The aging horror of Kenji Eno's D

This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.

D doesn't hold up well, and neither does this headline

The inspiration to whip up a new column about an old game can come from anywhere, even a sad loss for the video game industry. In February, upon hearing about the death of Kenji Eno, I scanned Amazon and eBay for copies of his games, thinking I might write them up in remembrance, but ultimately never pulled the trigger on a purchase.

Two months later, I walk into a recently-opened used game shop (named ThrillHouse, if you can believe it), and what should I see under the glass? A boxed Sega Saturn copy of Kenji Eno's D in great condition, the creepy cover just as effective now as it was seventeen years ago. I gladly paid $30 for it.

Having played it for the first time since I was thirteen, D isn't as scary as I remember. While it isn't a very good game, I still find myself enjoying the experience.

Developed by Kenji Eno's Warp, D is a horror adventure game first released in North America in 1995 for the 3DO. It came to North American Sega Saturns a year later, and that's when I was first exposed to it. Exposed is probably the best word for it, too. D is entirely pre-rendered and, like other pre-rendered adventure games – Myst, The 7th Guest – the player has very little direct control, so you're not always playing it so much as you are observing it. But that was fine for 1996, and D had some of the most graphic, disturbing content seen in video games at the time. I remember it terrifying me as a kid, but it's remarkably less provocative now.

D tells the story of Laura Harris, a student in San Francisco who learns that her father, Dr. Richter Harris, has apparently gone mad. Director of a Los Angeles hospital, Richter goes on a killing spree, murdering hospital staff and patients alike. Laura immediately drives to the hospital, hoping hoping to make sense the situation. Upon entering at the hospital, however, Laura is sucked into an alternate dimension, a world created within her father's mind, filled with esoteric puzzles and grizzly, macabre displays.

From Laura's perspective, players navigate the bizarre world, able to turn left and right, step forward and interact with specific objects. That's where some of the problems arise. Again, everything is pre-rendered, so Laura can only move to pre-designated areas, and it's not always clear how she is supposed to reach them. You might need to investigate a desk, for example, but there may be only one specific path to reach it. You could be staring right at the desk, then press forward only to watch the camera swing around it to a different area. There are only so many possible choices, so it's not a huge problem, but the intervening years since D's release make it stand out.

The puzzles aren't very taxing – you won't find anything nearly as maddening as the chess puzzles in The 7th Guest. Typically, it's just a matter of locating a puzzle and finding the solution spelled out in a different room. The first real puzzle of the game is probably the hardest, as there's no rhyme or reason behind its solution. Thankfully, Laura has a handy magic compact that offers hints, though it can only be used three times before it breaks. (Or, you could just watch the game's intro movie, since it actually gives away the solution to the first puzzle.)

It's also worth noting that D is only two hours long. That's the maximum time limit, in fact, as taking any longer will cause the dream world to collapse and send Laura back to the hospital, resulting in game over. A two hour limit isn't bad, but the second half of the game is unnecessarily padded with a very annoying puzzle, one that requires Laura to slowly turn a grinding crank over and over and over again.

For all that, though, I enjoyed playing D again. It boils down to the atmosphere. The dream world created by Richter still manages to be creepy, even if it fails to actually frighten. Closets have inexplicably been converted into iron maidens, pantries are stacked with desiccated corpses. The music is barely more than a repeating drone, but it's unsettling nonetheless. And, of course, there's the revelation of what "D" stands for and how it ties into Laura's past. This is laid out through a series of flashbacks and admittedly hammy dialogue. The flashback cutscenes are more effective, employing quick cuts of a gruesome murder interspersed with the letter D. The revelation of D's meaning isn't as shocking to me now – and the rise of survival horror games like Silent Hill has inured me to its ghastly imagery – but it was a real jaw-dropper when I was thirteen.

Even though I still like it, D does not hold up well. Without an appreciation of its historical context, I doubt many of today's players would be as kind to it. Within that context, however, D helped usher in the era of survival horror, paving the way for games like Resident Evil. It also served as the foundation for Warp's later work. Laura would return in the studio's subsequent games, though playing different roles, becoming a sort of "digital actress."

That brings me to Enemy Zero, which marked Laura's second appearance and one of the Saturn's most interesting games. Another horror adventure, it made innovative use of sound – imagine hunting down an enemy you can't see – and had a unique save system that ratcheted the tension even higher.

Though D may not be considered a good game by today's standards, it's an experience that's worth remembering.