Death Gate

Moby ID: 175

DOS version

Were this game a spiky club, I'd take up masochism

The Good
This game should be considered a classic. In fact, it's one of the most impeccably crafted games ever released, in any genre, in any decade, on any platform. The way it all comes together can just make you wonder sometimes why you even bother playing any other games - this game simply keeps on coming up with original scenes, with stunning plot revelations, with nearly metaphorical settings and with superb puzzles that are so deeply interwoven with the plot and the game world that you might not even realize that they are, in fact, puzzles. The game is quite lengthy yet there is hardly a single scene that could be classified as "filler" (to borrow a term from rock music criticism); there are so many different places, on several different worlds and "continents", yet at no point do you feel like a tourist being escorted through an art gallery at a rate of 5 paintings per minute just so you could say you've seen it all. On every world you arrive, within a couple of minutes you're immersed in the alternate, often somewhat surreal reality, fascinated by the rich imaginative atmosphere and puzzled by the complex of problems that gradually is revealed to you.

There's something fairy-tale about it all that charms and lends an easy-going air, yet almost at every step this lightness is matched by an undercurrent of graveness, sadness, despair, tragedy, and an epic struggle between some vague possibility of light and goodness and an overwhelming reality of evil and misery prevalent. This duplicity originates in the larger structure of the game itself: your grand quest to reunite the world and face the ultimate evil is given a "human dimension" by several excursions into the seperate parts of the sundered world, inhabited by races that have long lost sight of the "big picture" that is YOUR ultimate concern, and instead are occupied by their own internal struggles and conflicts. The effect of discovering such a self-contained universe with its own rules and power structures is surreal and fascinating; yet it is even more fascinating when you realize that their problems in fact have their roots in this same "big picture" that they all seem so painfully unaware of. It is indeed a rather philosophical metaphore, and it gives the game unprecedented depth.

You see, most plot-led games (yes, even "Grim Fandango") have just one single "context", or "plane" (in terms of plot construction only) - this game has THREE, namely the context of your quest to restore the world and battle the "ultimate evil" (the fire-breathing dragon thingie on the cover), the context of the lives and struggles of the races living in the 3 populated sundered "worlds", and the context of your own identity in the racial struggle between your race, the Patryns, and the race that imprisoned you 2000 years ago, the Sartan.

This last context is particularly interesting from a "literary" point of view, as it involves things like loyalty, forgiveness, moral decisions and betrayal, all brought to life without the usual excesses of soap opera a la Final Fantasy and suchlike Japanese cartoon crap. The literary qualities of the game are indeed high in all possible aspects - the conception of the world itself is quite individual and in fact originates from "philosophical circles" (however dubious they may be, this still sets the game apart from practically every single game out there), the language is vivid and precise and the plot is constructed with skill and imagination, using all the attention-grabbing and gasp-inducing mechanisms out there.

But the literary aspects aside, where the game shines most is the actual puzzle-solving element. That's right - a game with one of the greatest stories in computer gaming actually puts the focus on the gameplay. And what gameplay. Forget stupid use broom-stick with mouse-hole to awaken the cat to get the book he's lying on puzzles (gee, I should get LucasArts to employ me). In this game,

1) puzzles are there to achieve something important;

2) puzzles are logical and involve rational thinking, ie, thinking about what you NEED and how to get it, rather than about what CAN be done and what the designers could've expected you to do;

3) puzzles are fun and user-friendly.

I haven't read the book, and don't know anything about the authors' style of writing, but I have to tell you that I don't see how this sort of a story could've remotely worked in a book. Either the designer has totally done everything from virtually scratch, or the book is, er, "something else". This is perfect for an adventure game: people use spells on you, you learn them, use them yourself; people leave objects lying around, you pick them up and use them; people throw obstacles at you, you invent ways to surmount them. This does not make for extremely exciting reading but it makes for a very satisfying game, the sense of accomplishment and participation continually accompanying you. It's not much fun, however, to read about the accomplishments and survival/adaptation/development of others. But, then again, most fantasy novels are crap exactly because they talk on and on about the ingeniousness and accomplishments of others, so that might very well be the case with this game's origins.

And yeah, I did mention using spells. They kick ass. Check this out: possess the body of a dog, bring paintings to life, compete in magic with your mirror image, manipulate servile zombies, unravel magical illusions, pretend to be the death god of a bunch of tiger people, use magic to make statues walk, etc. Did Simon the "sorceror" ever do stuff like that? Pah.

The Bad
"Mensch"? No kidding. The "philosophical circles" I mentioned are in fact the circles of people like Ayn Rand and Nietzsche at his worst. The "mensch" races of humans, elves and dwarves are continuously referred to as some sort of lower beings, and the "moral attitude" towards them consists in being "nice" and "sympathetic" to them rather than enslaving them or "letting them kill each other". And you obviously belong to the higher, noble race of sorcerors and "leaders". What kind of escapist, megalomaniac bullshit is that.

As to the practical problems with the game, there are very few. The static first-person image on your screen, virtually devoid of any movement, does not help in creating an illusion of a living world. And the literary talents of the writer seem to have stopped at the point of diversifying the speech and writing styles of the many characters - they all talk the same, and even supposedly "scholarly" books (which are supposed to be "dry") occasionally start sounding like some fellow on the Usenet wrote them. There are also some minor issues with some spells just too obviously being provided to you just a couple of screens before you suddenly need them, and some people being jailed and given slow-acting poison literally hours before the same thing happens to you. That's forgivable. (As would be the occasionally confusing directions of the navigating compass, if I'd understand WHY - why does the arrow point left if I have to go straight forward? That's stupid.)

The Bottom Line
Come on. It's based on a best-selling fantasy novel written by two highly-regarded female authors. It's designed by a fellow who co-designed StarControl 3. It's developed by the same company that released Shannara only a year later. And given all this, it still manages to be awesomely good! What are the odds against that?

by Alex Man (31) on March 13, 2003

Back to Reviews