A few years back, budding developers Spooky Doorway created The Darkside Detective (DD). While minimalistic indie games spring up from the Steam Store like weeds, DD was something special. Pixely stylings may be a low-key way of saying, “I don’t have a graphic designer,” but DD leaned into the visuals with zippy one-liners and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sense of humor. What’s on its surface is simple, but beneath the upper layer lies well-crafted characters and pacing. Meeting humble success, Spooky Doorway put together The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark to continue not only the first game’s cliffhanger-ish ending but also the endless stream of wit.
For those not in the know, meet Detective Francis McQueen, a detective of the Darkside Division of the city police department. Joined veritably at his hip is Officer Dooley, life-long best friend and partner in his work. Throughout A Fumble in the Dark, the two tackle one case after another in isolated chunks. When one case closes, another opens on the main menu. Each takes place in isolation of the rest, with little to thread them along except for the characters and the occasional repeat NPC.
This sort of construction is a refreshing departure from the centrally threaded adventure games we’re used to, in which everything is a part of one whole story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but any game that shakes up the formula earns points for doing so and even more if done well. While that is the case for the original DD, A Fumble in the Dark loses a bit of what made the first game great by trying to make each case more involved with greater emphasis on puzzles. DD had several isolated cases, each taking about 30 minutes, with later cases going a bit longer. How could a 30-minute adventure game make waves? Well, therein lies the writing.
In some sense, DD is all about witty one-liners. Everywhere! Almost every piece of dialogue and observation from clicking the environment leads to a pun, extremely literal interpretation, or plays off of the characters’ personalities. As expected of a comedy duo, Francis is the straight man while Dooley is the lovably dumb henchman. While this comedic method is nothing new, the sheer quality and quantity of humorous observations in response to just about anything players can click on make both games incredibly amusing. I would even argue that this simple game is exhausting because if someone isn’t paying attention, the constant stream of jokes could go unnoticed. The delivery is so deliciously dry and inoffensive that I at times found myself clicking through line after line of dialogue without even internalizing what I was reading. When I went back to re-read the observation, I realized the hilarity I missed. That’s when I knew it was time for a break.
This is by no means a criticism. Nothing wrong with needing a break from a game with thick, rich content. What didn’t help was that each case kinda droned on longer than it needed to. It sounds contradictory because if everything is so great, more is better, right? Well, in most cases, sure, but not so with A Fumble in the Dark. The formula worked so well in the first game because of the pacing. A game like this requires a steady flow in chunks. I found the entire experience endearing in the first game. Here, I frequently wished cases had wrapped up sooner. At times, the writers seemed like they ran out of steam, as well. Of course, A Fumble in the Dark isn’t a visual novel.
In the traditional sense, this is an adventure game in which players must click objects, sometimes earn an item, and figure out what that item combines with or is used for in the story to progress. When a case is shorter, fewer variables are introduced, which means even so-called “moon logic” adventure game puzzles can be solved with relative ease. Not so in A Fumble in the Dark. Since each case introduces screen after screen, character after character, and clickable after clickable, a bump in the road turns the entire police cruiser over. And then players spend the next dozen or so minutes trying to get the car back on the road. What was once fun becomes a chore to work through in the hopes that the steady flow of jokes keeps coming.
Fortunately, while the pixelated graphics may appear lazy at first, the pixel-work is actually well done. Occasionally, a stack of papers or plants can look ho-hum, but some of the environments and animations breathe life into the world. Similarly, the music doesn’t dazzle, but some musical numbers, such as at the close of a case, have a personality of their own. In that way, the endearing quality of the original DD is maintained. Oddly enough, clicking around in this game is a pain at times. If items are being interacted with, the game treats mouse clicks as double clicks, and sometimes trying to pin-point the hitbox in the environment is surprisingly cumbersome. Aside from these complaints, the minimalistic style is easily played with one hand, leaving a hand for coffee or forehead rubbing during the more challenging sections.
A Fumble in the Dark may have lost sight of what made the first iteration great in some respects, but for those who want more of the charismatic duo and excellent observational humor, this is an admirable sequel. More is on the way, as well, so for those who worry we’ll be waiting another three or four years for Francis and Dooley to return, fear not. As for me, I’m okay with the break if it means an assurance of quality in the future.