IFComp 2010: Death Off the Cuff

Spoilers follow the break.

The introductory text here does all the work of telling us what the content of the game is going to be, including its challenges. You are a famous detective — a Poirot knock-off, in fact — and it’s the point in the stereotypical “cosy” murder mystery where you’ve gathered all the suspects in one room to explain in detail how you solved the murder. The twist is that the detective hasn’t actually solved it. He intends to just wing it, pretend that he knows more than he does, and hope that he can needle someone into confessing. I think I’ve seen it suggested before that this is the real reason that fictional detectives do scenes of this sort in the first place. I definitely remember it working out this way in an episode of Remington Steele (a show whose whole premise revolved around the idea of detective as liar). But using this device in IF has a particular advantage: it lets you join the story at its end while at the same time putting the detective at approximately the same level of knowledge as the player. The intro spiel reminded me a lot of Varicella in tone, but they’re almost diametric opposites in technique.

Just one problem with this analysis: the detective actually does know more about the situation than the player. Specifically, the detective has some notion of what he’s going to say. Most of the game is played with the “talk about” command (which can be abbreviated to “t”, a very good thing for a conversation-based game, as various of Emily Short’s works have demonstrated). In many cases, talking about something will bring up a sub-menu; talking about a suspect will typically have choices like “alibi” and “motive”. When you talk about someone’s alibi, you do it because you want to know what their alibi is, and making the detective talk about it is the only way to get him to say what he knows. Thus, the system does create a disconnection between player and PC after all.

Apart from talking, I think I performed two physical actions over the course of the game, and a whole lot of “examine”. Examining things is crucial for noticing little details for the detective to talk about — a stain on someone’s shirt, say, or a discolored band on someone’s finger. This aspect actually does feel somewhat detective-like, which is strange when you think about it, because it isn’t any less of a guessing-game than the talking aspect. In both cases, you’re just exhaustively going through every noun you come across in the hope that some will prove useful.

Still, I like this one. I like the writing, which is in very appropriate style, full of dramatic flourishes whenever the detective needs to stall. And I like the way that everyone in the room has some kind of secret that comes out. Some people even change their displayed names as their true identities are revealed. The one secret that remains secret is, of course, the detective’s. No matter what happens, no one suspects that you hadn’t already solved the case. Even if you arrest the wrong person, your accusation casts more of a shadow over their future than yours. It’s like a counterpoint to Make It Good.

Rating: 6

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