The Dark Eye

05 Nov

The user-interface constructs that are being developed in computer games are absolutely critical to the advancement of digital culture, as much as it might seem heretical to locate the advancement of civilization in game play. Now, yes, if I thought my worth as a person would be judged in the next century by the body counts I amassed in virtual-fighting games, I guess I’d be worried and dismayed. But if the question is whether a wired world can be serious about art, whether the dynamics of interactive media’s engagement can provide a cultural experience, I think it’s silly to argue that there are inherent reasons why it cannot.

— Michael Nash

Michael Nash

The career arc of Michael Nash between 1991 and 1997 is a microcosm of the boom and bust of non-networked “multimedia computing” as a consumer-oriented proposition. The former art critic was working as a curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art when Bob Stein, founder of The Voyager Company, saw some of the cutting-edge mixed-media exhibitions he was putting together and asked him to come work for him. Nash jumped at the chance, which he saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a curator on a much grander scale.

I was very interested in TV innovators like Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kaufman, in the development of music videos, and in the work of artists using the computer. [I believed] that opportunities can open up for artists at key times in the history of media — artists dream up the kinds of possibilities that push media to envision new things before the significance of these things is generally understood. “Where do you want to go today?” the [technical] architects of the new media ask, because they don’t know. They’re waiting for some great vision to make all this abstract possibility into compelling experiences that will provide shape, purpose, and direction. The potential of the new media to express cultural ideas has increased much faster than the development of new cultural ideas, so the potential is there.

Michael Nash’s official title at Voyager was that of Director of the Criterion Collection, the company’s line of classic films on laser disc — also its one reliably profitable endeavor, the funding engine that powered all of Bob Stein’s more esoteric experiments in interactive multimedia. But roles were fluid at Voyager. “It felt like a lair of tech-enamored bohemians,” remembers Nash. “The company style was 1970s laid-back mixed with intense intellectual ferment and communalism. The work environment was frenetic, at times even a little chaotic.”

As the hype around multimedia reached a fever pitch, everyone who was anyone seemed to want a piece of Voyager. In a typical week, the receptionist might field phone calls from rock star David Bowie, from thriller author Michael Crichton, from counterculture guru Timothy Leary, from cognitive scientist Donald Norman, from Apple CEO John Sculley, from computer scientist Alan Kay, from particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann, from evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould, from classical cellist Yo Yo Ma, and from film critic Roger Ebert. The star power on the production side of the equation dwarfed the modest sales of Voyager’s CD-ROMs almost to the point of absurdity. (Only two Voyager CD-ROMs would ever crack 100,000 units in total sales, while most failed to manage even 10,000.)

Another of the stars who wound up working with Voyager — a star after a fashion, anyway — was the Residents, a still-extant San Francisco-based collective of musicians and avant-garde conceptual artists whose members have remained anonymous to this day; they dress in disguises whenever they perform live. Delighting in the obliteration of all boundaries of bourgeois good taste, the Residents both deconstruct existing popular music — their infamous 1976 album The Third Reich n’ Roll, for example, re-contextualized dozens of classic postwar hits as Hitler Youth anthems — and perform their own bizarre original songs. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which is which; their 1979 album Eskimo, for instance, purported to be a collection of Inuit folk songs, but was really a put-on from first to last.

During the 1980s, the Residents began to make the visual element of their performances as important as the music, creating some of the most elaborate concert spectacles this side of Pink Floyd. The term “multimedia” had actually enjoyed its first cultural vogue as a label for just this sort of performance, after it was applied to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows put on by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground in 1966 and 1967. Thus it was rather appropriate for the Residents to embrace the new, digital definition of multimedia when the time came. It was Michael Nash who made the deal to turn the Residents’ 1991 album Freak Show, a song cycle about the lives and loves of a group of circus freaks, into a 1994 Voyager CD-ROM. Nash:

Within alienage, we discover a lot about the paradox of our own alienation. The recognition of difference is the way we establish our identity and the uniqueness of our own point of view. We are drawn to extreme kinds of “alien” identity — freak shows, fanatics, psychotics, serial killers, nightmares, monsters from outer space — because we are fascinated by absolute otherness, lying as it does at the heart of our own sense of self. We never tire of this paradox because it is so charged by opposites: quirky, eccentric, weird, dark, transgressive vision is so different from our own and yet so full of the very thing that makes us different, that gives our identity its integrity. I think it’s a powerful dynamic to draw on in establishing the essential attributes of extraordinary inner realms that distinguish the best work in the field.

