D (PlayStation) review
"One night in a downtown LA hospital under the gaze of a full moon, Doctor Richter Harris apparently goes insane and, without warning, carries out a mass murder of staff and patients. "
One night in a downtown LA hospital under the gaze of a full moon, Doctor Richter Harris apparently goes insane and, without warning, carries out a mass murder of staff and patients.
Good sense dictates that it should be up to the police to take care of such an horrific situation, but in the interests of promoting Hot Oedipal Action in its story, D instead sends in Laura Harris, the doctor's grown-up daughter (of no particular skills or occupation that I can identify) to 'penetrate the riddle of her transfigured father.' There are misleading echoes of Silence of the Lambs at this point, as Laura leaves the men behind and ventures onto the mad doctor's turf to the strains of some evil string chords courtesy of the Moscow Festival Orchestra.
An abandoned hospital is a fantastic setting for a horror game, and D's packaging and introduction are both keen to emphasise the fact that Richter massacred people in a hospital, and that Laura (whom we will play in D) will subsequently have some kind of nightmarish adventure in the hospital.
Tension mounts in the introductory CGI scenes as the heroine steps into the deathly silence of the hospital foyer and takes in the sight of the sterile environment littered with corpses. The game establishes in this moment its highly distinctive handling of the first-person view (which will prove to be its most memorable feature) as it cranes the camera about dynamically, simulating Laura's gaze as it's drawn from one object to the next, and in a manner which binds us empathically into her point of view.
And then some kind of portal appears and Laura is whisked away from the hospital to an austere castle where the game actually begins.
It was definitely a blow for me (and a bizarre gesture of waste on the game's part, I felt) that the adventure was obviously not going to take place in the hospital! Nevertheless, there is plenty of time to recover when your misgivings are about a game's opening, and the castle-come-mansion immediately presented its own sense of threat and mystery. What happened to the hospital? Was the gratuitous change of setting symbolic of some more ill-chosen moves to come? (YES.) Why is Laura here? Where is here? And just why is the game called D?
This adventure takes place entirely in widescreen format, with the player guiding Laura in the pre-programmed first person through a series of puzzles, visions and scares in lush castle, mansion, dream and nightmare worlds towards some kind of resolution of the mystery of her father's murderousness. Every path of movement in the game has been entirely pre-rendered, and this is the reason for D's sprawl across three Playstation discs, its scenic gorgeousness - and for its low interactivity and inherently simple puzzles. D must live or die by its visual and atmospheric delivery and psychological effect, because its gaming content is basic.
Tap forward and you face a 'locked-in' journey as Laura strides to the next of the limited number of nodes. Frequently you'll tap left or right hoping to point yourself at 'that spot over there' and find yourself revolving right past it, as it doesn't officially exist as a place you can walk to. The pace of movement is leisurely, ghostly, and the subjective camera is all-important. Somehow D gives one of the most powerful sensations of 'being' another person I have ever experienced in gaming, of literally seeing out of someone else's eyes. You are intensely aware of the rise and fall of every step taken, of the motion of the world enveloping you, complete with roving gaze when examining a new clue or glancing down to 'your own' hands when opening a door or drawer. The mostly seamless enclosure in Laura's headspace pays off in some truly disturbing moments; best of all was when I started to turn around in one room and was shocked to see a stranger turning towards me, only to realise I had discovered a mirror and was now looking directly at myself.
Then there were those other times during D when I looked at myself and could be heard to mutter, 'I look really bad.'
It's good that we spend far more time looking out of Laura's eyes than we do looking at her. Her helmet and squid-squiggle blonde crown is good evidence of 3D animators' claims that realistic hair can be hard to do, and her face demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the rough proportional ratios that make men look like men and women like women. She also looks pretty goggle-eyed and silly when gasping for breath after one of the game's scare scenes. Still, you'll forget about these problems and care for her/yourself anyway because D's mystery is so good, and there is a real sense of doom about Laura's fate. Fragmented shock visions of some violent event from her past (more of that Hot Oedipal Action) assault you from time to time, and you just know that eventually you're going to learn some complete and terrible truth.
You need this story carrot dangled in front of you because the game's puzzles are nowhere near as exciting or sophisticated as any of its sensory ideas. Mercifully D, while being a cousin of point-and-clickers, has none of the point-and-click elements I am most wary of: cursors and hotspots. Instead it takes the extreme opposite path of user-friendliness (and possible over-ease) by guaranteeing that a click of the action button (Circle) will always unearth or activate the interactive feature of the current view. Items are automatically acquired when found, but must be voluntarily cued up and used in the right places to progress. The keys, tools and weapons you find, as well as typical mansion props like books and statues, provide a pleasing but undernourished series of puzzles for you to negotiate.
Hint features are traditionally hard to implement in games, and though D barely needs hints anyway, I like the suitably fairytale method of help it offers: Several times during each game Laura can check her compact mirror, in which cluey images will appear. And each time she checks it, the mirror cracks a little more, until it eventually shatters and is rendered useless.
It's curious to note that for all the menace exuded by its grim lighting, scary paintings, cloying red drapes and nightmare stylings, D never actually subjects you to physical violence. Your only enemy is time. The game stops after two real hours, at which point the portal which started the whole mess by dumping Laura in the castle will close irrevocably. Your goal is to reach some kind of conclusion within that time limit, and there is no pausing and no saving the game.
While I think it's unreasonable to demand two straight hours of a player's time for initial sessions of any game, D is at least mindful of its own nature, not to mention short. The puzzles cleverly have a degree of built-in redundancy as you solve them, so that the steps leading to a particular puzzle's solution can be either reduced in number or skipped entirely on subsequent plays fueled by acquired knowledge. Learning the puzzles (especially the godawful rotating room) and avoiding extra scare scenes which eat up more time are the ways in which you become 'better' at D, until you can make it to the revelatory endings in well under two hours.
D seems to go out of its way to be strange and troublesome as a game. The two hour time limit creates imaginary tension, but trying to isolate two unbroken hours of your life in which to play D might create some non-imaginary tension. In turn, you may forgive D this tension when you realise how small a game it is overall, and that it's never going to prove difficult enough for the time limit to cause you real grief. Then you'll retract your forgiveness again for the very same reasons.
In spite of these dubious gaming merits, D is a horror experience offering a powerful sensory journey and a disturbing mystery which truly pays off. Though in typical D style, that pay-off shoots itself in the foot in terms of making you want to ride it all out again from the start to see another ending - you won't, or at least not with great enthusiasm. The feeling of at once controlling Laura's gaze and at other times becoming a 'victim' to it throughout D feels somehow unique, and is more creepily handled than in many similar games. And while the whole thing is small, too simple and short in content, there doesn't really seem to be any other way it could be, considering the way the game is set up.
D is another strange pleasure mostly for horror fans and fans of the strange, with the D standing for Delivery. They certainly couldn't have called it G, for Gameplay.
-- D -- 7/10 --
P.S. I lied. You have to beat the game to find out what the D really stands for.
Community review by bloomer (March 07, 2004)
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