Distractions from Mucus and Phlegm: The Dark Eye: Memoria

WTF is The Dark Eye: Memoria?

The Dark Eye: Memoria is a point and click adventure game from 2012 that is somehow tied into a German tabletop RPG that I don’t care about, and is the sequel to another point and click adventure game called The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav, which I haven’t played.

In Memoria, Geron, the hero from Chains of Satinav, tries to find someone who can undo the magic that turned his girlfriend into a raven during the first game. Spoilers for the first game. He’s under a bit of time pressure because, the longer his girlfriend stays a raven, the less she remembers of her life before.

When we join him in medias res, he’s bargaining with a travelling magician who offers to restore his girlfriend if he can solve a riddle. The only person known to have solved the riddle is Princess Sadja, who went into battle 400 years ago and disappeared from history, and Geron starts having visions of Sadja that he hopes will lead him to the answer. Players spend about two thirds of the game playing as vision!Sadja, during the final days before she disappeared.

The framing story tells us that Sadja’s going to fail in her quest to win glory on the battlefield, so the question becomes why – what’s going to go wrong? Why doesn’t anyone remember her?

As the plot thickens, it soon becomes clear that that the answer may have less to do with whether Sadja did what she set out to than with the mystical (and extremely complex) forces that govern memory and time.

Why is that a good distraction from mucus and phlegm?

The gameplay in Memoria is on the good side of average, and the story is amazing. Narratively, the designers are also doing something really complicated with Sadja’s character, and the fact that they pull it off is pretty impressive.

The Parts with Sadja

Sadja takes up more than half the game, and her parts are more memorable, challenging, interesting to play. She’s an unusual adventure game character because her motivations are explicitly self-serving – she isn’t reluctantly called to battle because of her special destiny, or because she’s trying to do something nice for someone else; she wants to be remembered for greatness and, while she’s not completely amoral, she’s very focussed on making that happen.

She’s also the gaming equivalent of an unreliable narrator – her true thoughts and feelings are often hidden from the player and revealed only when it’s most dramatic and surprising to find out. That’s hard to pull off in a video game, because games normally require some amount of identification between the player and the character. It usually feels like a cheat if it turns out that the character knew something the player didn’t know, or that the character had hidden motives for taking actions the player chose.

Memoria gets around that in two ways. The first is that the actions Sadja takes – or that the player takes on her behalf – are mostly pragmatic. She’s in a bad situation and she needs to get out of that situation for obvious, practical reasons – the puzzle the player solves is how. It’s different from the more common adventure game pattern where a character encounters other people who need help, and there’s an ethical component to how the player responds. In Memoria, Sadja’s story is set up so that the question is “What is the only way out of this situation?” and not “What is the best way out?” which helps us feel like there’s less of a disconnect between us and the character. It’s more like we’re discovering what Sadja did than like we’re deciding what Sadja will do.

The second way Memoria handles the unreliable narrator problem is by framing Sadja’s story, very carefully, as being what somebody else remembers or dreams or wrote about her. In that way, it makes sense that we wouldn’t have much insight into her thoughts and feelings unless or until she speaks them aloud. So, in instances were we do feel a disconnect from the character, the  disconnect makes sense (there’s also some nice attention to detail in terms of what different narrators would or would not know about Sadja).

The other thing that’s great about Sadja’s story, aside from the complicated memory and time stuff, which I’ll get into in a second, is that she’s paired up with another interesting character for most of the game, and they bounce off each other in really compelling ways.

The Parts with Sadja’s Frenemy, the Demon Staff

The first thing Sadja does, once her story kicks off, is make a bargain with a demon who lives inside a magic staff. He grants her the use of his magic powers to escape the tomb they’re both trapped in on the condition that she takes him with her.

If Sadja is not quite amoral, but very self-interested, so is the demon, and there are really interesting moments in their time together where they can both legitimately say, “I can’t believe you did that!” without either of them being so much better or worse than the other.

I can’t say much more without spoiling you for all the twists and turns in their story, but their relationship is kind of epic, terrifying, and romantic all at once.