Jelly Jack, one of the freaks of Freak Show.

Critics of the capitalistic system though they were, the Residents weren’t above using the Freak Show CD-ROM to sell some other merch — in a suitably ironic way, of course.

Personally, I find the sentiment above — and the tortured grad-school diction in which it’s couched — to be something the best artists grow out of, just as I find raw honesty to produce a higher form of art than the likes of the Residents’ onion of off-putting artificiality and provocation for the sake of it. Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, the obvious inspiration for the Residents’ album and the CD-ROM, offers a more empathetic, compassionate glimpse of circus “aliens” in my opinion. But to each his own: there’s no question that Freak Show was another bold statement from Voyager that interactive CD-ROMs could and should deal with any and all imaginable subject matter.

The same year that Freak Show was released, Michael Nash left Voyager to set up his own multimedia publisher. Freak Show had been one of the few Voyager discs that could be reasonably labeled a game. Now, Nash wanted to move further in that direction with the company he called Inscape. In a testament to both the tenor of the times and his own considerable charisma, HBO and Warner Music Group agreed to invest $2.5 million each in the venture. Any number of existing games publishers would have killed for a nest egg such as that.

But then, Inscape and Michael Nash himself were the polar opposite of all existing stereotypes about computer games. Certainly the dapper, well-spoken Nash could hardly have been less like the scruffy young men of id Software, those makers of DOOM, the biggest hardcore-gaming sensation of the year. The id boys were just the latest of the long line of literal or metaphorical bedroom programmers who had built the games industry as it currently existed, young men who played games and obsessed over the inner workings of the computers that ran them almost to the exclusion of all the rest of life’s rich pageant. Nash, on the other hand, was steeped in a broader, more aesthetically nuanced tradition of arts and humanities, and knew almost nothing about the games that had come before the multimedia boom he found so bracing. In an ideal world, each might have learned from the other: Nash might have pushed the existing game studios to mine some of the rich veins of culture beyond epic fantasy and action-movie science fiction, and they in their turn might have taught Nash how to make good games that made you want to keep coming back to them. In the real world, however, the two camps mostly just sniped snidely at one another — when, that is, they deigned to acknowledge one another’s existence at all. Nash was too busy beating the drum for “radical alternative subversive perspectives, what I call transgressive work” to think much about the more grounded, sober craft of good game design.

Most of Inscape’s output, then, is all too typical of such an entity in such an era. The Residents stayed loyal to Nash after he left Voyager, and helped Inscape to make Bad Day on the Midway, another, modestly more ambitious take on the lives of circus freaks. Meanwhile Nash, who seemed to have a special affinity for avant-garde rock music, also joined forces with the only slightly less subversive but much more commercially successful collective known as Devo — in a reflection of their shared sensibilities, both Devo and the Residents had once recorded radically deconstructed versions of the Rolling Stones classic “Satisfaction” — to make something called Adventures of the Smart Patrol. Such works garnered some degree of praise in their time from organs of higher culture who were determined to see that which they most wished to see in them; writing for The Atlantic, Ralph Lombreglia went so far as to call Smart Patrol “the CD-ROM equivalent of Terry Gilliam’s remarkable film Brazil.” Those who encounter these and other, similar rock-star vanity projects today, from artists as diverse as Prince and Peter Gabriel, are more likely to choose adjectives like “aimless” and “tedious.” (“Will we look back in nostalgia on such titles as Bad Day on the Midway and Adventures of the Smart Patrol?” asked Lombreglia in his 1997 article, which was already mourning the end of the multimedia boom. Well, I’m from the future, Ralph… and no, we really don’t.)

It seems to me that the discipline of game design has often suffered from the same fallacy that dogs writing: the assumption that, because virtually everyone can design a game on some literal level, the gulf between bad and good design is easily bridged, with no special skills or experience required. Most of the products of Inscape and their direct competitors serve as cogent examples of where that fallacy — and its associated disinterest in the process that leads to compelling interactivity, from the concept to the testing phase — can lead you.

