The Black Mirror series has been around on PC for over a decade, predating the Charlie Brooker TV series that has taken the name to a much higher profile. They share no similarities aside from their name; indeed, the deeply historical setting of the game could not be more at odds with the cutting edge modernity with which the TV programme is concerned. This game marks the console debut and reboot of the series, with it hoping to carve out a new niche for spooky adventure games. So how does the marriage of old school adventuring and cutting edge consoles fare?
Black Mirror displays its early 20th century Gothic inspirations proudly. One early highlight for this literary nerd was the amble around a beautiful library with appropriate quotes from genre titans like M R James and H P Lovecraft available to be read. The whole storyline could easily be mistaken for a short story from one of these greats. Its twisting narrative of family mysteries, haunted Scottish manor houses, and the legacy of ancient Druidic rituals combine successfully to create an effective take on classic Gothic.
The success of the story itself makes the clunkiness of the game even more disappointing. The relationship between narrative and gameplay is a complex and much discussed area, but here the game almost totally gets in the way of a good story.
We begin the game with an obligatory flashback to the central character’s father being pursued by unseen forces. The visual design is fantastic, but the technical limitations always work against player immersion, and you’re immediately dragged out of the moment by animation that’s reminiscent of PS2 era games.
Following this vision we join Black Mirror’s protagonist, David Gordon (not the most inspiring of names) who is a very much a Poundland Edward Carnby. Returning from India to deal with the legal issues surrounding his inheritance, he finds the family home wracked by haunted memories and unexplained deaths. The potential for an interesting collision between David’s Scottish origins and his Indian upbringing is never really explored however, and his long exile from home becomes a background detail.
Much of the gameplay is dated, with clunky exploration and searching for the occasional interactive elements on the screen in order to progress the story. There are puzzles, but these are rudimentary and rarely rise above finding an object and using it in the obvious place. It feels stranded between the genres of point and click and walking simulator, whilst never really committing enough to either to truly exploit their styles.
Comparing its old fashioned marriage of narrative and gameplay to the likes of What Remains of Edith Finch shows Black Mirror to be a relic of a previous age with a shiny lick of paint. This is not a criticism of old school games per se – I am a big fan of many retro titles and remakes – but instead a comment on how Black Mirror takes the worst aspect of older games and fails to improve them.
Aside from the disappointing adventuring there is a lot of dialogue to work through. Again, this feels dated. There are few options to choose from and most conversations are essentially cutscenes with an occasional button press. Voice acting is mostly good and the writing here is effective, but once more, the overall effect is of the need for gameplay getting in the way of the story.
The main exception to this is the interactions with haunted memories. These actually apply an element of peril to the game that is much needed. Not all games need to have fatal consequences, though given the Gothic horror setting here it is appropriate. Solving the puzzles involving ghosts can be boiled down to finding the right moments of their spectral loops in which to press the action button, but they are more effective than that description suggests. It is a shame therefore that the first time this element is introduced fails to fully explain the mechanic leading to a cheap death.
Black Mirror is a good story that suffers from a dated application of game styles. While this is interesting in a meta way, it is not much fun to play. The narrative itself plays out fairly successfully. but it is hard to recommend it for this alone. There is definitely space for such old school adventures on modern consoles, but this is not the game to fill it. As it stands, Black Mirror itself is a title haunted by its ancient roots and will horrify the player for all the wrong reasons.
Version Tested: PS4