IFComp 2016: Color the Truth

Spoilers follow the break.

Now here’s a formally interesting one, a clever design put together with professional grace. It’s a murder mystery set at a local radio station, based entirely around two interactive conceits: the Interactive Flashback and the Topic Inventory.

By “Topic Inventory”, I mean an accumulating list of conversation topics that you can ask characters about. The implementation of this is thorough, in the sense that everyone has something substantial to say about everything you can ask them. Interrogating suspects about topics is nearly the only thing you do to make progress in this game; you can examine details of the crime scene if you feel like it, but you don’t find useful evidence that way. Pairs of topics can be combined, like in Discworld Noir or The Blackwell Legacy, exposing contradictions in what you’ve been told. These contradictions become new topics.

I’ve said before that the topic-combining didn’t work well in Discworld Noir due to the combinatorial explosion and the non-obviousness of the productive pairs. Blackwell dealt with this by aggressively pruning the topic list. Color the Truth never removes topics at all (apart from clearing the list completely between a brief prologue and the main part of the game), but handles the problem by just giving you lots of hints. You have the option of calling HQ for assistance at any time, and even if you don’t, the suspects will give you some pretty strong nudges towards what you need to do next. The topic list itself contains little reminders of the significance of each item where you’ll see them even if you don’t ask about them specifically. I did manage to get stuck at one point, but only for a little while.

One topic is special: you can ask each suspect for their statement about what happened. That’s where the interactive flashbacks come in. In each of their stories, you assume their role, taking control of them — although honestly, it’s more like the story takes control of you. You get very little leeway about what to do during these flashbacks; you have to go where the suspects went and talk to the people they talked to, and the text all but tells you outright what to do. But you can at least choose what to examine, effectively directing the camera instead of the action. And the way everything is described varies with whose eyes you’re seeing it through.

So it’s Rashomon-like, and, as in Rashomon, everybody is lying. This is the sort of mystery where everyone has a guilty secret, and your job is to expose them one by one. (As such, once you prove someone’s guilty of a lesser infraction like embezzlement or using the studio’s recording equipment without permission, you know they’re innocent of the murder.) Once you’ve caught someone out, you ask them for their statement again, and get an altered version, also interactive. Thus, the Topic Inventory and the the Interactive Flashback dovetail, one providing the means of pointing out contradictions, the other providing the results. It’s quite neat.

Maybe a little too neat. The story itself feels a little bloodless to me, with a player character who’s as uninvolved in events as the player, and nothing happening once the investigation starts other than the investigation. But perhaps I’m only saying this because is contrasts with another piece I’ve written up recently.

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