In the case of Inscape, however, there is one blessed exception to the rule of trendy multimedia mediocrity. And it’s to that exception, which is known as The Dark Eye, that I’d like to devote the rest of this article.

The Dark Eye was Inscape’s very first game, released in late 1995. It’s an interactive exploration of the macabre world of Edgar Allan Poe — not a particularly easy thing to pull off, which explains why games that use Poe’s writings as a direct inspiration are so rare. When we do encounter traces of him in games, it’s generally through the filter of H.P. Lovecraft, the longstanding poet laureate of ludic horror, who himself acknowledged Poe as his most important literary influence. But Poe, whose short, generally unhappy life ended in 1849, was a vastly better, subtler writer than his twentieth-century disciple, with both a more variegated and empathetic emotional range and an ear for language that utterly eluded him. While Poe can occasionally lapse into Lovecraftian turgidity in prose, his poetry is almost uniformly magnificent; works like “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” positively swing with a musical rhythm that belies his popular reputation as a parched, unremittingly dour soul. Like so much of the best writing, they beg to be read aloud.

The problem with adapting Poe’s stories into a computer game — or into a movie, for that matter — is that their action, such as it is, is so internal. Their narrators, who are generally mentally disturbed if not outright insane and therefore thoroughly unreliable, are always their most fascinating characters. Their stories are constructed as epistles to us the readers; we learn of their protagonists not through dialog or their actions in the physical world, but through the words they write directly to us, explaining themselves to us. Without this dimension, the stories would be fairly banal tales of misfortune and mayhem, pulp rather than fine literature.

Bringing the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe to life on the computer, then, requires getting beyond the realm of the literal in which most digital games exist. It requires an affinity for subtlety and symbolism, and a fearless willingness to deploy them in a medium not terribly known for such things. Fortunately, Michael Nash had a person with just such qualities to hand, in the form of one Russell Lees.

In 1994, Lees was an electrical engineer and aspiring playwright who had little interest in or experience with computer games. But then Nash, a “friend of a friend,” happened to show him Freak Show. He found it endlessly intriguing, and was in fact so enthusiastic that Nash suggested he send him a list of possible projects he might like to make for this new venture called Inscape. One of the suggestions Lees came up with was, he remembers, “dropping into the tales of Poe.” Only after Nash gave the Poe project the green light and Lees found himself suddenly thrust into the unlikely role of game designer did the difficulties inherent in such an endeavor dawn on him: “What have I done? Dropping into the tales of Poe? What does that mean? It’s a completely nonsensical sentence!”

Lees and Inscape eventually decided to present three Poe stories in an interactive format, along with an original tale in his spirit that would serve as a jumping-off and landing place for the player’s explorations of the master’s works. Two of the trio, “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” are among Poe’s most famous works of all, the stuff of English-language high-school curricula for time immemorial; the other, “Berenice,” is less commonly read, but is if you ask me the most disturbing of the lot. All are intimate tales of psychological obsession and, in two cases, murder. (“Berenice” settles for necrophilia in its stead…)

The game begins with you knocking on the door of your uncle’s house. Once inside, your casual family visit takes on a more serious dimension, when you become the reluctant go-between in a love affair between your beautiful young cousin and your brother — a love affair of which your uncle most definitely does not approve. (The relationship is a presumably deliberate echo of Poe’s courtship and marriage to his own thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, whose long, slow death from tuberculosis became the defining event of his life, the catalyst for his final descent into alcoholism, despair, and at last the sweet release of death.) As this frame story plays out, you’re periodically plunged into nightmares and hallucinations in which you enact Poe’s tales. In fact, you enact each of them twice: once in the role of the aggressor, once in that of the victim.

Through it all, The Dark Eye shows the unmistakable influence of the adventure games that other studios were making at the time. The creepily expressive human hand it uses for a mouse cursor, for example, is blatantly stolen from The 7th Guest. But the more pervasive model is MystThe Dark Eye‘s node-based navigation through contiguous environments, first-person viewpoint, and minimalist, inventory-less interface are obvious legacies of Myst. The technologies behind it as well are the same as Myst: a middleware presentation engine (Macromedia Director in this case), 3D modelers, QuickTime movie clips, all far removed from the heavily optimized bare-metal code which powered games like DOOM (and thus one more reason for fans and programmers of games like that one to hold this one in contempt).

