail down what made Myst successful.
- Bizarre uncharted worlds ✓
- Obtuse puzzles ✓
- Complex mythology ✓
- Free-form, non-linear exploration ✓
- Lots of reading ✓
The game awkwardly slams all those together, and… come to think of it? It’s actually pretty good. The twisted world of Lighthouse 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 the story of Dr. Jeremiah Krick, a lighthouse keeper who becomes your new neighbor (and only friend!) after you move to the Pacific Northwest to stave off writer’s block. One particularly stormy evening, Dr. Krick asks you over to his mountainside house to assist in a life-or-death matter. In a Stephen King-y turn of events, 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. What better life choice than to dive into this new world head-first with no way home?
The structure and aesthetics in Lighthouse borrow almost directly from Myst and its sequel Riven (which, bizarrely, was not yet released at the time). Players roam around a big open-ended world, free to solve the interwoven puzzles at their own pace while working towards some of the game’s larger goals. There’s a few major tasks to accomplish, including constructing a vacuum weapon and defeating the nefarious Birdman (more on him later). Every zone somehow links to another one through teleporter, submarine, flying machine, etc., and discovering their interconnectedness is one of Lighthouse‘s strongest hooks. The central hub area includes its own challenge, a multi-layered puzzle cube that can be solved in stages over the course of the game. It’s highly logical and probably the best puzzle the game has.
Which isn’t to say the others are bad… just overwhelming complex. Lighthouse lives and dies on its elaborate mechanical contraptions. If your idea of fun is discovering the recipe for casting and molding iron, then reassembling a room full of circuitry and reverse-engineering the instruction manual for a submarine, then this is the game for you. So many of the puzzles are arbitrarily intricate without much reason beyond difficulty. It can be maddening, especially during the game’s blisteringly uninteresting take on the “underground maze” puzzle. (The developers went as far as releasing a patch that lowers the game’s difficulty and adds a hint system.)
Of course, almost habitually, Sierra throws in a few frustrating inventory puzzles too. One might suspect that the “toy soldier + stuffed bird = cuckoo clock” formula had fallen out of favor by this stage of the adventure genre’s history, yet that exact combination pops up within the first hour of the game. The game also includes ultra-sensitive interactivity hotspots, which can become especially annoying in wide-open areas or when trying to find a single specific wire on a table among dozens. These are unfortunate and come as a package with Sierra’s design sense.
So thank goodness the company’s knack for style and presentation 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. Sierra even works around the small viewing window, using the dead space for picture-in-picture screens and inventory. There’s naturally room to nitpick, especially over the rubbery humanoid models, clunky animation, and some Lifetime movie-quality soundtrack choices, but it tends to be a charmer.
Complaints aside, Lighthouse makes two rather neat variations on the first-person adventure mold.
One of the game’s odder choices is its total lack of direction or a safety net. Though the game can be completed from start to finish in a linear, well-planned way, 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. Should you step into the wrong portal and bypass the entire opening sequence or have important puzzle pieces destroyed by the dastardly Birdman (I swear, he’s coming up soon), the world continues unabated, waiting for you 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 rhythm is decidedly quirkier than nearly any other game because of its complete indifference to your lack of direction.
Lighthouse‘s other major distinguishing factor is its narrative through-line with intriguing characters and dramatic momentum. Sierra resisted the temptation to follow Myst‘s template of a sparse game revealed through glimmers of story. 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 plot. In Lighthouse‘s second dimension, a cabal of priests had nearly succeeded in restoring the planet from its self-inflicted environmental apocalypse. Their order died before defeating the Dark Being and left behind a trail of clues for someone else (you) to complete their work. They constructed a curvy and beige world built from conscientious technology in contrast to the Dark Being’s rusted, shadowy machinery. Among the most memorable characters there are Liryl, the obsessive, ailing temple guardian whose failing life support machine impairs her speech and movement; and the Birdman (see?), a mechanical bipedal bird corrupted by the Dark Being who terrorizes the innocent and presumably killed his inventor.
There’s a strong, explicit narrative guided by deliberate visual language, elements that other fix-this-crazy-machine games usually miss. (Liryl’s story in particular – her apparent collapse into desperate loneliness – is heartbreaking.)
The environments and contraptions rarely mix. The complex puzzles where you operate bizarre levers and drive trains always stand apart from the subtler, nuanced story scenes. When the best bits come together – bizarre devices, emotionally engaging story, and Birdman – it really works. But that’s infrequent.
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 uninitiated, but those interested in pulling 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. [NOTE: Once again, Birdman is king]
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!