"Look for D," she says, and I giggle. Internet culture has ruined the fourth letter of the alphabet, and D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die is drowning in D-driven dialogue. "I must find D," he says, and I become a puerile manchild; every line becomes a double entendre, and I can barely contain my laughter.
Perhaps you don't know why nine-year-old me is so tickled; you've never heard the lewd interpretation of the letter D, and that's OK. I suspect that D4 creator Swery 65 didn't intend for his lines to take on such sexual meaning, so feel free to disregard the naughty undercurrent. But I also suspect that Swery would approve of my salacious laughter. D4 is insanity distilled into adventure-game form, more self-consciously wacky than another Swery game, Deadly Premonition, but more human, too. Or, at least, as human as can be expected for a game in which a grown woman preens herself like a cat and sells you lollipops in the privacy of your own home.
Ah yes--that woman is Amanda, and it's never clear whether she is (or was) a real feline, or even if D4 protagonist David Young sees her as everyone else does. She slinks around David's Massachusetts apartment, and swipes and hisses at him like a real cat might on occasion, perhaps due to his inconsistent Boston accent, which comes and goes more often than D4's connections to reality. I recommend cutting the man some slack, however: he lost his wife (and presumably his unborn child) to a violent murder stemming from ex-cop David's detective work, and his unwavering goal is not just to expose the murderer, but to alter the past in the hope of reuniting himself with the love of his life.
David's in a unique position to do so thanks to his ability to transcend time and space by inserting himself into the past, though it's best not to spend too much time parsing the specifics of David's skill: logic is a rare commodity in D4, though every event and possibility makes a certain kind of intuitive sense. It would be easy to dismiss the game for its apparent stupidity--this is a game that features a flamboyant (and seemingly gay) fashion designer who claims his mannequin to be his significant other, after all--but D4 is very smart about its stupidity. In cracking open one of the game's many magazine articles, I discovered a shrewd and self-aware essay on the insular nature of Japanese culture that compared Japanese social evolution to natural evolution on the island of Galapagos. I didn't expect such thoughtful commentary in a game whose gestures are so very big and loud, yet that commentary is a reminder that when you laugh, D4 is laughing with you.
Like the point-and-click adventures it harks back to, these first few chapters of this episodic game are primarily concerned with narrative, and they accordingly lift ideas from other games that share that inspiration. D4's connection to Myst manifests in the way you move from one pre-prescribed node to the next, rather than walk freely. From these locations, you can swivel in 90-degree arcs, or look slightly to the right or left, to view and interact with the people and objects around you. In other respects, D4 resembles Heavy Rain and Telltale's Walking Dead games, in which you perform timed button-presses and stick-wiggles (or arm-swipes and fist-bumps, if you prefer to interact with the game using Kinect, which you can do from beginning to end) that vaguely relate to the melodramatic action occurring on screen. L.A. Noire, too, is invoked in the way D4 has you examining environments and seeking clues to the mystery at hand, though you won't be exercising any ingenuity to decipher what you find: David follows the evidence to its proper conclusion once you collect it.
Like the games it sometimes mirrors, D4 is less concerned with specific interactions than with the events they accompany--and it's those events that make the QTE, that widely-hated embodiment of game-design sloth, so joyous in this context. A fistfight aboard a mid-flight jet is a pas de deux of pain in which David engages in ballroom dance with a frightened passenger, hits a baseball with a plastic limb, deafens his opponents by screaming through a megaphone, and dislodges a glass eye, all while cavalierly blowing bubbles. Mimicking these actions using the Kinect enhances the connection you feel with these preposterous moments, which makes it a shame there aren't more of them. Basic events like turning and touching aren't so compelling, even with motion controls, and for all its improvements, the second-generation Kinect still doesn't correctly react to every movement. There's no shame in using a gamepad; doing so makes the slower stretches more tolerable.
D4 is insanity distilled into adventure-game form, more self-consciously wacky than another Swery game, Deadly Premonition, but more human, too.
There are enough of these stretches to make the game occasionally drag, though even the monotony has its own brand of D4 charm. A tall man wearing a surgical mask appears from time to time, ready to confuse you with cryptic comments and piercing stares while he menacingly plays with a knife and fork. He has little to say but uses a lot of words to say it--short words that he stretches into five-second phonetics until you're ready to scream "Just get on with it!" When not grinding to a halt, D4 occasionally enjoys engaging with stereotypes so exaggerated it's difficult to tell whether Swery intends to mock the people that perpetuate those stereotypes or the individuals that demonstrate them. Authorial intent aside, I wasn't always laughing. That aforementioned fashion guru, for instance, is a hyperactive vessel overflowing with every effete mannerism imaginable--and the stereotypically gay behaviors he doesn't personify are brushed onto a perpetually snide flight attendant.
D4's charm and cheekiness typically mask its discomforts, however. David's ex-partner Forrest Kayson (a carryover character from Deadly Premonition, though gussied up in a suit and facial hair here) is a Hoover on two legs, vacuuming up frankfurters four at a time. I cannot remember what the conversation was about; all I can recall is the gross and hysterical display of gluttony gone mad. Even when D4 goes wrong, it's difficult to stay mad at it. Depending on the order of the options you choose, you could respond to a query of 'What's wrong,' with a second 'What's wrong?'. Elsewhere, a quiz minigame (one of several small detours D4 provides) responds to a correct answer with dialogue assigned to a different and incorrect answer. Little errors abound, and in a game meant to immerse you, they might have been distracting or even game-ruining.
D4 is not an adventure you get lost in, however, at least not in the way you get lost in Mass Effect or Red Dead Redemption. No--D4 is both the game you are playing and your cooperative partner. I was never not aware of its 'game-ness,' I was never swept away into its world, I was never not aware of the real world around me. I do not mean those statements, however, to serve as a criticism. On the contrary, D4 and I laughed together at its own absurdities. How could we not? The game gamifies its own mechanics, for heaven's sake, awarding you points for thoroughly examining your surroundings, and taking them away when you interact with people and objects. There are even online leaderboards that somehow rank you against other players, an absurd and unnecessary feature in an absurd game that doesn't benefit from it in any meaningful way. No, I believe D4 understands itself, and I understand it too. It speaks an unusual language, certainly, and I couldn't blame anyone for finding it nigh incomprehensible, or just plain barmy. But if you're foolhardy enough to buy what it's selling, then welcome to the D4 Appreciation Society. There are worse clubs to belong to.