Likewise, all four of the stories that make up The Dark Eye engage in a style of environmental storytelling — or, perhaps better said, backstory-revealing — that will on one level be familiar to players of Myst and its many heirs. And yet it serves a markedly different agenda here. The character you played in Myst was you or whomever else you chose to imagine her to be, a blank slate wandering an alternate multiverse. Not so in The Dark Eye. Lees:

I think coming from a theater background influenced how I thought about it. In my head, “dropping into the tales of Poe” is only interesting if you drop into a character: if you drop into some character’s head. We’re asking the player to not play themself. In many games, the whole idea is that the player gets to be themself, with all kinds of freedom. If you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, you’re you, but a different version of you who can steal cars.

We weren’t interested in that at all. What we were interested in was… you drop into a character, and basically you’re an actor trying to play that character. What does that mean? If you’re a real actor playing the narrator in “The Tell-tale Heart,” for example, you would read through [the script], come up with some backstory for the character, try to flesh the character out so that every line in the performance resonates with a life lived. As the player, you’re not going to get that. So, how do we make up for that in an interactive situation? The way we solved it — and I feel like we did solve it, in fact — was this:

We tried to map that psychological investigation that an actor would bring to a part onto spatial investigation. You’re exploring a space where certain objects have importance to you. It’s not just, I pick up a letter and learn about my character [by reading it]. It’s, I pick up an object that’s important to my character and I hear my character thinking about it, or that object triggers a movie where I see something from my character’s past, or maybe it just plays a little bit of music. So, all these objects are imbued with something from your past. We were trying to “trick” the player into doing a psychological investigation of the part they were playing.

The Dark Eye is interested in enriching your experience of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, not in giving you a way of changing them; you can’t choose not to plunge the knife into the old man who is murdered in “The Tell-tale Heart.” But you can inhabit the story and the characters in a way interestingly different from, if not necessarily superior to, the way you can understand them through the pages of a book. The best compliment I can give to Russell Lees is that the framing story and the three Poe narratives from the perspective of the victims feel thoroughly of a piece with the three more familiar stories and perspectives. It’s no trivial feat to expand upon the work of a literary master so seamlessly.

The Dark Eye employs many tricks to evoke Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic nineteenth-century world. As you uncover more story segments, for example, you can return to them from this screen. It’s based upon the pseudo-science of phrenology, of which Poe, like many of his peers, was a great devotee. (“The forehead is broad, with prominent organs of ideality,” he wrote in a typical reference to it, in an 1846 character sketch of his fellow poet William Cullen Bryant.)

Like so many of gaming’s more esoteric art projects, The Dark Eye is a polarizing creation. Some people love it, while others greet it with a veritable rage that seems entirely out of proportion to such a humble relic of a bygone age. It rams smack into one of the fundamental tensions that have dogged adventure games as long as they have existed. Ought you to be playing yourself in these games, or is it acceptable to be asked to play the role of someone else, perhaps even someone you would never wish to be in real life? The question was first thrashed over in the gaming press in 1983, when Infocom released Infidel, a text adventure whose fleshed-out protagonist was almost as unpleasant as a Poe narrator. It has continued to raise its head from time to time ever since.

But there’s even more to the polarization than that. It seems to me that The Dark Eye divides the waters so because, although it bears many of the surface trappings of a traditional adventure game, its goals are ultimately different. While a game like Myst is built around its puzzles, The Dark Eye has quite literally no puzzles at all. In fact, admits Russell Lees, freely acknowledging the worst of the criticism leveled against it,  it has “no gameplay beyond exploration.” You don’t “beat” The Dark Eye, in other words; you explore it. More specifically, you explore its characters’ interior spaces. Watching many gamers engage with it is akin to watching fans of genre fiction confronted with a literary novel, except that here “where’s the puzzles?” stands in for “where’s the plot?” This is not to say that those who appreciate The Dark Eye are better, more refined souls than those who find it aimless and tedious, any more than those who enjoy John Steinbeck are superior to readers of John Grisham. It’s just to say that clashes of expectation can be difficult things to overcome. “We need some new words for works that are interactive but aren’t so much games,” says Lees — a noble if hopeless proposition.