The Parts with Complicated Memory and Time Stuff

Once Memoria gets going, the mythology it builds around the magical forces controlling memory, history, and time is surprisingly complex – maybe because it ties into the larger Dark Eye universe. The latter stages of the game require you to understand a lot of really complicated sci-fi/fantasy ideas about the nature of reality and, to its credit, the game provides you with opportunities to ask the other characters to slow down and explain WTF’s happening again, if you get lost. (I got lost).

Part of the pleasure of Memoria is that it gradually layers all these things in so that, as you get deeper into the story, you start to get a feeling about what’s going on, and how this is going to end, but it takes a while for all the pieces to slide into place. I’m not going to ruin that for you by spelling everything out, but suffice to say that the game is interested in the idea that we make the events of the past real by speaking and writing about them – that history is swallowed in oblivion until somebody, working from imperfect information, says what happened and makes it so.

Everything comes together in the end, and the final scene is moving in a way that only happens when the entire story’s been constructed to lead to that point. In fact, I could not explain the ending to you without rehashing 75% of what happens before that – that’s the sign of a story that builds toward something.

The Parts with Geron

The parts with Geron aren’t as good. Memoria is really Sadja’s story, and it’s leaning on Chains of Satinav a lot to make Geron’s stuff seem meaningful. I actually went online and watched the end of Satinav so that I could be somewhat informed before writing this blog post, and, I guess, if you were invested in Geron and his girlfriend and their semi-tragic ending in the original game, you might care about how that’s finally resolved in Memoria. Not having played the original game, I was really just waiting to get back to Sadja whenever I was with them.

The Parts with Actual Gameplay

For the most part, the gameplay in Memoria is pretty straightforward adventure game stuff – you collect inventory items, talk to people who tell you WTF you need to do, and then click the inventory items on things, hoping that something will happen.

Both Geron and Sadja are capable of casting a limited number of spells at various points during the game, which adds another element. The spells function a lot like inventory items – you click them on things and hope something will happen – but, because they operate as actions, there are small differences in the way that puzzles involving spells are set up, and in the type of thinking you have to do to figure out the solution.

There are also a few puzzles that require you to solve riddles or arrive at a solution through experimentation. For example, there’s a puzzle where Geron has to talk to three people and figure out which of them is lying to him about what happened the night before. And there’s a puzzle where Sadja has to build a trap, and the game will let you try out several different versions of the trap until you work out how to make it operate correctly, based on watching the result.

There’s also a maze in the middle of the game and, while I did manage to finish it myself, the game offers you a chance to skip past it after you stumble around aimlessly for a few minutes. That’s part of its generally player-friendly nature – it also offers an optional hotspot detector, an in-game hint system, and an auto-save that rescues you from crashes.

The only puzzle that feels like kind of a cheat comes late in the game, where, if you’re a smart person, you’ll want to sneak up on your enemy before he knows you’re there, but the game prevents you from doing that by putting a locked door in your way and having an NPC neglect to mention that he has the key until you’ve ruined any chance for an ambush.

Otherwise, the puzzles are mostly solvable, and there’s some variety along the way to keep things interesting.

The Part With the Crashing and Crashing and Crashing

This was a pretty glitch-free experience. I had a couple of crashes, but the auto-save usually put me in the right place again when I re-loaded. I blame my out-dated system more than I blame the game.

The only crash that was really bothersome was a crash during a resource-intensive cut-scene at the start of chapter five. Apparently, this is a common issue with Visionaire and it happens in a lot of Daedalic games, depending which operating system you have.

The solution that works for some people, and worked for me (after searching the internet for what felt like a hundred years), is to go into the folder the game is installed in and run the Visionaire Configuration Tool. There’s an option in there that’s not available in the in-game video settings, where you can turn texture compression on. When I did that, the cut-scene looked fucked, but it played all the way through, and I could save and then reload with texture compression off to finish the game.

Final Verdict

I picked Memoria up on sale for $6 and it was an amazing value. Even at full price, this is a really solid, well-designed adventure game with a complex story and interesting characters. I never thought that I’d be pulling for a woman and an evil, talking stick to fall in love but, oh, I was. And the ending – I wish I could tell you the ending!

It’s not going to go down in history as the greatest game that ever was – and not just because of magical forces – but it’s really fun and really clever, and I recommend it. Especially if you have a cold.

Image: The Dark Eye: Memoria; Daedalic | February 27, 2015