D: Dial D for Distinct

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There were several reasons why I decided to get a Sega Saturn, and one of them was to experience the unpredictable mind of Kenji Eno, founder of the dearly departed developer Warp. Never heard of Warp? I wouldn’t be surprised. Their reputation has faded into nothing more than a piece of video game trivia  from the mid-to-late 1990s. An esoteric Japanese game developer, Warp was helmed by Eno and taken in some rather interesting directions. Their first stateside release was Puyo Puyo rip-off Trip’d on the 3DO, which I guarantee no one here has heard of or played. Their second, however, was D.

D begins with an attract mode that explains the premise: Richter Harris, the director of a prominent hospital in L.A., has committed mass murder and locked himself inside the hospital with several patients as hostages. His daughter, Laura, hears of this and rushes from San Francisco to L.A. Upon reaching the hospital, she convinces the police to let her try to talk down her father. On the other side of the hospital doors, however, lies a portal to a strange, foreboding world.

The gameplay of D would be considered wafer-thin by modern standards. It’s in the mold of games like Myst or The 7th Guest, pre-rendered point-and-click adventures with copious amounts of CG to create ambiance and drive the plot forward. Just like those games, D is also populated by puzzles. Although it’s an adventure game with puzzles, though, the puzzles tend not to be very difficult. The difficulty, I found, was in navigating the environment and finding cues to see what you could and could not interact with to find clues to solving the game’s handful of puzzles.

There’s only a few puzzles, because, you see, the game was designed with a time limit in mind. (Also maybe because Warp employed about six people at the time.) Laura’s warned after stepping into the portal that it’s only temporary, and that she has a limited amount of time to make her way through the game before it closes again. The player has two hours with which to complete the entire game. To this end, the designer starts Laura off with a pocket watch displaying the time. The game starts out at 3 AM, so the player has to be mindful of how long s/he is taking by checking it every now and again.

Another item that Laura starts out with is her mother’s makeup compact (?!). Looking into its mirror gives Laura clues as to the next object she’s supposed to interact with. It’s only a flash, however, and after three uses the mirror breaks and the item can no longer be used. It’s actually pretty useless, the flashes given are often too vague and brief to understand the direction the designer tries to push you in, so you can very well use up all three hints just trying to figure out what that blurry thing in the mirror was.

You most likely won’t need it, however, because barring walking right past important clues, the puzzles are a snap to figure out. In fact, several times I found myself over-thinking a puzzle, getting frustrated by my lack of progress, and then going on to GameFAQs to find out that I was making things way too complicated.

And part of the frustration was fueled by how slowly Laura moves through the game. For a lady with a two-hour mission to save her father from killing a bunch of people, she has the lazy gait of a window shopper. The blame has to be put on the game engine for this, though. The decision to make the entire game pre-rendered CG means that every time you want to go left or right or forward or back, the game has to spool the proper FMV and play it back. It partly helps set the creepy, atmospheric tone of the game, but for those preferring faster-paced games, it’s like yanking on a stubborn donkey to move. The sluggish nature of controls makes things even more dire in the game’s lone Dragon’s Lair-esque QTE sequence. It doesn’t matter how quickly you press that d-pad if the game is too slow to recognize your presses.

The structure of the game is rather funky, too. The first disc of the 2 disc game is a smattering of esoteric puzzles in connected rooms, but the second disc is almost entirely centered around a room with a wheel you can (slowly) rotate in order to (presumably) rotate the room around to doors that let you exit into different rooms with their own puzzles. The annoyance begins when you realize just how many turns it takes on that molasses-dunked wheel until your rotating actually brings you to an exit, then finding out you can’t do anything in that room yet, walking back, rotating the wheel until you get to another room, seeing if you can do anything there, etc. etc.

Of course how can I not mention the cockamamie story? It’s a doozy. I won’t talk in any more detail about the plot itself, since the game’s only two hours long, but rest assured that it goes some truly strange places. In a fascinating, spoiler-laden interview with the reclusive, unpredictable Kenji Eno, he admits that D started life as a generic adventure game, with the story being added later through flashbacks. But just putting a story in it wasn’t enough for him, so D also has some of the earliest examples of truly violent, shocking imagery in games. These disturbing flashbacks are actually scattered throughout the game in random places, activated by touching glowing scarabs that are around for no fucking reason I can deduce. What’s worse, they’re randomly placed in the game, so you never know where you’re going to find them the next time you play.

The parts of the story not relegated to flashbacks happen in bizarre monologues featuring Richter materializing through the ceiling. (Eno should sue the writer of Silent Hill: The Room.) It starts with Laura hearing a voice moaning her name several hundred million times (“Laaaaaaaaauuuuurrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaa…”) with her head looking around for the source of it before she looks up and is shocked to see a man warping out of the ceiling. This could work maybe two times, tops. Laura hears from her father about four or five times, though. Don’t you think she would get used to it by then, instead of wasting time flopping her head around on her neck?

But the twist… ohhhh, the twist. It’s so stupid, it might actually be brilliant. It’s most definitely hilarious. I can think of almost no way anyone could take it seriously at that point, and considering the story of the game is literally an afterthought, I kinda wonder if maybe it wasn’t meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek; a nod to B horror.

And D is definitely part horror game. It’s similar to games like Alone in the Dark in that it is sort of proto-survival horror. The atmosphere, with its chilling music and sound effects, decaying bodies and occasional “BOO!” tactics clearly means to scare, or at the very least unnerve. The manual actually recommends that you play the game with no lights on and with the volume cranked up through headphones for “120% enjoyment.” The manual’s registration card also asks me if I heard about the game via “High School Gym Boards.”

There’s also a funny story about how a game like D with such taboo elements skated by with a T rating and not an M. Apparently, Eno purposely submitted the game to the ratings board late, so that he could hand-deliver the game to be manufactured. He simply exchanged the T-rated version of the game with the much more violent version. Kenji Eno, you are my hero.

D is an old, archaic, largely superficial adventure game. It’s like some bizarre mixture of Myst and a Dario Argento flick like Suspiria. Similar to Myst, D hasn’t aged all that well aesthetically and similar to Suspiria, the answer lying at the heart of the mystery is likely much, much hokey-er than you were expecting. But it’s got style to spare, and a unique charm all its own. If you have any curiosity toward this sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to give it a whirl. I only paid about $8 for my copy, and it’s definitely worth that, both as an idiosyncratic adventure game and as a video game curio; Resident Evil‘s and Silent Hill‘s doddering, lovable old aunt with Parkinson’s.

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2 Responses to “D: Dial D for Distinct”

  1. Rick Says:

    Sounds pretty much like the kind of antiquated curiosity that would suit my current trend of stepping into the past to explore a bit. I’m very excited to see this Landing on Saturn series develop further, in part because I’ve played a few Saturn games in my turn, and the ones I haven’t played I’ll experience vicariously. ~

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