We can see these things play out in the reaction to The Dark Eye from the gaming press after its release. Most reviewers just didn’t know what to do with it. The always articulate Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World reacted somewhat typically:

As with many of the new “exploration” adventure games, the environment reeks of emptiness, especially at first. But it’s worse here than in most: not only are there too many empty rooms, but you aren’t asked to solve puzzles of any sort, not even the lame brainteasers most games use as filler. Making matters worse, there are hallways you see that, for no apparent reason, the computer doesn’t let you go down; doors the game doesn’t let you open; and characters the game doesn’t let you click on. Even the few objects you run across — a meat cleaver, a paper knife — the game doesn’t let you take.

But, because he is a thoughtful if not infallible critic, Ardai must also acknowledge The Dark Eye to be “a singular, disturbing vision equal to the task of rendering Poe’s nightmare worlds.” He even calls it “brave.”

Instead of puzzles, The Dark Eye gives you atmosphere — all the atmosphere you can inhale, enough atmosphere to send you running to a less pressurized room of your house after spending a while in its company. You witness no actual violence on the screen; the camera always cuts away at the pivotal moment. Yet the game is thoroughly unnerving, more psychologically oppressive than a thousand everyday videogame zombies; this game will creep you the hell out. It’s in vacant eyes of the stop-motion-animated digitized puppets that are used to represent the other characters; in the way that the soundtrack, provided by associates of avant-rock musician Thomas Dolby, suddenly swells with nerve-jangling ferocity and then fades into silence again just as quickly; in knowing what awaits you as perpetrator or victim in each of the stories, and being unable to stop it.

The crowning touch is the voice of the legendary Beat author William S. Burroughs, a rare instance of stunt casting that worked out perfectly. Michael Nash, who seemed never to have heard of an edgy cultural icon whose involvement in one of his multimedia projects he didn’t want to trumpet in his advertising, sought out and cast Burroughs for the game without Lees even being aware he was attempting to do so. But Lees was very, very happy when he was informed of it. Burroughs plays the part of your crotchety uncle in the game, and also provides two non-interactive Edgar Allan Poe recitals for you to stumble across: of the poem “Annabel Lee,” which you can hear earlier in this article, and of the story “The Masque of the Red Death.” One anecdote which Lees has shared about the three days he spent directing Burroughs’s performances in the author’s Lawrence, Kansas, home is too delicious not to include here.

He liked starting off the day by toking up. We’re in the [sound] booth and he’s lighting up his marijuana and he says, “Do you want a drag?” And I say, “You know, Inscape’s spending a lot of money to send me out here. I think I have to stay on the ball. You go ahead.”

So, he’d start off by getting a little bit high, and that would loosen him up. Then in the afternoon he liked to drink vodka and Sprite. He would start around 3 PM, and things would get a little mushy, but it also brought some interesting performances out.

I have to admit that on the very last day when we were finishing up, he lit up a joint, and I did share it with Bill.

Within two years of these events, the confluence of cultural forces that could produce such an anecdote would be ancient history. Russell Lees was about halfway through the production of a game based on the Tales from the Crypt comic books and television series when Michael Nash sold Inscape to Graphix Zone, a Voyager-like publisher of multimedia CD-ROMs that was scrambling to reinvent itself as a games publisher in a changing world. The attempt wasn’t successful: the conjoined entity, which was known as Ignite Games, disappeared by the end of 1997. Nash went on to a high-profile career as a music executive, and was instrumental in convincing the hidebound powers that were in that industry to reluctantly embrace streaming rather than attempting to sue it out of existence in the post-Napster era. Russell Lees continued to bounce among the worlds of theater, home video, and games for many years, until finding a stable home at last as a staff writer for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise in 2011.

As the fate of the company that developed and published it would indicate, The Dark Eye wasn’t an overly big seller in its day. Yet it’s still remembered fondly in some circles today — and deservedly so. It solves one of the basic paradoxes of licensed works by not attempting to replace the stories on which it’s based, but rather to complement them. If you haven’t read them before playing it– or if you haven’t done so since your school days — you might find yourself wanting to when you’re done. And if you have read them recently, the new perspectives on them which the game opens up might just unnerve you all over again. Then again, you might merely be bored by it all. And that’s okay too; not all art is for everyone.

