GOGathon: The Devil Checked In Here

Joe and Ivy Davis are a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks. In a bid to get away from it all, Joe’s arranged for them to have a lovely seaside holiday at a quiet coastal town, where the only accommodation on offer is from the Quiet Haven Hotel. Once Joe and Ivy arrive, however, they find that the hotel is a bit of a shambles – and Ivy’s behaving and talking in an incredibly strange manner, alternating between total silence and incoherently talking about things only she can see. To make matters worse, a terrible storm has blown in, so strong heading out into the downpour to seek help isn’t a sensible option.

Joe and Ivy go up to their hotel room and have a tense conversation about their problems, before going to sleep. When they wake up, Ivy’s nowhere to be seen. When he goes down to the hotel restaurant to look for her, thinking she might have gone to breakfast ahead of him, he finds the hotel manager standing in the midst of a bizarre tableau. She informs him that Ivy made the mistake of angering a certain Sophie, another guest in the hotel, but that if he hurries he might be able to persuade Sophie to let Ivy go.

And it’s around then that things go full Eraserhead. (With additional content warnings for issues of murder, mental health, eating disorders, and utter tripped-out mayhem.)

 

The 2016 version of Downfall by Harvester Games – written and designed once again by Harvester main main Remigiusz Michalski – is the second episode of the Devil Came Through Here trilogy, which began with The Cat Lady. It’s also a remake of Harvester’s debut game – also called Downfall – produced in 2009 using the baseline Adventure Game System development platform. (The update is called Downfall: Redux in some purchasing platforms in order to distinguish the two games.)

Apparently, this wasn’t the initial plan. After completing The Cat Lady, Michalski’s next major project was going to be Lorelai, which released earlier this year. However, the development process of that bogged down when Michalski realised that the Adventure Game System (which had, with a certain amount of hacking about, underpinned The Cat Lady) couldn’t quite deliver what he wanted for Lorelai and he’d need to learn and implement the game in Unity to achieve what he wanted.

Meanwhile, Mark Lovegrove – a prolific composer of soundtracks for homebrewed adventure games who, from that foundation, has been able to establish Scene 7 as a publishing house for latter-day point-and-click adventures from small developers – had asked Michalski to consider remaking Downfall, since problems with the 2009 version’s source code meant it couldn’t be offered through Steam and that was posing a commercial problem. (The original 2009 version has since been put out as freeware.)

Doing the remake, then, became a no-brainer: it’d let Michalski put out a stopgap product, bring the original Downfall story more into line with The Cat Lady (which included some significant references to Downfall here and there, including some actual moments of apparent crossover), and take a bit of time off from Lorelai to recharge his batteries for that project too.

I didn’t bother to do a full playthrough of the 2009 version for the purposes of comparing and contrasting here – going through two renditions of essentially the same story would be tiresome. On doing some brief poking-about fan wikis and walkthroughs and Let’s Play videos and the like, the changes between the 2009 and 2016 versions of the game seem to be as follows:

  • The 2016 version uses the control system of The Cat Lady, with the keyboard used to make your character stroll back and forth and interact with items and the mouse more or less ignored. The 2009 is a much more traditional point-and-click offering.
  • The 2009 version has fairly rudimentary graphics, whereas the 2016 has an all-new graphical presentation which both draws on and improves the style of The Cat Lady.
  • The 2009 version lacks voice acting, with all the dialogue delivered via subtitles like in the old-school LucasArts adventure games which vanilla AGS is intended to help you produce. (As I understand it, The Cat Lady and Downfall: Redux represent substantial hacks to the AGS system.) The 2016 version has a full cast of voice actors; whilst subtitles are provided, the game advises you to try and do without them if you’re able to for superior immersion.
  • The 2016 version omits some characters included in the 2009 version, which seems to have the effect of making the hotel seem emptier and lonelier – to the benefit of the atmosphere.
  • The 2016 version adds some characters, generally for the benefit of an overlap between The Cat Lady and Downfall; there’s a particularly welcome return of the titular Cat Lady, and a bit where you get to control her which feels like a homecoming (or at the very least a pleasant opportunity to check in on her to see how she’s doing).
  • The 2016 changes the motivations and actions of some characters, so far as I can tell in the service of bringing them closer in alignment with the themes of the Devil Came Through Here trilogy in general and the main plot of Downfall specifically, whereas in the original Downfall it feels like some of those characters ended up being essentially unconnected subplots alongside the main story.
  • The script of the 2016 version has benefitted from a comprehensive rewrite to tighten up the dialogue.
  • The location design in the 2016 version has been updated – not solely to take into account the different gameplay, but also for the sake of ensuring that the more fantastical scenes are designed with an eye to thematic appropriateness, rather than just generic nastiness.
  • Despite the above, the major puzzles of the 2009 version have largely been translated to the 2016 version.
  • The order in which parts of the story are told has been comprehensively revised.
  • The 2016 version has a brand new soundtrack.

