David Gordon’s father is dead. In search of answers, he visits his estranged family at their ancestral Scottish castle, whose hallways and rooms hum with whispers of awful secrets. As he encounters one ghost after another, David’s sanity begins to fray. If it wasn’t obvious enough that Black Mirror is beholden to the Gothic tradition of horror, the game needlessly clarifies its inspiration with several books contained in the castle’s library, where David may choose to read from the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. But while this remake of a decade-old adventure game series is steeped in the classics, it struggles to convey the maddening fear at the core of the Gothic genre.
Take David’s preposterous battle against insanity, which is less a lengthy battle than one of those brief altercations that lasts a tussle or two before it’s out of one’s system. Throughout his stay at the castle, David has visions of persons who aren’t there and events that occurred in the past. These ghostly visions, when they aren’t tinted an ethereal blue, almost look real, though they’re all meant to get you to second-guess the protagonist’s mental health because no one else sees them. Detailed, specific renditions of past events, the visions dutifully go about telling David important secrets and leading him to places and objects he couldn’t possibly know of otherwise. But in spite of him being led to concrete realizations, the game spends a baffling amount of time trying to convince you that all these visions are inside David’s head, that maybe he’s dredging up some forgotten memory or, mostly, that he’s going crazy. Black Mirror’s idea of psychological horror, of a potential descent into the madness that defines the objects of its inspiration, is just a lengthy wait for David to figure out that he’s perfectly sane so the story can continue.
Our weasel-faced, suspendered protagonist eventually learns that he must piece together what the visions mean in order to find the truth. Interacting with these visions compounds everything that’s cumbersome and frustrating about playing Black Mirror. To progress, you have to maneuver David close enough to observe any important objects that the ghosts are holding; get too close and a ghost will inexplicably kill you. Not only does controlling David feel like turning a truck through a tight intersection, but his investigations rarely grow more complex than these glorified quick-time events. Instead of having you dig up clues for how to proceed or where to go next, the game outright hands you puzzle solutions with instructions to follow or codes to punch into combination locks. Other riddles ask you to interact with the only available objects in the immediate vicinity, while the more complicated ones involve aimlessly wandering the entire castle in the blind hope that the correct “Examine” prompt will appear. (For example, you can only unlock the library desk after you’ve stumbled for no reason into the kitchen.)
The castle at the center of Black Mirror is thick with shadows, yet there’s no suggestion that the darkness conceals anything sinister. For all of the game’s talk of insanity, murder, and Gaelic blood rituals, it’s as if the darkness and only the darkness is supposed to be unsettling. David’s midnight strolls never feel unsafe, a byproduct of the toothless horror supplied only through stilted dialogue and vaguely written letters and diary entries. Such documents don’t convey a sense of danger so much as suggest that all the interesting, scary stuff took place in the past, leaving no present-day threat to his well-being.
Whatever dread you will feel when turning the next corner throughout the game doesn’t come from anticipating any scares so much as the lengthy load screens that gate your access to every segment of the castle, regardless of whether it’s a large room or short, empty hallway. You fear accidentally getting too close to a door and suffering two extra loads in order to backtrack. As Black Mirror limps forward, framerate stutters and glitches are revealed, the game comes to feel increasingly flimsy; the puzzles are most elaborate early on before growing infrequent and even more simplistic in the build to an abrupt climax. Black Mirror often alludes to the Gothic classics that inspired it, to stories full of disturbing, evil forces that threaten to overtake their characters, but the only unsettling thing about it is a glut of technical issues.