Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Julian van der Zee’s World – #55: Heart Of Darkness

In PC, PlayStation on February 7, 2014 at 6:00 am

Title:  Heart of Darkness

Format:  PlayStation, PC

Released: July 31, 1998

HoD Box Art

Like most people, growing up I had a fear of the dark. Of course, I wasn’t actually afraid of the dark per se; that would be completely illogical – darkness is nothing, merely an absence of visible light. It couldn’t really hurt me – except of course for that one time in the middle of the night I awkwardly trod on my PlayStation controller as I got up to go to the toilet. No, I was afraid of what could manifest in darkness. I was afraid of the monsters that lived in the dark.

Darkness

If you squint you can see the monsters

In an attempt to help me get to sleep my Mum bought me a nightlight. It was a typically kind and motherly act… and unfortunately one that continued to feed my imagined terrors. The light added to the darkness an eerie orange glow, casting strange shadows off the objects in my room. My imagination ran wild. A small portable fan would become a mouth full of gnashing teeth. A teddy bear, a malevolent demon hell-bent on devouring me the moment my straining eyelids finally caved in from exhaustion.

For somebody whose imagination had the habit of running to fright-provoking territory very quickly, being gifted the game Heart of Darkness at the age of nine opened up a very unique can of nightmare fuel.

The game had me, quite literally, jumping at shadows.

HoD Jumping

Although sometimes I had to jump *over* them. Ba-dum tish.

In Heart of Darkness you play as Andy, a 13 year old boy whose primary goal is to rescue his dog, Whiskey, from the clutches of the evil sorcerer, the Master of Darkness. What slim plot there is is essentially ludicrous. Andy – who is also apparently a child prodigy – has built a spacecraft in his tree-house, complete with a helmet and electricity cannon, which he uses to travel through an inter-dimensional portal to the Darklands. It is revealed that the Master of Darkness had actually intended to capture Andy but, due incompetence on his servant’s part, a mix-up occurred.

Master Of Darkness

The Master of Darkness…wants YOU!

Luckily the absurdity of the story – told through a series of cartoonish cutscenes – can be forgiven once the strong gameplay and foreboding atmosphere click into gear. Belonging to the cinematic platformer sub-genre (think the Oddworld games, and the recent, and much-lauded, Limbo) set pieces are seamlessly blended into the action of the game.

One of the most memorable and tense moments in the game occurs when Andy is dangling upside-down above a swamp, foot caught in a vine, while a giant creature lurks beneath the surface, biding its time before it strikes. Pressing left and right on the d-pad, you gradually build up enough momentum to grab a distant stick, wedge it in the monster’s mouth and swing away to safety.

Another time Andy must slowly manoeuvre across a thin rock bridge, while behind him a tip-toeing shadow monster is gradually starting to close in. The second you are both off the bridge a frantic footrace commences as you bolt to the safety of sunlight.

These sequences are perfect at ratcheting up tension, as well as requiring quick thinking from the player to assess and respond to the situation at hand. You really feel like a stranger in a strange land, struggling to stay alive.

Explosion

Almost instantly, Andy’s spaceship explodes. Pretty much from the moment you set foot in the Darklands, you’re in mortal peril.

For a game rated G8+ (or E for Everyone in the States) the developers refuse to handle you with kid gloves. This was from a time where mainstream games could be unapologetically difficult and yet entirely gratifying to complete (often for that very reason).

You’re in a constant battle for survival; sometimes avoiding confrontations because you have no weapons, other times engaging in battles of attrition, wiping all the enemies off the screen using your electricity cannon or ability to shoot magical green fireballs. In some of the game’s more satisfying challenges you actually have to interact with the terrain – whether to solve a puzzle, distract enemies so you can slip past, or even turning different species against each other.

