Warp / Panasonic / Acclaim
Genre: Horror Adventure
Gaming in the 1990s was living in an age of wonder and innovation. In no way is this meant to nullify the decades before that sealed the foundation of gaming technology, but in retrospect, the 90s feel like they were a turning point in the medium’s popularity. The majority of the people I talk about games with can remember systems like the Atari and Colecovision consoles, but their fondest memories always come back to systems like the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and later on, Sony’s Playstation console.
When I first got my Playstation, I rented two games. One of them was Final Fantasy VII which showed off just how much the new system could do graphically as well as content-wise. The other was a little game that I couldn’t remember much about after a few years called D. What I did remember was the protagonist and some scene involving a mirror… maybe? It was very fuzzy but I remember not spending much time with it for one reason or another.
Shocking, I’m sure, that when I had the chance to go back and play the game again recently, I took the chance gladly. D and its sequels have gained a solid cult following over the years. I’ve read up a bit on how bizarre and interesting the games are on a variety of levels for the sake of research but managed to avoid any major spoilers. Being able to head back into D semi-blind after nearly 20 years seemed like a task I’d be willing to take on, especially heading into the Halloween season.
After receiving a call from the Los Angeles Police Department, Laura Harris is astonished to hear that her father, renowned doctor Richter Harris, has gone on a murderous spree throughout the hospital he works in. As of the time they had called, he was still holed up inside with seemingly no intention of coming out.
Laura is unable to process why her father would do such a thing. As a respected medical professional, nothing short of madness could drive him to do what she had heard he had done. Arriving on the scene, Laura decides to enter the hospital to find her father and try to uncover his reasons- maybe even prove him innocent, if she can. Her entry into the hospital doesn’t leave her hopeful, however, as she is greeted by macabre scenes of murder and blood before she can even pass through the lobby.
With little warning, Laura’s search takes a strange hairpin turn as in a matter of moments, she finds herself transported from the sterile halls of the hospital to the interior of a castle. To make matters more convoluted, she begins to see visions of her father, telling her that she needs to leave soon- unless she wants to be trapped in this strange reality for the rest of her life. With no apparent way to leave and desperate for answers about her father, Laura’s investigation becomes a fight for survival as she races against time to find answers about her father, his abrupt change in behavior and possibly other mysteries she may not even have been aware of before that fateful night.
As the game begins, players will take on the role of Laura, navigating the halls of a mysterious castle almost entirely in first person. Rather than controlling an avatar and freely roaming, D allows the player to move in a direction- left, right, forward, or back- and will transition from one area to another, resting on static scenes that can be investigated. By moving up to objects like dressers, doors, and other items, the player can use the ‘O’ button to interact with the environment. This provides a way for puzzles to be solved, as a number of them require highlighting certain areas by confirming that you want to interact with the puzzle then moving the cursor over the pieces that can be manipulated. Some items can be picked up and kept in Laura’s inventory, as well, which can be accessed through a shoulder button. Most of these items’ uses are as simple as utilizing them in the appropriate area to proceed.
The interesting thing about D is the fact that there is a time limit that is governed in real-time. One item from Laura’s inventory at the start of the game is a pocket watch which keeps the current playtime recorded so that the player can reference it if they’d like. When Richter tells Laura that she only has so much time to escape, that’s a warning to the player, too. Given two hours of actual time to get Laura to safety so every second counts. Starting at 10:00pm in the game universe, if the clock strikes midnight, it’s game over, no matter the progress Laura has made. For this reason, D is meant to be played in one sitting. Not only does the countdown timer indicate this, but there is no way to save your game- which is imposing when you note that D stretches Laura’s story over three discs. Once the game gets going, there’s no way for the player to stop without shutting it off and restarting from the beginning.
The Good, The Bad, And…
This game was one of the first FMV-style adventure games to hit consoles so it feels antiquated in a number of ways. Without any guidance from a manual (which, if you still have one, good on you!), the game is a bit obtuse, throwing you directly into the action with little to no explanation on how anything works. To make things more frustrating, certain areas of rooms can only be accessed from a certain angle, causing a loss of time while you figure out how to approach certain scenery pieces that you know are important. In a game where every second counts, confusion at how to proceed and not being able to make logical steps as you explore are tough pills to swallow. There is a workaround involving a second item that Laura starts with: a small compact. The player can consult it three times for some kind of hint before it shatters, rendering it useless. If you even remember Laura has it, it’s a limited resource that can be helpful but doesn’t completely alleviate some of the confusion the game doesn’t intend on.
