IFComp 2007: An Act of Murder

A police procedural by Hugh Dunnett, which may well be a pseudonym. Spoilers follow the break.

In the course of my comments on the comp, I’ve been talking a lot about communication failures and the problem of understanding the author’s intentions. Nowhere is this a bigger issue than in mystery games, where achieving understanding is the explicit goal of the game. Most years see at least one mystery entered into the comp, and in most cases they fail — either the intended logic behind the solution is screwy, or the evidence is unclear to the player, or, in some cases, the game just abandons detective work in favor of physical puzzles, making it less a mystery game than a mystery-themed adventure game.

All of which is to say that when I see a game like this one, I’m impressed. The clues are all pretty comprehensible — when you discover a knife wound on the victim’s back, for example, it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t the fall that killed him. Even if you have difficulty with the clues, the author gives you multiple avenues to understanding them. The player character automatically records the important stuff in a notebook, so if you’re not sure what’s important about something, you can read the section about it there. And in the end, when you’re presenting your case to Inspector Duffy, he makes deductions aloud (although he stops short of telling you who the murderer is.) So if you really want to, you can just spend the game making observations and not worrying about their importance, although that would probably make the game both harder and less fun.

The other thing that impressed me is that the way the game is randomized. Again, randomization itself isn’t impressive; the impressive thing is the way it’s handled here. It’s a tricky thing to pull off in a mystery. Too often, it just makes it clear that the solution doesn’t really follow from the story — think of the movie Clue — or, alternately, forces the author to shove multiple completely different stories into the same framework. Here, the differences are in small but very important details. For example, in all permutations of the story, the victim, Frederic Sheppard, discovered that one of the other characters, Cedric Crane, was embezzling from him, and called him over to confront him. This can provide a motive for Crane, but it can also exonerate him: in one version, Crane knew that Sheppard had incriminating documents squirreled away with instructions to reveal them in the event of his death. I’ve played through the game a few times now, and it seems like you always eliminate one suspect on the basis of motive, one on the basis of means, and two on the basis of opportunity, but which is which depends on these details.

There’s one problem with the game worth mentioning. Conversation is based on an ask/tell system, using topic objects which are always in scope. This means that asking a character about something can provoke a disambiguation prompt, as in:

>ask deborah about sheppard
Which do you mean, Frederic Sheppard, the copy of Zachary Sheppard’s will, Zachary Sheppard, Frederic Sheppard’s will or Frederic Sheppard’s bank manager?

At the time I asked this, I had no idea that any of these things apart from Frederic existed. It would have been a good idea to keep things out of scope until the detective had heard about them.

Rating: 8

5 Comments so far

  1. jepflast on 17 Oct 2007

    In my run through the game, the murder weapon was the gun. I found it exasperating that none of the suspects ever heard a gunshot… and for that matter the word “gunshot” isn’t even implemented. That nearly ruined the game for me.

  2. Prio on 20 Oct 2007

    Nobody will hear the murder take place, or at least they’ll never think it was an actual murder. Listening to the wireless for a few turns reveals that the victim was obviously fond of listening to murder mysteries at high volume, with screams, gunshots, breaking glass, and other violent noises blaring constantly.

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 20 Oct 2007

    Even so, it would have been nice for the characters so say so when asked.

  4. jepflast on 23 Oct 2007

    I guess if someone were listening to the radio THAT loud, I’d murder him too.

  5. Merk on 30 Oct 2007

    Ah, interesting. I wondered what the swordstick and the gun were for, and it *should* have dawned on me that they were in alternate versions. Both times I played, he was murdered with the fireplace poker (although by two different people). Nice game. Very near the top of my list (with just ten left to play).

Leave a reply