On the whole, I’d say that Redux represents a thorough improvement over the original game, with Michalski making good use of the opportunity to develop it as a professional product rather than a bit of hobbyist homebrew, bringing in additional hands as needed to provide improved aspects (his brother Michal provides the music again, for instance), and also bringing to bear his own greater experience as a game designer and the feedback received on the original version of the game to tune it up.

As with The Cat Lady, the game has multiple endings, though in this case the decisions which determine the ending take place throughout the entire game – and generally, if you just play the game through as you wish, making the choices which seem most appropriate to the way you’ve decided to portray Joe (and the occasional other protagonist you get to control), you will almost certainly get what is regarded as the “canonical” ending – not the utterly hopeless one, but a pretty bleak one nonetheless, and one which lacks the silver lining which makes the “best” ending less than 100% pessimistic.

This is an upshot of the way the game tracks your behaviour over the course of the playing time, an approach which seems (like aspects of the plot) to have been inspired by Silent Hill 2. The thing is that this system is incredibly unforgiving. Over the course of the game there’s 27 points which you can either fail to collect by behaving in an abusive, self-centred, impatient or generally unempathetic way, or otherwise behaving in a fashion which suggests that you don’t care all that much about Ivy, or which you can collect by avoiding the (at times overwhelming) temptation to behave in such a manner.

The thing is, you only get the “best” ending if you get every single one of those points, and only get the “worst” ending if you lose every single one. In the latter case, this leads to potentially counterintuitive situations where if you are aiming to get the worst ending, there’s at least point where you need to be less rude than you could be because the maximum rudeness option ends the conversation early, so you miss the opportunity to lose an additional point. The game can really do with being more forgiving in this sense.

In some cases the points system ends up sending a message which I don’t think the game intends, simply because there’s instances where what Michalski believes is the loving, ethical thing to do could be reasonably be interpreted by a player as unhelpful, unhealthy codependency, or where what Michalski considers to be the wrong thing to do could be read as being for the best in the long run.

For example, it is possible to lose points – and therefore impossible to get the “best” ending – if during the crucial discussion with Ivy in your hotel room you come to the conclusion, and directly say it, that the relationship is finished. This seems to play unhealthily into the idea that you should fight for a relationship no matter how bad it gets, or that falling out of love with someone is somehow a moral failing.

This is particularly frustrating because it comes in the midst of a conversation which is actually really well-written, particularly in the way it captures that awful sort of talking-past-each-other argument you can get into when a relationship hits a rough patch where there’s absolutely nothing you can say “right” which won’t end up making the whole situation worse, after a string of such conversations with Ivy. In fact, I would say that it is entirely fair at that point in the game to come to the conclusion that, yes, Joe and Ivy are basically finished as a couple, and that the fairest and best thing to do at that point in time is to admit it so that the process of healing can begin rather than attempting to keep one another trapped in a loveless marriage.

Now, there is the quirk that it’s quite evident that Ivy is going through some sort of significant mental health struggle at the time. But she’s the one who outright demands that you say what you consider the status of the relationship to be, and treats the acknowledgement that it’s over like it’s on some level liberating. Moreover, unless we’re talking some sort of serious Michelle Remembers-scale abusive breach of clinical ethics, your lover is not your therapist. Expecting someone to stay in a relationship which has become toxic and harmful to both parties for the sake of the mental health of one partner, in my opinion, is deeply misguided, because doing so can only have terrible effects on the mental health of both partners – a point that the game itself actually seems to want to make, and so penalising the player for attempting a civilised, amicable breakup with Ivy seems absurd in light of that.