(Sources: in addition to the Edgar Allan Poe collection that belongs in every real or virtual library — the Penguin one is excellent — the book DVD and the Study of Film: The Attainable Text by Mark Parker and Deborah Parker; Computer Gaming World of April 1996 and May 1996; Electronic Entertainment of August 1995; MacAddict of December 1996; Next Generation of August 1997; Wired of March 1995; Los Angeles Times of July 12 1994 and February 28 1997; American Literature of November 1930. Online sources include “What Happened to Multimedia?” by Ralph Lombreglia in Atlantic Unbound and an accompanying interview with Michael Nash, Emily Rose’s podcast interview with Russell Lees, and Lees’s own website.

The Dark Eye isn’t available for sale, but the CD image can be downloaded from The Macintosh Garden; note that you’ll need StuffIt to decompress it. Unfortunately, it’s a Windows 3.1 application, which means it’s somewhat complicated to get running on modern hardware. But you can do it with a bit of time and patience: Egee has written a very good tutorial on getting Windows 3.1 set up in DOSBox, and you can find the vintage software you’ll need on WinWorld. Another option is to run it on a real or emulated classic Macintosh, as the CD-ROM is a hybrid disc for both Windows and Mac computers. See my article on ten standout Voyager discs for some advice on doing this.)


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34 Responses to The Dark Eye

  1. David Boddie

    November 5, 2021 at 5:36 pm

    It’s interesting to see adaptations like this where developers tried to use game-like mechanics to unleash the potential of multimedia and CD-ROM. Unfortunately, when the result resembles a game, it only leads to confusion and disappointment from the potential audience. It would be like making a music video for an audiobook, or taking it on a big stage tour.

    Some corrections:
    “All our intimate tales” -> “All are intimate tales”
    “The always atriculate Charles Ardai” -> “The always articulate Charles Ardai”

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 5, 2021 at 8:52 pm


  2. Chris Floyd

    November 5, 2021 at 6:05 pm

    Really glad you covered this game. I was pretty obsessed with it when it came out, despite all its rough edges.

    I think there’s more to be said, though, and that’s about the art! I wish I knew more about the artists involved and how the work was done–particularly the characters, which I assume are real miniature sculptures posed and photographed. Bad Day on the Midway had a collaged/pasted-together look that was (I think) intentionally ugly, if intriguing. Dark Eye was much more cohesive and equally evocative. As I remember it, anyway.

    I don’t know if it was legal reasons that kept you from linking to the WS Burroughs reading of Masque of the Red Death, with the illustrations, but I highly encourage your readers to Google “Burroughs Dark Eye Red Death” and check it out. It’s a small masterpiece.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 5, 2021 at 8:55 pm

      You might want to listen to Emily Rose’s interview with Russell Lees, which is linked to in the sources at the bottom of the article. I believe he does talk a bit more about process.

      I agree that the William Burroughs reading of Masque of the Red Death is pretty great. I felt it was just a bit too long to include as a multimedia element in the article — and I’d rather leave folks something to discover for themselves in the game proper…

  3. James Schend

    November 5, 2021 at 7:49 pm

    The industry seems to have settled on the term “walking simulator” to describe games like this, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, Gone Home, etc. It’s a terrible term, in my opinion, but I think people generally know what you mean now when you use it.

    • Owen C.

      November 6, 2021 at 2:52 pm

      I came here to post this too, “walking simulator” started off intended as a derisive term to poke fun at purely narrative driven games like this, which is why it’s a poor label for them even though it’s become the de facto term for them. Though of course now even more than then, with the short-lived “multimedia CD-ROM” label no longer around, so-called walking simulators, visual novels, puzzle-less narrative driven IF, etc. all just get lumped under the category of “games” and distributed primarily on game-centric platforms like Steam, the fact that they don’t deliver the kind of direct interactivity that people expect from most video games just serves to continue the heated debate about them that was mentioned in this article.

      One minor correction on the actual article, I feel like the wording implies that Myst was made in Macromedia Director when it was made in HyperCard, I know the point is to say they’re similar as limited use middleware that isn’t primarily intended as a game engine but I wonder if it could be worded differently to avoid confusion.

