"Beware of shadows..."

There is a darkness that dwells in the imagination. It is the sense of foreboding; a fear of the unknown world behind every wall and around every corner. A place in the mind that cannot be illuminated. As we age we learn to quell these fears, ignoring the fantastic and unimaginable horrors that the imagination flings upon us. The pit of darkness is buried, hidden away, repressed and depressed down to the farthest recesses of the mind. But such was not always the case. The young at heart, you see, face the black void and do not simply rationalize it away. There is a need to face the darkness and overcome it, for where there is a darkness there is always a brightness to provide the universal balance. The child faces the darkness of his or her imagination and feeds into it. It is the imagined peril of an innocent mind.

Eric Chahi and the team at Amazing Studio, creators of the renowned science fiction hit Another World (developed under the Delphine Software label), kept the same dark artistic design and eerie landscape from that game but strayed from the role of the adult adventurer in order to provide a visually stunning experience in the dark corners of a child's imagination. They created a world in which we are driven to face the...

Heart of Darkness
Developed by Amazing Studio
Published by Interplay Productions in North America, Infogrames and Ocean Software in Europe
Released in 1998 for the PC and PlayStation platforms
Rated E for Everyone

Heart of Darkness tells the tale of Andy, a good-natured if slightly mischievous kid who dreams of lying on the grass and watching the clouds along with his spotted dog, Whiskey. It begins, as these stories tend to begin, with every fictional child's most dreaded nightmare: elementary school. The teacher's lecture foreshadows the events about to unfold for Andy and his poor innocent pooch: "Many believe that these black holes are, in reality, doors which open to parallel worlds. Unknown, fascinating... perhaps even terrifying!" The teacher, a man of ill temperament and even more unpleasant appearance, forces Andy into a cupboard as punishment for sleeping during class, and provides the premise for the adventure ahead in Andy's apparent fear of the dark. Andy is (literally) saved by the bell and escapes to spend quality lounging time in the great outdoors. As Andy and Whiskey lie out on the grass a solar eclipse occurs (darkness), during which Whiskey is dognapped by a mysterious shadow (more darkness). This sets Andy on a path to his tree house where a yellow flying machine of his own design transports him to a desolate world inhabited by minions of one who is called the Dark Master, as well as other creatures that are both friendly and unfriendly. Thus the side-scrolling platform adventure begins.

True, the plot is simple, but like all things it is simple when one merely looks at the surface. Beneath the veneer there is a tale of a child facing the darkest recesses of his imagination, and to discover the truth behind the disappearance of Andy’s dog is to discover a story stemming from the oldest tales of the child lost in the woods, facing darkness that no man or woman would wish upon a child. We see the story through Andy’s eyes, and his bravery in the face of great danger is perhaps foolish but nonetheless inspirational. While on his quest Andy meets many foes, as well as friends in the form of the pudgy Amigos, a race of beings with pink flesh, wings, and big googly eyes atop their triangular heads. They serve as the suppressed minority in the story, attacked by minions of the Dark Master and helping Andy to fight him in the latter portions of the game. Andy ultimately faces the darkness alone and perseveres, of course, but like any good story the journey makes or breaks the tale.

So, the player is tasked with guiding Andy through the perilous Dark Kingdom where shadow creatures dwell in canyons, caverns, jungles, and even across the sky and beneath the sea. Andy is limited to the standard platforming set: walking, running, jumping, climbing, and occasionally swimming, and while there are some environmental action elements to engage the player's reflexes they are few and far between. Instead, the gameplay design relies heavily on solving puzzles to clear obstacles from the path or to create a new path that will permit further progression. An example of such a puzzle is a rock formation early in the first level when the player uses Andy's plasma cannon to shoot the rocks and bring down the wall blocking the path, albeit simultaneously ripping a hole in the cliff that allows several shadow creatures to emerge. There we arrive at the bulk of the action in the game: fighting off hordes of encroaching shadow creatures with nothing but a plasma cannon or mysterious powers from a hidden meteor. The plasma cannon is used through a portion of the first level as the player is introduced to the combat system. Eventually, however, the plasma cannon is lost (for a time) and Andy is left defenseless until obtaining what the game manual coins as the "normal" and "special" powers. These powers allow the player to kill enemies as well as manipulate mobile plant seeds to create ladders and reach previously inaccessible areas in a level. All of this weaponry is required, along with keen use of the intuitive if somewhat rigid control system, to traverse the dangerous Dark Kingdom and reach the Dark Master's lair.