HoD Enemies

“Shadow beast said yo mama so fat her blood type is Nutella”

The game also provides you with unlimited number of lives. Which is important. Because you will die. A lot. In horrific and disturbing ways. Instantly. The sheer number of ways that Andy is able to shuffle off this mortal coil is actually quite staggering. Shall I mention again that this game is rated G8+?

Throughout the game Andy can: fall down a chasm, be crushed by rocks, drown, be eaten alive by native plants, be pulverised by kinetic pillars, be incinerated, be ripped in half, tumble off a floating island (in reverse gravity), have his spine broken by winged demons, be brutally mauled, be disintegrated, have his head chewed off by an obese lizard, melt in lava, and have his entire body crushed in the collapsing jaws of a giant fossil. If I haven’t made it clear enough already pretty much everything in the game, animate or inanimate, is vying for your blood.

Swamp Things

If Mario found a bunch of these guys in a pipe he would shit *all* inside his overalls.

There was one death animation that particularly disturbed me, such that it stopped me from playing the game for a significant period of time. When climbing cliff-faces Andy will occasionally encounter a particular type of enemy. For the sake of clarity I will refer to them as “Wormolepedes”: they burrow and grunt like moles, have an elongated body like a worm, and the pincers of a centipede. Et voilà. If Andy is unlucky enough to be caught by a Wormolepede, he is violently dragged into a hole, his frantically kicking legs visible, before finally, with a sickening crunch, his legs reflexively spasm, go limp, and are dragged from sight.

Alien

After that I can only assume Andy’s paralyzed body is impregnated in order to incubate and feed the next generation of murderous insectoids… you know because this is a game for children remember? #hurtofdarkness

Unlockables are also virtually non-existent throughout, a fact which was less disappointing at the time, but perhaps more-so with hindsight, given modern gamers have the expectation they will be constantly patted on the back for even the most trivial of progress.

If HoD had a trophy system I imagine the achievements would have patronising titles such as “congratulations, that was the 10th time in a row you were killed by the same underwater sucker-plant and you haven’t thrown the controller through the TV yet”. It really can be that tough.

Whiskey

Andy’s canine-companion is called Whiskey. Which is coincidentally what you’ll need to settle your nerves with after watching Andy die again and again and again.

In-spite-of the low resolution, one of the most memorable aspects of HoD was the stunning art-design. All of the environments and their inhabitants felt otherworldly but completely alive and plausible in their own unique way.

My friend Sam and I were so fascinated by the game that we used to draw pictures in his scrapbook of the baddies we wanted to see in HoD2 (which sadly never happened – the humble and not at all hubristic developer “Amazing Studio” went bankrupt after a messy court battle between the game’s authors).

Drawing #1

Any game developers looking for some budding junior art-designers? We’re enthusiastic, willing-to-learn, and cheap (paying us in milk and cookies will be more than sufficient).

Drawing #2

Drawing #3

No YOU’RE terrifying

But in all honesty, I cannot think of another game from my childhood that I can look back on with such nostalgia. Sure it’s not perfect…

– the voice-acting is incomprehensible at times (*mumble, mumble, mumble* “ANNNDDDYYYYY”),
– the final battle is borderline impossible (as the old saying goes “138th time’s the charm!),
– and it commits one the greatest narrative sins imaginable (don’t you dare tell me EVERYTHING.WAS.ALL.A.DREAM!!!!)

…but in its own flawed way Andy’s quest serves as a nice metaphor for the fears children must overcome in their own lives. Finishing the game made me feel like I had achieved something; not only because it was so fiendishly difficult, but because I had overcome something that had once made me afraid.

This is why games are so important. They let us deal with difficult themes in a way that is escapist, safe and, mostly importantly, fun – all in the controlled setting of the game-world. And the Darklands are one game-world I will be more than happy to conquer again and again.

Julian

Julian has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Philosophy, and is about to complete his Masters in Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has written for Honi Soit, Vertigo, and Mumbrella. He tweets here.

Here’s the intro to Heart Of Darkness. Try not to punch your screen. That kid is annoying as shit.

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