      • Mark

        November 6, 2021 at 4:00 pm

        This reminds me of a video I came across a while back that addressed some claims that a Doom WAD was the “first-ever walking sim” and how that wasn’t actually true. It then goes on to posit that the claim stems from some desire to legitimize so-called walking sims… which the host argues isn’t necessary, since games have a long history of “environmental exploration games” (with The Dark Eye being casually showcased among other examples).

      • Jimmy Maher

        November 6, 2021 at 4:52 pm

        I changed the wording a bit. Thanks!

    • Scummer

      November 7, 2021 at 9:05 am

      SCUMMVM recently introduced support for games based on Director, the “multimedia engine” of the 1990s on which many adventure and edutainment titles were based. This could offer another route to play games like The Dark Eye.

  4. Derek

    November 5, 2021 at 8:21 pm

    Coincidentally, just a few days ago I saw an in-depth video about another of Inscape’s creepy games, Drowned God. It seems to be not nearly as coherent as The Dark Eye, with puzzles that aren’t anything special. But between its paranoid atmosphere and the disturbing end met by its creator, it’s an… interesting footnote in adventure game history.

  5. M. Casey

    November 6, 2021 at 1:15 am

    Very interesting. This is one that I would’ve been VERY interested in at the time, but I’d never heard of it and must’ve missed the write-up in CGW.

    I hope you’ll humor me for one little nitpick:

    > Any number of existing games publishers would have killed for a slush fund such as that.

    I think you’ve got the wrong term here and you mean something more akin to nest egg or seed money or something like that. “Slush fund” implies embezzlement or graft of some kind and I don’t think you intend to say that of the Inscape investment…

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 6, 2021 at 7:25 am

      My idioms dictionary says that a “slush fund” can simply mean money set aside for a rainy day. But I agree that “nest egg” probably captures the sense better here. Thanks!

  6. Jaina

    November 6, 2021 at 7:54 am

    serves a markely different agenda

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 6, 2021 at 7:59 am


  7. Mark

    November 6, 2021 at 4:12 pm

    While I don’t necessarily agree with the somewhat dismissive tone regarding the many celebrity-backed CD-ROM projects of the 90s (even if I’d agree that many of them were vanity projects), I do however agree that The Dark Eye is one of the best games to emerge from that overall scene. It just has a unique and unsettling atmosphere and Burroughs is a good fit for the material and the tone they’re going for.

    One recommendation I’d make for anyone looking to play this is to check out The Collection Chamber’s upload of the game. They put together custom installers for old and unavailable games packaged in emulation wrappers so that they’re easy to run on modern PCs. Most of the time, it’s no more complicated than downloading the game, installing it, then using the shortcut it makes.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 6, 2021 at 4:53 pm

      I didn’t know anything like The Collection Chamber existed. That’s great.

      • Martin

        November 7, 2021 at 5:20 pm

        I tried it and it worked first time, no problems. The site seems to have a load of other intriguing software out there too.

  8. Peter Orvetti

    November 7, 2021 at 12:39 am

    The “walking simulator” notion is interesting. Infocom’s “A Mind Forever Voyaging” was ALMOST a walking simulator, if not for that final section…

  9. Andrew Pam

    November 7, 2021 at 5:28 am

    Is it perhaps worth briefly mentioning the far better known “The Dark Eye” German roleplaying game and associated computer games just to clarify that this project is not connected to them? Otherwise you may get some confused readers who came here from search results!

    • Not the German RPG

      November 7, 2021 at 6:54 am

      I would have read this article anyway (and enjoyed it) as a long time follower, but when I clicked through I did think I was about to discover a connection to the German RPG.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 7, 2021 at 8:04 am

      I don’t know. This site isn’t really designed to be quickie Google fodder anyway, and perhaps sometimes a bit of confusion is good for discovering interesting new things. ;)

  10. California Taxpayer

    November 7, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    The recently released ScummVM 2.5 includes Director engine support. It detects this game, although it doesn’t seem to be operable yet(or I have the files arranged wrong). I’m leaving this comment since future updates will probably make ScummVM a convenient way to play.