Topmost among the game's many achievements is the art design. Although the pre-rendered 3D backgrounds and hand drawn environments were considered outdated by the time the game released in 1998 (in the midst of the real-time 3D boom), that does not change that the game's environments are simply stunning. It is one thing when a game can present candy for the eye as the player traipses through the environments; it is another matter when the game presents a rich, enticing world that seemingly asks the player, “stop, won’t you, if only for a moment?” Stop and enjoy the scenery; smell the overgrown roses in the steamy jungles; allow the glow of phosphorescent fungi to cast eerie shadows across cave walls; stand and look out over a vast landscape beyond the edge of a cliff beyond the edge of a lush and dark jungle, beyond the skyscape of the horizon of gray clouds. And, eventually, stare down the darkness of an evil lair where light from above casts faint traces of itself across piles of long-dead creatures and twisted formations of stone. As I said, stunning.

Having said that, when I say that the game’s background and level art are not the most impressive aspect of the art design then you may grasp what it means when I say that it is in fact the animation that is the visual highlight of the game. It is that which that took hold of my sight from the moment I first loaded that disc, so many years ago. Chahi and co.’s dedication to richly detailed animation was apparent in their previous work on Another World and in Heart of Darkness they not only met those same standards but far surpassed them. They created that stunning world and then filled it with such brilliant movement in the characters and ambient level details that one can see part of the reason why the game took over four years to develop. It begins with Andy, our guide through this fluid world. His movement as he walks along is greatly detailed. He walks, jumps, ducks, runs, swims, crawls, hangs, and climbs; his clothes sway and ripple with every movement, his hat flys off and is quickly caught as he floats through the air after a jump or runs away from strange black creatures. But we’ve seen good character animation before and since, so why, then, is the animation so important? In this case it’s a case of quality and quantity, or variety to be exact. There are many types of movement in the game, and as morbid as it may seem the most varied type of movement is death. This poor kid dies in more ways than I’ve seen any other video game. Falling from a variety of high places into bottomless pits, drowning, burning alive, crushed by rocks, bones, suffering a broken neck, and being eaten by anything with a mouth are just some examples of the many ways you can allow Andy to perish. On the flip side, Andy can dish out the deaths just as well as he can take them. With the aid of his plasma cannon, meteor powers, or even sunlight, Andy can cause enemies to burst into brilliant puffs of charred, glowing smoke, ranging from orange to green to blue, and all animated in such a way that you feel the heat and sizzle of their rapidly evaporating corpses. It could be said that these are all beautiful deaths. The ambient animation of swaying grass, falling rocks from the decaying stone beneath Andy’s feet, and smaller creatures such as butterflies and lizards all serve as further examples of the shear beauty of all that surrounds Andy.

The in-game action is complemented by the occasional pre-rendered cinematic featuring notably dated 3D animation. The cinematics are, however, well-directed and they serve to provide dialogue and scenes that further the story along. The only folly in the game’s visuals is that there can be noticeable drops in the framerate when there happens to be too much of the aforementioned animation on screen at one time, and the framerate for the cinematics is also noticeably lackluster. Additionally, players who try both versions of the game will notice that some of the cinematics in the PC version are missing from the PlayStation version, but these are only action scenes placed in during transitions from one area to the next. The key story scenes all remain.

As any film director or game designer can tell you, sound plays a significant part in the experience that the observer or end user draws from a work. Heart of Darkness makes excellent use of sound effects for all animation in the game, from something as common as Andy’s footsteps to a screech hinting at a creature that has not yet appeared. All creatures in the game emanate eerily realistic noises as they either rush Andy or lie in wait to feed on him, and the sounds of creatures or environmental ambience serve as more than background noise, often providing clues or warnings. The game's soundtrack – composed, conducted, and produced by Emmy award-winning TV and film composer Bruce Broughton – was the first game soundtrack to be recorded by a live orchestra. The subtleties of what appears on-screen are enhanced by the swell and fall of a rousing score, and the more dramatic moments in the game’s cutscenes are all the more effective after the music kicks in to amplify the emotional impact.

In the end… well, I won’t be talking about the end as that it something the player must experience, but I will say that in the end the game is a shining example of the possibilities of the side-scrolling platformer genre that was introduced over a decade before the game released (with bits of adventure and puzzle that appeared in more financially successful games such as Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee). In the unfortunate end of Amazing Studio we received a game that ends much too quickly but will forever be remembered as an entertaining and fun experience. In the end, this is a story about a boy, his dog, and the limitless possibilities of the imagination to frighten and at the same time challenge us to face that which we fear, to face the darkness and overcome it.

Game manual for the PlayStation version of Heart of Darkness

Recommended Playing:
American McGee's Alice

Thanks to:
panamaus and Time Bandits
Space Cat and Shadow of the Colossus
Timeshredder and El Laberinto del Fauno
kovidomi and Youtube