That’s a bit of the beauty of D, though. It has a number of elements that were revolutionary and boundary-pushing in its time. The two-hour time limit alone is a factor that was rarely if ever, used in a game where the player has to explore and solve puzzles to win. Some of the themes of the game are also much darker than horror games afforded at the time. As a related and fairly well-known story, the designer, Kenji Eno, showed his publisher a much cleaner and less “taboo” version of D for their approval. On the flight to submit his finished product, he swapped out the sanitized version of the game for his original dark and gritty version. His concerns were that if the game wasn’t striking and memorable enough, it would be his last chance to make his career, and the publisher may not approve of the game’s themes given just how morbid and surreal they might consider them. In general, the game and developer took a lot of risks which at least makes D an interesting study.
Like plenty of modern survival horror games, though, D is meant to be played a number of times. While the main story unfolds the same regardless of Laura’s actions, the horrific scenes she sees that reveal the darker backstory of it all happen by finding random areas as you explore that are not always static and may not react at all. Given the strict two hour timeline and the note at the end screen reading that the player should try playing through again if they haven’t found all of those secret areas, it’s safe to conclude that the game is meant to be a trial-and-error experience. The player is meant to fail and try again with what they learned, proceeding further each time they try.
It’s easy to see how D’s graphics were revolutionary in their time. The environments are great to look at- even beautiful in some areas. The FMVs that detail the story are well choreographed and feel cinematic, using dynamic camera angles and cutaways from first-person to third-person to detail Laura’s exploits. The only visuals that have noticeably not aged well are the character models themselves. They were certainly fantastic for the time, and I wouldn’t even say they’re ugly now. If there is one thing that shows a sign from the times, though, it’s Laura herself, both in style and construction.
The sound in the game is about on par for what one would expect to hear from any adventure game like this. There is an atmosphere created by an underlying score that picks up once the action does. Usually, it’s also appropriate for the scenes, though the level of frantic orchestration in a few of the more “high-octane” cutscenes feels like a little too much. I admit that I’m used to the more frequent use of ambient sounds in games that intend to illustrate horror, but given D’s early place in the horror adventure genre, I take that as a sign of improvement over the years rather than a mark against D itself.
Like a few of the games I’ve run into lately, D is a fantastic benchmark. It’s easy to see how it was revolutionary in its time, and Warp brought some intriguing mechanics to the table, the influence of which can be seen in a number of games that have come out since. To say that this game was a trailblazer of sorts for its genre wouldn’t be far from the truth; people loved it when it came out, and it was a leap in the right direction so far as innovation and gaming were concerned.
Can I safely say that it hasn’t held up since, though? Sadly, yes. It’s not a game I’d recommend to someone looking to start out in the genre unless they have a lot of patience and don’t mind losing a couple of hours a few times before they successfully see the end credits. It can also be a bit obtuse, leaving the player in the dark and a little frustrated at times. If you’re a survival horror fan and you’ve got a couple of hours to kill, D is still readily available through Steam and some other PC gaming sites- it goes for a pretty penny, otherwise.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers
For anyone wondering about the “taboo” material Kenji Eno had been concerned about at the time, the flashbacks include some instances of cannibalism. In my dive through a few sites to research, I actually can’t seem to find an instance that involves a particular depiction of the act before that in gaming. Even if there were, it probably wouldn’t be nearly as detailed at the time given how early in the FMV gaming movement D had been released.
It’s strange to think about now since cannibalism has become almost commonplace, but Mr. Eno may have been right in worrying. The scenes that reveal this piece of the backstory are decently hidden behind the “random” areas of the mansion I described before, but they are also the most truly horrifying moments of the game. The impact is dulled considerably due to the advance in graphics but much like horror cinema, it’s not hard to imagine how shocking it could be for someone to seem something that hadn’t been illustrated through the medium before in such a detailed manner.
And heck- the cannibalism isn’t even the major plot twist of the game…