    Extracting the .sit file from Macintosh Garden is still a major hassle, as well as needing to run the installer to get the game executable(either mac or win). So the Collection Chamber version is probably a better source; after running their installer, you can find darkeye.exe and a .bin(usable in place of .iso) of the CD and use that to extract the needed files.

    I’ll also point out existence of ScummVM Dumper Companion, a webpage that lets you extract files from Mac-only CD images. It works with the Macintosh Garden ISO, but not the Collection .bin in this particular case.

  11. Chemtrailpilot

    November 8, 2021 at 11:59 am

    “The dark eye” is in Germany the name of a PnP role play game.
    Das schwarze Auge (translation) is the german answer to D&D / AD&D.

    There were also 3 or 4 PC Games in the setting of “Das schwarze Auge”, and they translated it to “Realms of Arkania”. Maybe because of this game?

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 8, 2021 at 1:04 pm

      No, the first two of those games appeared before this one. I can understand why the name was changed: “The Dark Eye” is an oddly specific name for a wide-ranging fantasy RPG. It sounds like the name of an RPG adventure module, not a whole RPG game system. Compare it with the more all-encompassing, not to say generic name “Dungeons & Dragons…” I’m sure it seems perfectly natural to those who have grown up with it, but the English-speaking world was not full of such people like the German world was.

      • Sebastian Redl

        November 9, 2021 at 7:45 am

        And of course the literal translation “The Black Eye” would give a rather misleading connotation.

  12. Sebastian Redl

    November 9, 2021 at 7:47 am

    Macromedia Director set me on the path to become a programmer. Very fond memories.

    Not a fan of tortured mind topics in fiction though.

  13. Nate

    November 11, 2021 at 1:20 am

    Interesting article. I hadn’t heard of this game.

    This sentence is hard to parse because it’s so long:

    “But Poe, whose short, generally unhappy life ended in 1849, was a vastly better, subtler writer than his twentieth-century disciple, with both a more variegated and empathetic emotional range than the rather one-note Lovecraft and an ear for language that utterly eluded him.”

    Here’s one attempt:

    “But Poe was a vastly better, subtler writer than his twentieth-century disciple, with both a more variegated and empathetic emotional range than the rather one-note Lovecraft and an ear for language that utterly eluded him. Sadly, his short, generally unhappy life ended in 1849.”

    You could probably remove “than the rather one-note Lovecraft” as another option.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 11, 2021 at 6:34 am

      I can implement your second suggestion. ;) Thanks!

  14. William Rave

    November 11, 2021 at 5:53 pm

    ” ‘We need some new words for works that are interactive but aren’t so much games,’ says Lees — a noble if hopeless proposition.”

    See, I think we already have a term for works like “The Dark Eye”. It’s “Visual Novel”. But people in the western games milieu tend to either be utterly ignorant of them, hold them in contempt, or both.

    • Jason Dyer

      November 13, 2021 at 4:13 pm

      No visual novels occur to me off-hand which are “pure exploration”. There are Japanese games vaguely if not purely along those lines (like Cosmology of Kyoto or Gadget) but none of them describe themselves as being in the visual novel space.

      And if we’re just talking about the more general comment, visual novels don’t cover things like Mountain, which is almost more or a … screensaver? toy? I wouldn’t find finding more things like Mountain, but I’m not sure how to even look for them.

  15. Jim Nelson

    November 16, 2021 at 12:21 am

    “It seems to me that the discipline of game design has often suffered from the same fallacy that dogs writing: the assumption that, because virtually everyone can design a game on some literal level, the gulf between good and bad design is easily bridged, with no special skills or experience required.”

    There’s another fallacy about writing I’m sure has been applied to game design: That it can’t be taught. You either have the gift or you don’t.

    These fallacies might seem in opposition to one another, but they both point to a reluctance by people to accept the idea that writing, game design, and art in general are crafts one learns and improves on over time.

  16. Throteka

    January 8, 2022 at 7:39 am

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 8, 2022 at 8:42 am


  17. iacobus

    October 7, 2022 at 11:37 am

    I found some folks put together a nice package of The Dark Eye in a DOSBox setup, ready to use on modern Windows machines. I even managed to run it on Linux, just uncompressing the files and then using my own, native DOSBox install with the .conf file provided in the package.


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