That said, so far as I can tell all of the endings are pretty fucked to one extent or another, so saying that the “best” ending necessarily represents a happy ending may be a stretch. Still, this isn’t the only instance where the game penalises you for doing something which could reasonably be judged as being perfectly rational or understandable, or even genuinely the best thing to do in a particular situation for both of you. For gamers who want to see every ending, the game does provide a system which flags where the significant choices are (it’s off by default), but even then because you have to get the minimum score to get the “worst” ending and the maximum score to get the “best”, you might be better off just playing as you wish, accepting that you will most likely get the “canon” ending, and then if you really want to see the others using a walkthrough to hit the right notes in subsequent playthroughs.

Downfall is somewhat briefer than The Cat Lady; Cat Lady took me multiple play sessions to get through, has more puzzles, locations, and NPCs, and is generally more expansive. The multiple-ending system arguably adds replay value, though since most of that replaying process will tend to involve sitting through small variations on the exact same content it doesn’t really seem worth it. That said, I don’t think the game would have benefited very much from being padded out to a longer playing time, particularly since it very effectively communicates what it needs to about the themes its’ interested in during its running time.

An issue the game has which could be seen as a flaw or a feature depending on your perspective is that Ivy’s a much better-explored character than Joe actually is in the long run. We get some insights into Joe’s background and explanations as to why he’s screwed up to the extent that he is, but the game leaves a lot of the portrayal of Joe in the player’s hands – which on the one hand is nice, but on the other hand means that the “canonical” ending has to take into account characterisations of Joe ranging from the almost-angelic to the almost-devilish.

Although the game railroads you to doing enough weird stuff that it broadly feels like it makes sense that Joe is utterly delusional by the game of the end (in the sense that his reality and the reality everyone else experiences seem to have had a messy divorce), at the same time you do a lot of that shit because you are in such a bizarre phantasmagorical whirlwind that there doesn’t really seem to be any other option but to go along with it, because you have no access to any level of reality which would open the way to a better course of action. As much as trolley problem memes have proven popular, moral philosophers have apparently been less keen on abstract “what would you do if (insert utterly bizarre situation with absurd constraints that would never exist in reality)?” thought experiments, because they don’t tell you very much except that once the situation someone is faced with ends up distant enough from reality, their actions end up becoming more or less entirely arbitrary.

That said, the depiction of Ivy herself is really quite good. Bit by bit over the course of the game it becomes apparent that she’s got an eating disorder, with a generous helping of depression on the side (as is often the case). Some of the horrific manifestations in the game veer towards an unhelpful bid to derive horror from the bodies of overweight women – but this is precisely the point in this case, since throughout the game we’ve got one foot in Ivy’s nightmarishly bad self-image. Her eating disorder is specifically driven by, among other influences, the unceasing disapproval and disgust society expresses towards fatness in women, therefore her anxieties take that form, and Joe’s anxieties about her anxieties take that form in turn. There’s points where the game almost fails to communicate this, but in general I think it successfully gets across the point, especially since the harshest fat-shaming comes from the mouth of Harrison, an utter douche who we are very much not supposed to take the side of. (From what I’ve seen of the 2009 version, it handled this aspect much more clumsily, and the changes here represent a massive improvement on this front.)

The game even manages to avoid falling into the trap of attributing all of Joe’s problems to Ivy’s problems – an unfortunate potential reading of Silent Hill 2 – by establishing that Joe’s had his own troubled past, with traumas that could be expected to deeply haunt you. Some of these aspects aren’t all that prominent in the game, but actually this kind of makes sense – the more it turns out Joe’s suppressed some of his issues with his parents, the more it makes sense that his mind has become gradually poisoned by his failure to deal.

On the whole, this is another thoughtful release from Harvester which leaves me all the more keen to try out Lorelai.

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